According to Simonides, "Words are the images of things." Similarly Aristotle stated that, "without image, thinking is impossible." The term visual literacy was coined in the late 1960's by John Debes, co-founder of the International Visual Literacy Association.
He defined visual literacy as the ability to discriminate and interpret visible actions, objects, and symbols, natural and man-made.
Although this is a twentieth century term, communicating through images is an ancient concept and practice. In early cultures, people inscribed their stories on cave walls in pictographs to record the events in their lives and express their thoughts and feelings. This idea of saving our thoughts and feelings might be considered a form of journaling, a practice that has continued throughout time. Words and images in our journals, diaries, and memoirs help us keep track of our thinking. Not surprisingly, young children use markers, pens, pencils, chalk, paint, whatever they have to make marks and words on walls, furniture and siblings' homework papers. The process of communication employs various methods of symbolic systems, writing and drawing specifically. Studies have shown the children spontaneously use alternative symbolic systems to enhance, add depth and meaning to their writing.
To look at words and images as two systems working together, one study compared drawing, as a planning activity for writing, with discussion, as a traditional planning activity. The focus of this comparison was to determine the effects of each on the quality of narrative writing. The subjects were 42 second- and third-grade students, randomly assigned to two groups; the drawing group and the control group. These two participated in 15 weekly sessions consisting of a 15-minute discussion followed by 45 minutes of drawing or language arts activities and 30 minutes producing a first writing draft. Students' writing drafts were analyzed for the effects of drawing and discussion planning activities on writing. Repeated measures revealed that the writing quality of the drawing group was significantly higher than that of the control group. It was concluded that drawing is a viable and effective form of rehearsal for narrative writing at the second- and third-grade levels and can be more successful than the traditional planning activity of discussion alone.
Development theory and research tells us that children must master visual skills before they can develop verbal skills, with some theorists even suggesting that visual skills are essential for future speech and reading skills. Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development is built on the principle that children develop through their activities, using sensory experiences to build their language.
A child looks at the world and needs to make sense of it by identifying objects, learning to distinguish things that are other than themselves, and noticing unique characteristics about the objects that they see. Developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky describes a zone of proximal development, a range of social interaction between adult and child. Children perform within that range and build an oral vocabulary as they expand and extending the original language.
Learning the simple word
a nice, big, round ball
and then extends to
what can you do with the nice, big, round ball
? This understanding of things and symbols directly relates to children's ability to later interpret verbal cues through speaking and reading – visual to verbal. Berger explains, "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak."
Each day, we encounter a variety of images and text together from charts and maps, signs, lists, television or movies, the Internet, catalogs and brochures, and product labels. Students need to combine all this visual and verbal information to make sense of the texts they see throughout their days. Author and teacher trainer, Steve Moline, claims that visual texts are complex and can be just as demanding to produce as verbal texts. Moline gives the example of a metropolitan street map and reminds us that visual texts make information "more accessible, more memorable, and more concise" than words alone. According to Moline, a complete literacy program includes both drawing and writing as means to communicate information. Students need to be taught how to explain information through various images including maps, tables, graphs, and diagrams.
Research shows that there is a strong connection among visual images and language. Writing expert Donald Graves considers drawing to be a "natural part of children's progression in writing."
He calls drawing an unconscious "rehearsal" for the writing that follows, and he says that drawing allows children to think about what they want to say before they have to write it, helping children with context as they later reread their written texts. Dyson studied children's symbol making and the relationships between talking, drawing, and writing. Her findings show distinct differences in how children use the three categories of language, drawing, and writing. This study show clear and definite relationships among talking, drawing, and the writing process in children's early literacy by comparing the writing of 60 third-grade students who drew before writing a story and 59 students who wrote without drawing. The results showed that the students who drew produced more words and, overall, wrote better than non-drawers. Additionally, the results were consistent for boys and girls, regardless of group.
Art, and the creative process that generates art, provides students with a basis to begin thinking about writing. A research-supported program titled Picturing Writing has the students create works of art and use them as a foundation for writing inspiration.
This study indicates that connecting visual and verbal imagery helps students express themselves. Students are motivated by the inclusion of their visual images, specifically paintings. It appears that paintings, particularly, offer a natural narrative within the medium, allowing students the potential experience of "stepping into the painting" and becoming part of the story. This strategy allows for many connections and memories to emerge through their writing.
Skills in visual and perceptual ways of thinking are essential for critical thinking and problem solving. Betty Edwards, author, teacher, and artist, observes that many schools think of arts education as "enrichment." Edwards, however, sees the arts as crucial for training specific ways of thinking. In her book
The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
, she shares methods to train students to see the "whole picture."
Surprisingly, some of the first in the education field to comment on the use of visuals in instruction were Hoban, Hoban, and Zisman back in 1937. They claimed that visuals were not achieving their full potential value in the learning process because educators failed to use them wisely. They list four principles that teachers should consider when integrating visual aids in instruction: (a) "The value of visual aids is a function of their degree of reality"; (b) "The value of visual aids is a function of the nature and extent of the pupils' previous experience"; (c) "The value of visual aids is a function of the objectives of instruction in the particular classroom situation"; (d) "The value of visual aids is a function of the intellectual maturity of the learner." These basic principles still hold wisdom for educators even today.
To apply these principles to the students and their writing, we just need to think about the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. What is a tremendous level of vocabulary that would be to fill the pages of students' notebooks! But there is definite truth in this statement. The concept that an image is actually text and that there is a story within that image is apparent to children. It seems an accepted idea that a picture exists to tell us something, and so, generating words from images comes naturally for young children. The next step for the students, putting the spoken words and thoughts in writing, may not come so naturally.
Writing is not a just process of recording details but one of making significance of them. We grow a piece of writing not only by jotting down notes and writing rough drafts but also by noticing, wondering, remembering, questioning, even yearning. We write to communicate, plan, petition, remember, announce, list, imagine; above all, we write to keep track of our thoughts and to make something of them. Children's writing is supported by their drawings. They make pictures to understand and to tell what they mean. They rehearse for their writing by first drawing. Drawing is generally far more important for children at this point than the writing, an appropriate developmental response for 6- and 7-year olds. They are not apt to do their planning by thinking it over from a distance, whether they are building a block tower, playing outside, or drawing a picture. They actively involve themselves in building, playing and drawing and make decisions as they go along, constructing meaning as their project evolves. This process shows the thinking that is happening as they are creating.