Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Visual Language and Science Understanding: A Brief Tutorial for Teachers

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Visual Language and Science Understanding: A Brief Tutorial for Teachers

Article excerpt


The essential place of children's drawing in the process of literacy development has long been established (e.g., Arnheim, 1974; Vygotsky, 1978; Dyson, 1989; Hubbard, 1989; Kress, 1997; Mavers, 2011). Visual literacy is now central to school discourse (e.g., Considine, 1987; Kress, 2003; Mavers, 2011; Moline, 1995; Rabey, 2003), and especially to science discourse, which emphasises 'the use of images for representation of knowledge and not as mere illustration' (Kress, Jewitt, Ogborn & Tsatsarelis, 2001, p. 59).

Despite the fact that students are often asked to make drawings in science, geography, and history, 'these drawings tend not to be the subject of the teacher's attention' (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006, p. 16) becoming instead mere illustration tacked onto the ' "real" work of writing' (Mavers, 2011, p. 42). This is mirrored in the scant attention given to children's science diagrams by teacher's markings, which tend to focus more on the words that children write on the page (Mavers, 2011). In fact, it has long been noted that image creation diminishes after the first years of schooling while written text comes to predominate (Bearne, 2003; Dondis, 1973; Ewald, 2001; Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006; Mavers, 2011); to take a science example, primary school teachers who participated in the Children's Literacy and Science Project (CLASP), (further described below) viewed scientific literacy as inclusive of children's verbal (oral and/or written language) and visual (drawn) modes for meaning representation. This criterion was featured in 71% of the science units constructed by teachers for Kindergarten through Grade 2; however, only 14% of the units for Grades 3-6 explicitly featured the opportunity to make a choice between modes or to use different modes for different purposes. Most often, the upper-grade science units specifically suggested visual expression only when students were to make posters as a closure activity at the unit's end (Britsch, 2003).

Teachers need the ability to mediate learning in content areas such as science through their knowledge and understanding of visual communication (Brooks, 2009; Dondis, 1973; Lohr, 2008). This permits children's visual science compositions to stand as 'texts in their own right' and not simply as ' "imperfect" written texts' (Bearne, 2003, p. 141). The purpose of this paper is to present a brief introduction to a formal way of looking at children's science drawings by making use of the vocabulary of basic 2-dimensional design. The next section delves into several perspectives on the visual representation of science phenomena by children. The following sections detail the visual elements and relationships that occur across four visual products created by elementary school children in classroom science experiences.

Children's visual representations of science phenomena

In early childhood education, the visual and verbal tools that children use to construct both fiction and nonfiction products have long been recognised as equally valuable (e.g., Britsch, 2002; Dyson, 1989). In contrast, elementary teacher training has devoted 'insufficient attention to either visual literacy or visual communication' for some time (Britsch, 2010, p. 173; Dondis, 1973; Ewald, 2001). Elementary school children's visual products in the content areas have been infrequently discussed in terms of 'the elements in the image, and the way these elements are compositionally brought together' (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006, p. 27).

Learning science is the formation of mental models and the expression of these models through the 'concrete' (or materials), the 'verbal' (description of entities and relationships), the 'symbolic' (symbols and formulae), the 'visual' (graphs, diagrams and animations), and the 'gestural' (body movement) (Gilbert, 2007, p. 13). The visual is thus part of an array of representational resources that students put to use in representing science practices and developing understandings. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.