Visual Literacy for Young Language Learners: Multimodal Texts in Content-Based Instruction

Visual Literacy for Young Language Learners: Multimodal Texts in Content-Based Instruction

Vera Savić
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2722-1.ch009
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Acquiring literacy skills for the 21st century requires learners to move beyond the traditional print literacy skills and to develop strategies for effective communication in predominantly visual environments. The chapter explores how teachers of young language learners may scaffold children's development of visual literacy in Content-Based Instruction (CBI) and thus prepare them both for comprehending and producing visual images and multimodal texts. The chapter first provides a framework for understanding visual literacy and then describes pedagogical strategies language teachers may apply to promote visual literacy in a young learner classroom. Finally, it highlights the role of visual images in CBI and gives examples of classroom activities that foster simultaneous development of visual literacy and foreign/second language (L2) communication skills for young learners.
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New information and communication media are changing a communication environment globally, introducing mulimodality into meaning-making in the way that “written-linguistic modes of meaning interface with oral, visual, audio, gestural, tactile and spatial patterns of meaning” (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012a, p. 1). Unlike traditional literacy in which meaning is carried by words and sentences, in multimodal texts, visuals contribute to meaning in complex ways, requiring learners to develop effective multimodal communication skills (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009; Kalantzis & Cope, 2012a; Mayer, 2005). Mayer (2005) defines multimedia learning as learning from words and pictures through building mental representations from both modes.

The term visual literacy was coined half a century ago to refer to the ability of making meaning from visual images (Bamford, 2003; Eilam, 2012; Felten, 2008; Kalantzis & Cope, 2012b; Matusiak, Heinbach, Harper, & Bovee, 2019; Mayer, 2005; Royce, 2002; Serafini, 2012, 2017). It is not limited to any specific discipline and has been accepted and discussed in areas like art, psychology, sociology, and education, “but in doing so it has probably suffered from a too great a variety of interpretations across all of these different academic discourses” (Allen, 2012, p. 22). Generally, visual literacy involves interpreting and discussing the content of visual images, their social impact and purpose, as well as their manipulative use, by judging their validity, worth, and accuracy (Bamford, 2003; Royce, 2002). Although visual literacy has been significant throughout human history and across a number of disciplines (e.g., map reading), it is particularly important within the 21st century skills development and for successful learning in increasingly multimodal communication contexts, with multiple means replacing communication achieved exclusively through written or spoken language. Societies are currently surrounded by pictures that are used to convey instant messages; it is estimated that about 90% of all information transmitted to the brain is visual and that human beings generally have the ability to process visual images 60,000 times faster than text (Olivares, 2013). Given that a high percentage of our sensory learning is visual and that about 40% of people prefer visual learning over auditory or kinesthetic, the dependence of contemporary culture on the visual image (mainly through technology use) can partly be explained (Bamford, 2003). Consequently, the need for being visually literate is beginning to be “a matter of survival, especially in the workplace” (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006, p. 3).

In education, “[t]he proliferation of images means that visual literacy is now crucial for obtaining information, constructing knowledge, and building successful educational outcomes” (Bamford, 2003, p. 3). Children may be introduced to specific kinds of visual literacy with “the very first books [they] encounter” (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006, p. 23), which generally occurs in early childhood; as a result, visual communication is mainly achieved through the parents' attitudes to the events and characters appearing in the book. Later, children gain the ability to express their own interpretations of visual images. However, the increasing number of visual images that are currently available to children through media and the internet demands well-developed visual literacy skills and well-informed viewers. Although visual literacy needs to be taught “from the youngest age” (Bamford, 2003, p. 2), it is rarely given proper attention in school contexts. It is, therefore, critical to equip learners with skills needed to successfully use the new resources of representation by introducing visual literacy development into current curricula, at all levels. Visual literacy skills and strategies empower learners for deeper analysis of images and prepare them for successful reading of multimodal texts, i.e., the texts in which written language is accompanied by visual images in unique ways.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Visual Semantics: The relationship between visual images and culturally defined world issues used for creating meaning.

Visual Syntax: Graphic composition of an image, like shape, perspective, size, scale, dimension, arrangement, framing, color, light, contrast, direction, motion, balance, labelling, visual/text relationship, foreground, background, and editing. Combined with visual semantics, visual syntax enables successful comprehension of different meanings of visual images.

Content-Based Instruction (CBI): An approach to foreign and second language teaching in which language teaching is organized around subject content. The approach is dual-focused and L2 is used both for content and language teaching. It shares the many characteristics with Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), and both terms, i.e. CBI and CLIL, are regarded umbrella terms for range of programs that are applied throughout the world.

Multimedia: Presenting a written or spoken text together with pictures, such as illustrations, photographs, animations, or videos.

Multimodal Text: A text in which verbal and visual semiotic modes are integrated to communicate a complex meaning.

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL): An approach to foreign and second language teaching which integrates language and content learning. Like CBI, it is dual-focused and L2 is regarded as a vehicle for learning subject content. It shares several characteristics with CBI, and both terms, i.e., CLIL and CBI, are regarded umbrella terms for a number of varieties that are applied throughout the world.

Visual Literacy: The ability to make meaning from interpreting visual images; it involves effectiveness in finding, interpreting, evaluating, using, and creating visual images as well as understanding contextual, cultural, aesthetic, ethical, intellectual, and technical elements of producing and using visual images.

New Visual Literacy: Successful comprehension of images as independent visual forms and the ability to talk about the process of reading the visual codes.

Visual Grammar: A general grammar of visual design that describes the ways in which visual elements and visual images, such as photos, illustrations, pictures, diagrams and maps, which are combined in visual statements to communicate meaning. Visual literacy is comprised of visual grammar and visual syntax.

Thematic Unit (TU): A series of four to five content-based lessons connected by the same cross-curricular theme. Subject content taught in L2 creates an interesting and meaningful context for L2 use and contributes to more authentic communication in the classroom.

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