Thursday, April 7, 2011

Visual Comprehension

I've written previously about Visual Literacy, but I have been prompted to do so again by a helpful article written by Frank Serafini in the February 2011 edition of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (Vol 54, No. 5, pp 342-350). By Visual Literacy I mean the application of our visual senses to understand, create and use images for varied purposes. Images include pictures, photographs, created objects (e.g. sculptures, architecture etc), advertisements, art, signs etc.

As I argued in my last post, the ability to comprehend visual images is more important than ever before.  The use of the visual is more pervasive in our world and the medium is used in more sophisticated ways to manipulate and communicate meaning. Children are bombarded by images that seek to persuade them to buy things, value things, imagine their futures, and understand the present and the past. Children need help to comprehend the images they encounter, critique them and respond to them. The help they need includes knowledge of the world and skills. The most basic of skills they need are visual literacy skills to learn from and with images and to communicate with other people.

A Simple Framework

Conceptually, Serafini draws on the fields of art, design, media studies, literacy, psychology and semiotics.  He cites many previous researchers, including the work of Kress & van Leeuwen (1996), Gomrich (1961), Arnheim (1974), Panofsky (1955), Chandler (2007), Elkins (2008) and Alverman & Hagood (2000). Based on this diverse theoretical work he offers a simple way to focus student attention on the visual.

A Photograph I took in London in 2010
He introduces three lenses and some instructional examples to show how teachers might use them to expand children's visual comprehension. Each is designed to focus the child's attention on visual aspects of the complex texts they encounter each day. These three lenses are as follows.

Understanding the artistic elements - What are the objects and images that they notice? What might these images mean? What are the ideological and cultural meanings the artist is trying to communicate?

One of the tools Serafini suggests is a simple chart that students use to record their observations and facilitate discussion with others. The example I use was applied to a discussion of the image above.

Another technique is simply to provide a series of key questions (again in relation to the London image). For example, the following could be applied to the above image:

What are the key objects in the image? What effect do they have on you?
Are there any patterns to the elements in the picture? How are they similar?
Do some of the objects seem unrelated to the key message? Do some things seem out of place?
Choose one of the signs within the photograph, what was the writer trying to communicate?
What might be the message of the photographer? What do they want us to think about?
Is this an image that could be used to communicate multiple messages depending on the photographer's point of view?
Could the photographer be trying to use metaphors in some way?

Understanding the structure and 'grammar' of the images - a) Composition - How are images or objects positioned and used in relation to one another? b) Perspective - How is the viewer positioned by the artist (distance, positioning, orientation to images)? c) Symbolism - How are symbols, motifs, logos, brands and used to communicate?

For this lens I have used the 'Be Cooper' image below to focus student attention using a series of questions. Note that there could be an analysis of the photograph in relation to structure and grammar, but the questions below (modified from Serafini) focus on the complete photographic image (others could be added for individual elements within the image). 

What has the photographer chosen to foreground?
What catches your eye first?
How has the photographer used background objects and those in the foreground? Why might the photographer chosen to include specific objects not just the signs?
What is the photographer trying to get you to look at? Why?

Photograph I took in Greece in 2002
Critical understanding and evaluation - How well do children understand the way images are used to elicit emotion, offer proof, manipulate or persuade by linking ideas with objects?

Serafini suggests a helpful guide for analysing advertisements. I have applied this first to the advertisement on the billboard.

a) Consider the company that created the billboard advertisement and it's possible intentions

What company produced the advertisement?
What does this company primarily sell?
Why might the company advertise its products where it has and in this way?
What materials and resources were necessary to create the advertisement?

b) Consider the contents of the advertisement

What is your first impression?
What do you notice first? What seems to stand out?
Where is the product positioned in the advertisement?
What is the catch or 'hook' for this advertisement? What concept of the target audience does the advertisement appeal to (e.g. fear, vanity, needs)? What type of person is it appealing to?

c) Consider the context of the advertisement

Who might see the billboard? [Note: for the example in which country might it be located?]
Why is the advertisement located where it is?
Why would you be looking at the advertisement (information, a purchase etc)?
What background knowledge might be necessary to understand the advertisement? [Note: In this example I would ask the same question of the image and the way it is constructed?]
How is the advertisement distributed (target audience, general public etc)?

How might the ideas and framework be applied?

An increasing amount of visual comprehension is being explored in high school but in my view if we wait till high school it's too late. While the above examples and the tools suggested have been chosen for a secondary school target group, I would encourage parents and teachers to begin laying the foundations for visual comprehension much earlier. Children are bombarded with images from a very young age. There are negative reasons for critical visual comprehension, but also some positive messages that use the same devices. Here are some examples:

a) Negative examples

By negative, I mean advertising that can have negative consequences for children. An obvious example is advertising by major fast food companies that direct their advertising at very young children and might have an impact on obesity and good nutrition. The one we know best of course is McDonalds which manages to associate images of fun, enjoyment, appealing food, a key icon (the 'Golden Arches') and careful product association through images with popular culture (especially movies, books and toys). Of course, there are many products that can have negative impacts on children.

Clothing and cosmetic manufacturers and outlets begin at an early age to use images as an appeal to vanity and self-image to persuade children that specific clothing styles will make them look older, gain them friends and acceptance, appear better looking and so on. 

b) Positive examples 

Creators of images also use the same visual literacy tools in positive ways for good not just profit (advertising isn't inherently bad, it just needs to be understood). The most obvious way is to warn children of specific dangers at a young age, particularly road safety, water safety, and stranger danger.

c) More neutral examples

There are other examples that are more neutral and could be seen positively and negatively depending on your view of the world. Great care is needed if teachers work in this space. For example, images that promote nationalism and patriotism, that oppose (or support) specific social agendas (e.g. climate change, just war), life choices and preferences. Many of these sit more comfortably within the responsibility of families, but schools do have a role to give children the tools to comprehend visual images in this more neutral zone.

In conclusion, by age 8 there are good reasons to begin helping children to identify the artistic elements in visual literacy, the grammar or structure of how these are put together for effect, and the purpose and intent of images.  No, I am not suggesting that you apply the above tools just as they are described but you can easily choose key questions to apply in the context of the visual literacy experiences that children have from a very young age.

Other resources for teachers

If you're a teacher you might want to go further. I'd suggest that you look for a good resource book like 'Interpreting the Visual' that will help you to identify the many ways that images can be 'read' and used.

There are also good web resources around. For example the Curriculum Corporation in Australia has an excellent website devoted to Visual Literacy advice, complete with examples of images that teachers can use - 'Visual Literacy K-8'.  This site also lists other resource books and how to get them in the USA and Canada.

You will also find many helpful links on the EDNA website in Australia (HERE).

My previous post on 'Visual Literacy' HERE 

All comprehension posts HERE


Dr. Frank Serafini said...

Trevor - not sure if you would remember, but Pat Smith introduced us at an IRA conference years ago. There is another theoretical piece that I have published that expands the ideas from my JAAL piece. The reference is: Serafini, F. (2010). Reading Multimodal Texts: Perceptual, Structural and Ideological
Perspectives. Children’s Literature in Education. 41, 85-104.

I enjoyed your blog. Thanks for the post
Frank Serafini

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Frank,
Great to hear from you. I do recall meeting, I think it was at Anaheim, but there have been so many conferences over the years I may have this wrong (perhaps even Arizona).
Glad you liked the post as I really enjoyed the journal article. I wasn't aware that you were a photographer, but this now makes sense. I'm a keen amateur photographer and love your photography site (some incredible images).
Regards, Trevor