by Robert M. Branch
Visual literacy deserves a syntax and grammar distinct from the parameters that define verbal literacy, such as syntax and grammar. Ergo, a paradox occurs when we use verbal language to define visual literacy.
Verbal literacy is most commonly defined as the ability to read and write, and a means of interpreting data and information into knowledge and ideas. A verbally literate person understands spellings, grammar, and syntax for a chosen language. Educators tend to associate verbal literacy with the fundamental success of a student in the classroom, and the success of an ordinary citizen to function in society. However, visual literacy is also necessary for the success of an ordinary citizen to function in society.
There have been many published definitions of visual literacy since Debes (1970) defined visual literacy as “a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences” (p. 27). Rezabek (1999) noted that visual literacy could also be defined as the ability to accurately interpret and create messages (mostly in text form) that are transmitted through the sense of sight. I prefer my definition (Branch, 2000) of visual literacy as “the understanding of messages communicated through frames of space that utilize objects, images, and time, and their juxtaposition” (p. 383).
While there are similarities between verbal literacy and visual literacy,research suggests that visual literacy is informally introduced when an individual is becoming verbally literate. Thus, visual literacy has emerged as a domain of knowledge worthy of its own definition, independent of verbal literacy language, however, systematic inquiry about ways images can be formed to construct a common visual language, independent of verbal language, remains unformed. The challenge now is to reconcile the paradox of using verbal language to define visual literacy.
Branch, R. (2000). A taxonomy of visual literacy. In A. W. Pailliotet, & P. B. Mosenthal (Eds.), Advances in reading/language research Volume 7: Reconceptualizing literacy in the media age. (pp. 377-402).
Debes, J. L. (1970). The loom of visual literacy: An overview, 1970. First National Conference on Visual Literacy (p. 16). New York: Pitman.
Rezabek, L. L. (2005). Why visual literacy: Consciousness and convention. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 49, 19-20.
Guest blogger: Dr. Robert M. Branch currently serves as a Professor and Interim Department Head for the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology at The University of Georgia. His teaching emphasizes student-centered learning while his research focuses on diagramming complex conceptual relations. He is a member of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), American Educational Research Association (AERA), International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA), International Society for Performance and Instruction (ISPI). Rob’s publications include the Educational Technology and Media Technology Yearbook, a Survey of Instructional Development Models, and Taxonomy of Visual Literacy.