Making Sense of Pictures: A Beginner's Guide to Teaching Visual Images: Trevor Millum Gets to Grips with Visual Literacy, Explaining Some of the Background to the Study of the Visual Image, and Exploring How We as English Teachers Might Help Our Students to Read Visual Images

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Why is the study of the image important? Why is it part of the English/Literacy curriculum? How can we best go about it?

The first question is relatively easily answered. Visual images have always been hugely important, especially in pre-literate societies. The written word, however, has always had a cultural dominance for reasons that we are well aware of: to be able to read and write was the sign of education, of status and all that goes with it. To be a 'man of letters' was something more again. Unless you were one of the few highly regarded painters, to be a man or woman of pictures was hardly an aim for which one strove. In our current culture, more status is still given to verbal literacy but we all appreciate how dominant the visual image has become. Developments in technology have meant that visual images are now as easy to create and duplicate and transmit as words. Perhaps, in the 21st century, for the first time, easier.

We understand, therefore, that visual images have become widespread and dominant. We know--or we feel, though it has never been really tested--that a picture is worth a thousand words. In which case, it is surely not only worthy of serious study, it is essential that such study is part of everyone's education.

Why English teachers?

The study of visual images seems to have fallen to teachers of English. Why? Why is it not the remit of teachers of art? Surely they have the background and knowledge for the task? Theoretically, perhaps; in practice, it seems not. The study of visual images seems to have crept into our already bulging portfolio by way of our interest in a wide diversity of texts--and of these texts, originally containing words, more and more have come to contain pictures too. Newspapers, magazines, advertisements and brochures ... for years, all of these have been part of what English teachers have been looking at and asking students to re-create. We took it for granted without always asking why.

In addition to our interest in texts, there developed a wider concern about the influence of the mass media which began in the 1930s and became a major influence in the 1960s. It was seen as part of English teaching's mission to understand and, to some extent, counter the effects of mass advertising, television and the press.

From these and other sources, media studies developed until now they are accepted as part of what a teacher of English might be expected to do. In some colleges there are those who only have that task--but they remain few. How far are we prepared for such an undertaking? I suspect that we are still more comfortable analysing words than we are analysing pictures or some combination of the two. If we add the further dimensions of sound and moving images, the extent of our expected expertise is breathtaking!

But we muddle along. We make use of some excellent resources which have come from other areas, notably the study of film: a discipline which always seems somehow more grown up and academic than our classroom concerns. Perhaps it just uses more long words.

I think that we could employ better techniques, developed from our long experience of studying words in all sorts of contexts, which would help us in the study of the image. I'd like to use the remainder of this article to explore what those techniques might be, and how we can add to them in order to make such studies more expert.

Worth how many words? Which words?

A picture may be worth a thousand words--but how do we know what those words might be? It may convey a multitude of meanings--but how do we know what they are? It may communicate with greater power or with greater subtlety--but how do we understand what it is that is being communicated or the means by which it takes place?

Though there are similarities, 'reading' an image is a very different process to the reading of a written text. Let's begin with two fundamental challenges. …