What is Visual Literacy?

There is no agreed single definition of visual literacy. The selection of citations below show both the diversity and the commonalities within the concept.

  • ‘Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text. Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be ‘read’ and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading.’         Wikipedia definition
  • ‘Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.’     American College Visual Literacy Resources: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/visualliteracy
  • 'Visual literacy' is a contested term - it’s implied analogy with spoken or written language can be misleading and some resources may focus on helping learners to understand visual communication but ignore the need for them to learn to communicate effectively themselves. However, the presence of an established name for this aspect of visual learning does simplify the search for useful resources. (University of Brighton, 2014)
  • ‘The ability to 1) view, understand, analyze and evaluate, 2) design and create, and 3) use visuals and visual representations for acquisition, consolidation and communication and transfer of knowledge. Visual literacy involves both intra-personal and meta-cognitive as well as inter-personal collaboration. Visual literacy combines the use of a variety of visual products (lists, tables, graphics, graphic organizers, concept maps, mind maps, argument maps, timelines, systems maps, videos, movies and art) with teaching, learning and assessing processes, and creates interconnections of visual, oral, written, visual representation, numeracy and technological / digital literacy.’ (See Figure 1) (Beaudry, 2014)


Figure 1: Elements of Visual Literacy (Beaudry, 2014 as adapted from Sinatra, 1986)

Metros (2009) suggests that our experience of living in a visually saturated world may be described in three stages of visual literacy: 1) stimulated, 2) literate, and 3) fluent. Being stimulated means we are interacting with visuals constantly but more as a passive consumer; strictly reading and interpreting visuals; more likely to imitate others and reproduce existing visuals. Next is the visually literate phase in which we understand the visual vocabulary and concepts, and when fluent, begin to learn how to construct visuals by imitation of others. Visual Literacy can be defined as the ability to read and interpret visual codes and artefacts, (signs, diagrams, maps, images, films, models and visualisations and so forth). To be visually fluent one would also be competent in creating visual resources that inform and communicate.

Teachers should be able to  interpret  the different types of visual content in the world today, understand how it is used, and how it can add value to educational resources and activities. They should be able to present and communicate information and concepts using visual graphic software tools, images, videos, charts, presentations and visual organisation tools such as concept maps and mind maps.


The following references are part of the evidence base for this resource.

Bamford. A. (2003). The Visual Literacy White Paper. Adobe


Accessed 27 January 2015.

Beaudry, J. (2014). Visual Literacy for Teaching and Learning: Essential Knowledge and Skills to Create, Use and

Assess Concept Maps and Graphic Organizers.

Leask, M., and Burden, K., & Younie, S. (Eds.) Learning to Teaching Using ICT in the Primary School. London, UK: Routledge.

Metros. S., & Woolsey, K. (2006, May/June). Visual literacy: An institutional imperative. EDUCAUSE Review, 41(3), 80–82.

Avgerino. M. D,. (2013) What is "Visual Literacy?,  . http://www.ivla.org/drupal2/content/what-visual-literacy-0

IVLA.ORG accessed 3/11/2014

Sinatra, R. (1986). Visual literacy connections to thinking, reading and writing. Springfield, IL: Charles Thonas Press.

University of Brighton  Learn Higher - Visual Communication, http://about.brighton.ac.uk/visuallearning/visual-communication/ accessed 3/11/2014