The traditional separation that exists between knowledge/education and entertainment/pleasure had led to the social value of the term literacy as being directly associated with an educational function – the acquisition of skills in writing and reading in order to create models and methodologies for teaching and learning which will have results in the development of more knowledgeable and proficient individuals (Kress & van Leuwen, 1996).
The study of literacy normally refers to the analysis of one’s ability to process information through words that are written or read. However, the prominence which other forms of symbolic representation and expression, in addition to the written word, has been gaining in our society, has brought about a surge in several movements which defend an extension of the concept of literacy (Bamford, 2004).
For these authors [i], the highly changeable character of the systems of representation in which we move about and to which we are exposed, and the underlying complexity of the technological system of communication, demand a new vision of the concept of literacy (Aufderheide, 1993). At the foundation of this new vision of literacy is the broadening of literacy-specific skills to other forms of expression which are not limited to the written word [ii].
The processing of information through the written or spoken word implies, beyond the strictest use of the basic skills involved in these forms of expression, that one understands the functions that writing and the written word perform at all the various levels of society, such as at the legal level [iii]. Thus, when writing and reading skills are adapted to other forms of expression, such as the visual, its slightest use cannot be disassociated from the understanding of the functions which the expression performs.
This is the central feature of the term “literacy,” the reference to the specific abilities when using the written form of a language, which allows us to distinguish “literacy” from “alphabetization.” “Alphabetization” corresponds to a state, normally associated with schooling, when one begins to use the language whereas “literacy” refers to “a permanent, continuous process of evolution” (Potter, 1998).
The expansion of the concept of literacy as it relates to the communicational context of the contemporary world has spurred movements in additional directions which are incorporating an increasingly wider variety of disciplines in the study of the phenomenon. We are thus witnessing a growing level of concern about the ability which individuals/subjects have to critically understand messages produced by the mass media. The movement, known as the “media literacy” movement, introduces the concept of visual literacy as the ability to interpret and extract meaning from the visual information contained in an image resulting from human activity but many times takes into account these concerns in an ideological model of understanding the effects of media. In this context, the term “visual literacy” is one based on the principle that the images can be read and that the meaning which results from this reading can be communicated. It is precisely this principle that the constructed meaning can be communicated and distributed which forms the basis for wider perspectives that take visual literacy in as a constituent of social practices of contemporary issues.
The coining of the term “visual literacy” is often ascribed to John Debes, who in 1969 defined visual literacy as “a group of skills that a subject may develop and in which other sensory experiences can be integrated” (Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997). The constant evolution in the technical production and performance of images and the increasingly important role that they play in the modelling of the relation between the subjects and the world has made it such that the concept of visual literacy has been expanded to take in not only interpretative skills but also skills related to the production of images.
The expansion of the term implied a broader range of knowledge which contributes to the framing of the discipline of visual literacy but has also resulted in a lack of a unified theory which allows us to understand it. Whatever the academic discipline or area of study in question, most authors appear to agree with the principle that visual literacy is today a core educational component which should be strengthened at different educational levels (Kellner, 2003).
The visually literate individual is the one able to decode and interpret a visual composition but also the person able to codify and compose images which convey a meaning which is commonly understood.
Although some authors consider visual literacy a state (Messaris, 1994) which aids subjects in understanding the visual representations around them, the rapid pace of the evolution of the mechanical means to reproduce images and more importantly the emergence of digital images in the present day have made it such that no one can deny the relevance of the processes that facilitate a subject’s acquisition of selection, interpretation, codification/de-codification and image-production skills.
The proliferation of images in our culture implies that visual literacy must be understood, be it in its more basic form of decoding visual symbologies or in its more advanced form of constructing the complex representations of meaning as a central process of acquiring information, building up knowledge and achieving educational results from the subjects.
The need for visual literacy stems from, in the first place, the fact the symbols and modes of representation used for visual communication do not have a fixed vocabulary. Beyond the unimaginable expanse of symbols and forms that such a vocabulary would eventually have to take, there is also the much more pressing problem tat the interpretation and construction of meaning in visual communication varies within the context of one’s production and receiving of images.
Visual literacy is comprised of a set of skills that involves the understanding of convention, subjective intentions and the set of references to the real, included in the production or the reception of an image. Such a process of constructing meaning results in syntax and semantics that imply that visual literacy should be understood as a social practice that is not limited to the text of an image but rather it takes in the image in its social and cultural context (Turner, 2006).
Avgerinou, M. & Ericson, J. “A review of the concept of visual literacy”. British Journal of Educational Technology, 1997, 28(4), 280-291
Aufderheide, P, Media Literacy: a Report for the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy Aspen Institute Communication and Society Program, 1993.
Bamford, A. “The visual literacy white paper” available on-line at http://www.adobe.com/uk/education/pdf/adobe_visual_literacy_paper.pdf published in 02/2004 consulted in 09/2008
Kellner, D. “Technological Revolution, Multiple Literacies and the Restructuring of education” in I. Snyder (Ed.), Silicon Literacies: Communication, Innovation and Education in the Electronic Age, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 154-171
Kress, G. & van Leuwen, T. Reading Images. The grammar of visual literacy. London: Routledge, 1996
Messaris, P. Visual Literacy: Image, Mind & Reality. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1994.
Potter, W. J. Media Literacy, London: Sage Publications, 1998
Turner, G, Film as social practice, London: Routledge, 2006
[i] One of the principal representatives of this movement, normally identified as the “Media Literacy Movement,” is Patricia Aufderheide, author of an influential article on the need to introduce intensive study and analysis of the media and its effects in the academic curricula of the American educational system. (Aufderheide, 1993).
[ii] In accordance with Renee Hobbs, this expansion of “text” emerges as a logical consequence of the fact that teaching supported in purely textual messages is “disconnected and is quite remote given the students’ experiences, namely their experience in television watching” and that “when literary material are used exclusively as vehicles for exercises that develop their comprehension and vocabulary abilities, the students become alienated from the processes of writing and reading in a vast set of contexts.” (…) “Analysis of the media allows them to transfer their educational experience to their life experience outside school and more importantly, allows them to look at the written text with more motivation.” Hobbs, Renee – Expanding the concept of literacy in Kubey, Robert (ed.) – Media Literacy in the Information Age, Transaction Publishers, London 1997. pp. 163-184. cit. p. 168.
[iii] The evaluation of literacy through the wheighing of the level of understanding demonstrated by individuals when dealing with functions of the word as we have mentioned here – ex. the ability to understand a text with legislative terms or to read a tax form – has always been deemed fundamental for all the studies.