“Show Me What You Are Saying”: Visual Literacy in the Composition Classroom

“Show Me What You Are Saying”: Visual Literacy in the Composition Classroom

Kristina Wright (Southern New Hampshire University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2808-1.ch002
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Visual literacy is a requirement in many college composition programs; yet explicit methods for teaching it are often undefined. This chapter provides a pedagogical resource for composition instructors who seek foundational approaches for teaching visual literacy in the first-year and sophomore writing classroom. The pedagogy includes classroom exercises and assignments which emphasize teaching visual literacy using a combination of mass media (advertisements, magazines, Photojournalism) and popular media (social media, YouTube, music videos, video games, Websites, and screen-based technologies). Such media signify the visual rhetorical environments with which college students engage regularly, but less often consider critically. The author demonstrates a variety of approaches for teaching students to become engaged participants in their own visual meaning making. Sample assignments include a personal narrative photo essay, a visual argument essay, a multimodal research project, and a student-designed Website.
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The clearest way to see through a culture

is to attend to its tools for conversation.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)



Recently, I attended a faculty meeting of composition instructors at the university where I teach. A colleague had invited an international student to discuss the verbal challenges non-native English speakers face in our classrooms. The student, Emmanuel, observed that it took him longer than his native English-speaking peers to understand what the professor was saying. A faculty member asked, “How might we help you to understand better the spoken material in class?” Without hesitation, Emmanuel answered, “Use pictures.” He added, “Show me what you are saying. This really helps.” Emmanuel’s comments crystallized for me why I had long ago begun teaching with visual material in the writing classroom.

Visual references help to facilitate verbal comprehension for many students, regardless of socio-linguistic backgrounds. In truth, visual learning engages the majority of my college-aged students, many of whom are digital natives comfortably at home with multimedia. As one literacy researcher notes, “reading and writing rarely occur in isolation for today’s students whose environment is filled with visual, electronic, and digital texts that offer facilities for reading, writing, viewing, listening and responding simultaneously” (Walsh, 2008, p. 102). In the United States, “images are increasingly prominent carriers of meaning” (Bezemer and Kress, 2008, p.166). This “turn toward the visual” (Kress, 1999) has influenced many composition and new media scholars (Anderson, 2008; Murray, 2009; Selber, 2008; George, 2012; Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, et al, 2004) to contend that “multimodal discourse” (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001) and “new literacies” (Yancey, 2009) should expand, even replace, the traditional definition of literacy as fluency with only alphabetic texts. Lutkewitte (2014) reasons that if writing instructors require that students “compose in one mode using only one technology,” p. 280) then we do “little to empower our students” (p. 279) for the multimedia communications required in their personal, professional, and civic lives. Students need “multiliteracies” (Selber, 2008), especially fluency in reading and composing with image-based texts, to navigate the digital world.

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