Orange County School of the Arts

What is Visual Literacy?

Yes, it has pictures. Yes, it is in the format of what you might call a “comic book—“ or wait, a “graphic novel.”

Many students read graphic novels in their Literature or Language Composition classes. Why? This is a way to teach about visual rhetoric, a term you’ve probably heard your teacher throw around. Rhetoric basically means argument, so visual rhetoric is basically a way of conveying a point through visual means. Visual rhetoric is the analysis and creation of everything from the arrangements of elements on a page to the fonts you use to pictures.

Especially in our media-based world, the power of visual rhetoric is clear. Imagine if this article was in Comic Sans. Your views on me, my writing, and this story would probably be completely different. The Daily Mail covers this, as does Patricia Shepard. 

To build student capacity in creating and understanding visuals (a field known as visual literacy), many schools give students graphic novels—yes, books with pictures—to read as a way to build these skills. “Maus” and  “Persepolis”, two incredibly complex award-winning graphic novels, are often used for these purposes.

One of Common Core’s major points is analyzing and learning from all types of media, whether that be a speech, poem or pictures. Common Core wants to ensure that students can apply the same analysis that they’ve learned about written topics to other forms of media.

Visual rhetoric is also a clearer way to simplify complex topics like symbolism and motif. Especially for more visual learners, seeing the symbols on the page can illuminate these ideas. For example, animal symbolism is central to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”, and students are able to see how this plays into character development.

After first learning that I was going to read a graphic novel in school, I was confused and upset. “Words just aren’t the same thing as pictures!” I argued. Words aren’t the same thing as pictures, which exactly why visual literacy is a needed skill.