AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

16. Visual Literacy

16.1 Introduction
16.2 Theoretical Foundations of Visual Literacy
16.3 Establishing a Visual Literacy Research Agenda
16.4 Visual Vocabulary
16.5 Visualization
16.6 Visual Learning/Visual Teaching
16.7 Visual Thinking
16.8 Visual Literacy and Verbal Literacy
16.9 The Visual-Verbal Relationship
16.10 Visible Language:Text as Visuals
16.11 Eletronic Visuals
16.12 Conclusions
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Roberts A. Braden


There are two major impediments to research on visual literacy. The first is a lack of a widely accepted definition of the term visual literacy itself. The second, perhaps a consequence of the first, is a lack of a cohesive theory. We must confront the ever-present problem of identifying visual literacy itself before we can identify the body of visual literacy research. The visual literacy concept as an area of study has been plagued by an identity crisis from the outset. Skeptics doubt that visual literacy really exists.


For one group of advocates, a literal definition of the term has led to investigation of visual languages with a one-for-one analogy with the reading and writing aspects of verbal literacy. For others, more inclusive definitions have led to the study of visualization in all of its aspects of communication and education. The definitional controversy has been so much a part of visual literacy that Cassidy and Knowlton wrote a major paper in 1983 entitled "Visual Literacy, a Failed Metaphors' and in 1994 Moore and Dwyer included in their book a chapter titled "Visual Literacy: The Definition Problem" (Seels, 1994). Cassidy and Knowlton (1983) may have had trouble with the term because Knowlton (1966) had set for himself an exclusive definition. Seels and most others at this time favor a more inclusive attitude toward what constitutes the area of visual literacy.

As evidence that there is no common definition, we merely need to look at the titles of six recent books: Visual Literacy: Image, Mind, & Reality (Messaris, 1994); Visual Literacy: A Conceptual Approach to Solving Graphic Problems (Wilde & Wilde, 1991); Introduction to Visual Literacy (Curtiss, 1987); Visual Literacy Connections to Thinking, Reading and Writing (Sinatra, 1986); Visual Literacy: A Spectrum of Visual Learning (Moore & Dwyer, 1994); and Art, Science & Visual Literacy (Braden, Baca & Beauchamp, 1993).

Each of these books contains the term visual literacy in the title, but, how different are their basic assumptions. Messaris (1994) approached the subject-and thus defines and delimits it-from the communications field and particularly from the perspectives of film, television, and advertising. Wilde and Wilde (1991) have written a basic textbook for graphic artists that contains 15 graphic design exercises and 4 illustration exercises, with each exercise followed by examples of how the authors' students have solved those problems. Like the work of Curtiss, the Wild's work relates visual literacy more to art than to communication, and except in the graphic-design world, nobody would accept their assumed limited definition of visual literacy. Curtiss (1987) took a wide-ranging look, but primarily from the viewpoint of the fine artist. Sinatra's (1986) tide includes the term, but his book is more about the acquisition of verbal literacy (reading). Moore and Dwyer (1994) have compiled an eclectic, comprehensive text, covering 22 aspects of visual literacy. Their particular delimiter (definitional bias) is learning: the ways that visuals and visualization affect the learning process. Finally, the Braden, Baca, and Beauchamp (1993) volume is just one of more than a dozen annual books of readings published by the International Visual Literacy Association. Similar to proceedings, these edited compilations include articles that have only one unifying thread: they all have something to do with seeing.

This chapter will attempt to deal with so-called visual literacy research that includes widely diverging topics of interest. With such an expanded conception of visual literacy, to describe all of the relevant research and to present all of the findings would take an entire volume, not a chapter. Thus, the thrust of this chapter will be to identify and categorize a large portion of the related literature and to elaborate on only selected studies.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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