Champaign Public Library (CPL) in Illinois received a grant from the Illinois State Library to teach visual literacy to students and teachers. Partnering with local schools, CPL librarians go out into first, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms and lead inquiry-based lessons about interpreting artwork and visual media. In addition, they work with teacher and education organizations to provide workshop sessions, showing teachers how to bring visual literacy into their classroom.
By teaching children how to better interpret illustrations and visual media, CPL librarians hope to accomplish two things: 1) help emergent readers to recognize connections between text and art, to see illustrations as a whole, and understand basics of how art works; 2) to help older students connect reading with pictures, and lead them toward visualization as they read more complex texts.
Champaign based their program on two techniques, the more general “Visual Thinking Strategies Program” described by Janie Schomberg in "Look Again: Reading Pictures Using Visual Thinking Strategies" (The Sampler Summer 2001) and a strategy featured in Reading Teacher called “STW,” or See, Think, Wonder. Both are inquiry-based methods, where the instructor uses open ended questions to guide discussion about illustrations and lead children to comprehension. STW leads instructors to ask these specific questions about artwork in this order: “What do I see? What do I think? What do I wonder?”
This series of questions starts with the concrete, asking children to identify literally what they see in a given illustration, then asking them to decide what these visual details and cues make them think about (or what the illustration is communicating), then finally leading them to ask their own questions about what the illustration does not tell them (what they wonder).
Start with a basic book about design such as Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work (Bang uses “Little Red Riding Hood” to illustrate basic design concepts and their effects on the emotions and context that the illustrations communicate.)
In addition to showing the book, CPL librarians created large magnet-board cutouts just like Bang’s and followed her steps on a large board, where kids could more easily see it.)
Or use Mark Gonyea’s A Book about Design: Complicated Doesn’t Make It Good (Gonyea covers topics such as impact, contrast, the rule of thirds, balance and more)
In each session, choose just one or two main concepts that you will discuss, for instance color and contrast, balance, or movement. Point out instances of these concepts in the illustrations you use, and ask students what kind of effect the design has on the viewer.
Some basic art concepts include: line, shape, form, color, value, texture, space, balance, movement, rhythm, contrast, emphasis, pattern, unity.
Select your book. Choose books that are engaging and colorful, that contain action and will hold children’s interest. Here are some book suggestions from Mike Rogalla at CPL:
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein
Black Cat by Christopher Myers
Going North by Janice Harrington (and for a comparison to a different book by the same illustrator
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles)
No David! By David Shannon
An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant
The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg
Sidewalk Circus by Paul Fleischman
The Magic Boots by Scott Emerson
Cover up any text, and use the see, think, wonder question throughout the book, going page by page and allowing plenty of time for many children to express their ideas. There are no right answers, and all comments should be considered, as long as there is a basis within the illustration. You will be amazed out how insightful the children can be!
Once you have carefully gone through each page, discuss what the children think happened in the book and why. Then go back and read the text to the children. See how closely the written story is to what they came up with, and discuss why it may have been different or the same.