Visual Literacy Through Children's Picture Books

Use picture books to help kids think about what they see, and guide them toward becoming media-savvy in real life.

By Susan Stephenson
Sep 12, 2014



Woman Reading a Story to a Small Group of Young Children

Sep 12, 2014

Visual literacy means being able to read, understand, and create visual texts. Children's picture books give parents and teachers wonderful opportunities to help elementary school kids become visually literate.

Before children start school, they often want to talk about picture book illustrations. Sometimes this might be pointing and naming, perhaps followed by a little anecdote about what that picture reminds them of. Some children will ask questions about the picture, wanting perhaps to be sure they understand what we understand about that page. Parents naturally contribute to these discussions, and we love seeing our little ones involved with the story.

But we can also ask questions of our own that contribute to older children's understanding of the visual aspect of a picture book. Here are some questions I might use with elementary school kids, especially with those who assure me they're too old for picture books:

•    What do you notice in the picture?
•    Do the words exactly match what's happening in the illustration?
•    How does that picture/color make you feel?
•    What does that image remind you of?
•    How has the illustration changed/progressed from this page to the next?
•    Do the animals look real?
•    Why does the cat look sad?
•    Whose perspective is this illustration from?
•    How do you think the artist made these illustrations?
•    Why did the artist choose those colors, and why do they change here?

Find more questions in my article Visual Literacy – Investigate and Play with Images.

Pointing out special fonts and why they may have been chosen, the end papers (the images just inside the cover, often with a special illustration or a repeated pattern), the cover art, even the title, and pondering why they've been portrayed in such a way can lead to fascinating discussions with our elementary-aged kids.

Graphic novels, like those by Jeff Smith, and comics offer even more opportunities for discussions that will help children make sense of what they see. Simply examining panels to determine what characters' facial expressions and body language contribute to the dialogue helps children understand that there is more than one layer of meaning in a visual text. Older children can use highly visual texts to delve into symbolism, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and other literary devices.

Non-fiction picture books may have special visuals that children also need to understand. Look out for diagrams, graphs, pie-charts, and cross-sections in not only picture books but magazines and encyclopedias. Explain to kids that such visuals present information at-a-glance that would otherwise take a long time to get across in words.

Sharing a picture book with kids should, above all, be fun. I find that often older kids will on the one hand assure me they're too old for picture books, and next minute be diving into picture books and recalling old favorites! By using picture books to help our children really think about what they see, we are contributing to their visual literacy, and helping them become more media-savvy in real life. Best of all, we're reminding our children of the joy reading can bring -- and that's priceless!

How do you help your kids read and understand visual texts? Share your thoughts on the Scholastic Parents Facebook page.

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