Magazine article Practical Literacy

Viewing and Doing Visual Literacy Using Picture Books

Magazine article Practical Literacy

Viewing and Doing Visual Literacy Using Picture Books

Article excerpt

'Henry loved to EAT books'--Oliver Jeffers The incredible book eating boy

The visual features of some picture books today are so appealing readers really do want to 'eat them up'. The new Australian English curriculum (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2015) gives teachers so many opportunities to read, engage and create, using a large selection of picture books, graphic novels and multimedia stories, complemented by the inclusion of a visual language thread in the curriculum. Teaching visual literacy has never been so easy and accessible.

However, with variety and choice comes decision and professional knowledge. What are some guiding principles for teaching about visual literacy? As with reading and writing, great teaching is based on expert knowledge and sound theory. Picture books are a great place to start--they are central to learning to read, engage everyone from babies to oldies and our access to quality children's books has never been better nor the range more extensive.

Henry David Thoreau once said 'The question is not what you look at, but what you see.' (Thoreau, 2007 p. 86). When we use picture books, we need to attend to a number of features, in order to see the visual aspects in context, so that meaning making is a seamless and connected experience for young learners. Picture books work at different levels, from the story genre and narrative down to the specific details in word and image. There are useful features to understand at these different levels, both as a teacher when reflecting on a chosen book, as well as for children, to enhance their understanding.

Talking about the various features of picture books before, during and after reading allows us to teach children about their various features. It's important not to overwhelm the experience of reading a story with too much teacher talk or too many questions. Choose a quality picture book, one which engages your class and allows exploration of themes and issues. A great book with powerful pictures involves the youngest of readers, who can laugh, wonder, discuss and question the story world they are entering.

It's helpful to be familiar with a range of picture books and authors, as well as the design and physical features of these books. There are many guides about picture books that a teacher can explore to develop their own knowledge (Salisbury, 2004; Salisbury & Styles, 2012) including the useful site Picturing Books (Matulka, 2015). Below is a summary of some of the key features and elements which can become part of the vocabulary used when talking about books in the classroom.


With online access to a range of local and international booksellers, classrooms should be brimming with all sorts of stories and books. More recent titles and new authors are doing many amazing things in terms of layout, design and media. While tried and true books are wonderful to return to, we need to expand our young learners' horizons. The titles in Table 2 are books which not only invite readers to meet new authors and stories, but use a number of visual and design features that can then form the basis for teaching about visual literacy, developing students' visual language as part of this process.

Learning the visual grammar

Moving down from the story level features to the details of how visual texts make meaning, we are helping children to become visual code breakers, using the four roles of the reader framework (Luke & Freebody, 1999). Explored in the context of reading, discussing and responding to a picture book, teaching about some of the visual language features further supports children in enjoying as well as analysing multimodal texts (Brock, Boyd, & Caldwell, 2015).

Table 3 lists a number of visual language terms and concepts, with some examples of strategies and books to illustrate their use (Callow, 2013). …

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