Exploring Visual Literacy: Secondary Teacher and Consultant Reflections on how Increasing Visual Literacy Impacts Adolescent Learning

Researchers: Lois Keller and Karon Guttormson 
August 2015

Teaching visual literacy as a way to increase student engagement and improve student achievement remains largely untapped in high school content subject areas (Draper & Siebert, 2010; Siegel, 2012; Hirsch & Hansel, 2013). Prior to this inquiry, while supporting teacher learning and adolescent literacy in English language arts, we found a need for pedagogy that offered a holistic and multimodal understanding of literacy. Multimodality is the social practice of making meaning by combining multiple semiotic resources (Siegel, 2012).

While the Saskatchewan renewed English language arts curricula (Saskatchewan Ministry of Education, 2013) includes visual and digital literacies implicitly throughout curricular outcomes, our experiences as consultants and classroom teachers indicated that the skills needed for achieving these outcomes remained underdeveloped and often poorly scaffolded for both students and teachers. Teachers attending our learning sessions voiced concerns about teaching visual literacy skills in conjunction with an inquiry based approach to learning. This action research study responds to the perceived need to increase visual literacy skills.

We were curious if increasing visual literacy instruction could open up additional modalities in selected content areas. Our interest in the potential of increasing visual literacy was further piqued while conducting two particular professional development sessions for secondary educators in the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014. It was evident from teacher feedback that an expanded view of literacy was needed to ignite an inquiring mode of thinking about various forms of text. Most apparent in practices shared by teachers was a continuation in predominantly traditional reading and writing learning opportunities and the completion of assignments. Our observations were supported in the research findings of Kucan, Lapp, Flood and Fisher (2008) and Draper and Siebert (2010). Although information is increasingly visual and digitally accessed, there continues to be a reliance on print text and a gap between those traditional reading and writing tasks and increasing visual and digital literacy tasks.