What it means to be literate today is significantly different to what it was in the not too distant past. Once, being able to decode text was sufficient even if barely so. Today literacy involves the ability to make meaning from a multitude of text types, formats and modalities. The skills required are more diverse and the opportunities for engagement are much expanded. This new literacy with its multiple dimensions requires teaching programmes with a broad depth and appropriate scaffolds and structures to support learners as they navigate a labyrinthine world of meaning.
If making meaning from the text is the goal, then it is worth considering what we mean by this. Firstly, the use of the phrase ‘making meaning’ is most deliberate, it is a process and it is one that multiple actors play a part in. Meaning is not embedded in the text by its author to be passively decoded by the reader. A better imagining of the process is to see this as a conversation between the author the text and the reader and to include in the analysis of these conversations consideration of the context within which this process occurs. Between these agentic actors of author, reader, text and context meaning is made. The consequence of seeing literacy as a process for making meaning, is that the result is not fixed. In a most dynamic way the process of making meaning from texts as author or reader will involve a dynamic sharing of thoughts, beliefs, values and understandings modified by context and shaped by engagement with the process i.e. the act of making meaning from and through text transforms all actors involved in the process.
An increasingly significant aspect of literacy is an awareness of the visual elements that fall beyond the traditional components of written text. Termed ‘Visual Literacy’ this is the ability to read and create communications that use visual elements. It combines the skills of traditional literacy with knowledge of design, art, graphic arts, media and human perception. It takes literacy further beyond a decoding of text to a decoding of the complete package around the communication. Visual Literacy expands the concept of literacy beyond the page of the book into a reading of the visual world both as it is enacted by human actions and as this human world interacts with the natural. The point that we are continually bombarded by images is frequently made in support of the importance of ‘visual literacy’. The modern world presents a wealth of images to be read and interrogated, a wide canvas from which to make meaning. It is not surprising then that often the subtle details behind these layers of meaning is overlooked and we read only the surface of what is presented to us. Nevertheless, understanding that many of the elements of our visual world are deliberate constructions that rely on the elements of ‘visual literacy’ should encourage us to take a deeper look and to better understand how we may read and author visual texts to maximum effect.
Increasingly Visual Literacy is expanding into Multimodal Literacy as digital communications allow new opportunities for blending of modes and medias of communication. Visual Literacy can be applied to single images or instances, ensembles or collections of objects/images/artefacts, or complete texts. With this complexity comes need for an understanding of the differences between media and mode. Media refers to the way in which the message is disseminated, includes print and electronic methods and is independent of the mode. A spoken text as an example of a ‘mode of communication’ can be presented across multiple medias e.g. live performance or recording. The relationship between mode and media can be quite simple with a change in the media sometimes having little impact. At other times the relationship is complex and a change in the media can have significant effect on the reading; a live performance might have a much more significant impact than an MP3 recording listened to alone. As is always the case the process of making meaning from varying modes and medias will be influenced by each actor in this increasingly complex conversation.
The degree of complexity that is encountered in making meaning from visual texts can be quite overwhelming particularly for the novice. According to Frank Serafini ‘One of the key aspects of the exploration phase is the development of a specific vocabulary or metalanguage for discussing and analysing the textual, visual, and design elements in particular multimodal ensembles.’ Board of Studies NSW defines metalanguage as ‘Language (which can include technical terms, concepts, ideas or codes) used to describe and discuss a language’ (BOS NSW - English K-10 Syllabus) In this instance we are looking for a language that will empower our discussion and sharing of visual literacy and in doing so we recognize visual literacy as a language. To this end there are a number of alternatives each of which offers differing levels of complexity and focus while providing a structure within which analysis might occur. Used in this way a metalanguage acts as a scaffold simultaneously bringing elements into the reader’s gaze while providing a language with which to describe and share the meaning that is made.
An excellent starting point for a richer exploration of what Visual Literacy is the work of Dr Frank Serafini. His book ‘Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacies’ provides the understanding teachers require as they integrate visual literacy into their teaching. Dr Jon Callow of ‘The University of Sydney’ is another source for anyone seeking a well considered metalanguage for use with Visual Literacy. Dr Callow’s work including a significant component on Assessment of Visual Literacy learning is shared through PETAA (Primary English Teachers Association of Australia). Below is a metalanguage guide distilled from a number of sources including both Dr. Frank Serafini and Dr. Jon Callow. Its aim is to provide a broad coverage of the concepts which may be relevant to a discussion of visual texts. In its scope it it is broad and should be introduced slowly over time so that young readers and authors are exposed to the concepts most immediately relevant and noticeable while more experienced readers have access to a metalanguage with appropriate complexity.
Another excellent resource is the Visual Literacy Toolbox provided online by University of Maryland College. This site provides a bank of questions for ‘Form, Content, Context, Frame and Gaze’. By using this bank of questions the reader has access to a set of prompts which serve to focus the gaze on key elements of the visual and allow for a deeper reading.
A beautiful example for visual literacy are the imaginative and visually splendid texts created by author/illustrator Shaun Tan. Shaun Tan’s books and multimedia works are full of detail and exhibit a mastery of visual literacy. According to Tan ‘Neither text nor image explain each other fully, and the reader must fill in the gap of meaning with their own theories, based largely on an emotional reaction – fear, curiosity, amusement, bewilderment. (Word and Pictures, an Intimate Distance’ an interview with Shaun Tan). In this comment the rich appeal of visual literacy is revealed, it invites a degree of reflection and participation that allows the reader to discover something more about themselves and gives the author a powerful set of tools.
by Nigel Coutts