Storytime with Jessica – Visual Literacy

What is visual literacy?

Visual Literacy is our ability to understand, interpret, and gain meaning from images. Literacy as a term is often in relation to written texts, and visual literacy ties in with written literacy as both work together in many situations where meaning is taken from a combination of both images and words.

Visual literacy, like all forms of literacy, is different at different ages. As adults we are asked to look at ads and identify what they are trying to tell us both through the explicit (what is shown and said) and implicit (the assumptions they, or we, take away from the explicit). But we also have to look at the underlying ‘manipulation’ that exists in the implicit information. If you have ever watched the ABC TV show Gruen you will probably know what I’m talking about here.

But, children of a Storytime age are building the blocks for this later in-depth understanding of visual representations. And one of the best places to look at this is in picture books. And here is why…

Picture book illustrations come in three main types:

  1. The illustration relates directly to the picture, providing no more information than is in the text. A great example is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
  2. The illustrations provide extra information to what is in the text.
  3. The illustrations in some way contradict the words that we read. Meg MacKinley’s No Bears is an excellent example of this (hint: there are definitely bears in the pictures).

And there are a lot of books that use a mixture of these different styles on different pages. But, this gives children an opportunity to develop their visual literacy skills, practise using them, and develop confidence in a safe environment.

Cover Image for Can You Find Me?

Can You Find Me? by Gordon Winch and Patrick Shirvington

Notable for Book of the Year: Early Childhood Children’s Book Council Awards 2018

This book deals primarily with camouflage, habitats, and a range of animals in Australia. However, it does it in such a way that it is very approachable for young children (each page follows a pattern with the words, there is repetition in the text) and it asks them to interact with the pages. On each page an animal is named “I am a platypus” and then it talks about the habitat of the animals and the visual characteristics of their camouflage (it does not use the actual word but it does provide an opportunity for further conversations about the topic) and then it asks the reader to find the animal. This is when our eyes, and our ability to locate things within a picture, are required. We are asked to find something that looks like everything else but is just slightly different. In this we are developing our eyes’ and brain’s ability to differentiate between things that are similar and this is a skill we need in order to understand images (and the world around us) and the basic skill of visual literacy is to recognise what we are looking at. If we cannot identify different things in an image (whether they look similar or different) we cannot tell what we are looking at and therefore we cannot understand the information that we are looking at.

Is Bear Here? by Jonathan Bentley

Our main character is looking for bear. And to find bear, they look in all sorts of places like the museum but they cannot find bear…until towards the end (I will get to the delightful twists in this story in a moment). On each page there is a bear. Children will see the bear and KNOW that this is the bear they are looking for and will be able to understand the story and talk about the character missing them. Then…we find out that THAT bear we see throughout the story is not the bear we are searching for. This book plays with the picture book trope of ‘character is looking for something that is hiding on every page’ and convinces us that this is another example of that then…the character finds another bear and we realise we’ve been wrong all along and we can go back over all of the images and realise that we saw things one way but it was actually a completely different story that the images are telling us.

*mic drop* visual literacy!



Cover Image for Is Bear Here?
Cover Image for The Foggy Foggy Forest

The Foggy Foggy Forest by Nick Sharratt (9781406327847)

This books asks us to guess what’s coming next. Using repetition “What can this/that be in the foggy foggy forest” we are then presented with a silhouette. And children have the opportunity to guess what is coming next. This gives children the opportunity to practise their understanding of shape and situational information. The shapes are relatively easy to guess and children have a lot of fun doing so. But, the reveal on the next page often adds a surprise so not only are children having success with a guess but their understanding of the visual information is being increased as well.

I don’t know if it’s obvious yet that I am deeply, and irrevocably, in love and awe with the ‘magic’ of picture books and the way great ones can teach us so much about ‘reading’ the images and developing meaning from them in a fun way. Picture books build our vocabulary just by reading them, they teach us empathy, they teach us about the world and the things around us, they help us to develop an understanding of grammar. They are a cornerstone for developing comprehension. And they teach us visual literacy by experiencing them.

And they are fun!

The thing to remember is the fun. If you don’t feel confident about what visual literacy is or how the images interact with the words, don’t worry. You can read up on it online if you like, but the most important thing is to chat with your children about the pictures. Start easy – what do you see, where is that, who is that, why do you think they can’t see the bear… Children will enjoy the questions, get a lot out of contemplating answers and telling you their thoughts. That is the best starting point and when children are encouraged to investigate the pictures they will keep doing it and they will ask questions and start to think about the pictures themselves.

There’s no rhyme this week jut me fangirling at picture books.


This week, I don’t have a craft though I would suggest ‘writing’ and illustrating a story with your child – they can dictate the words for you to write and then they draw the pictures and you can have a wonderful time talking about what they are drawing. This is a great skill in preparation for formal writing but it also an invaluable skill in narrative understanding and comprehension. No matter the age of the child if they enjoy drawing and colouring they can do it.

What I have instead of a craft is a suggestion to find a picture book and look only at the pictures. See if you and your child can work out what the book is about from the pictures alone. Then read the book and see how you went. It won’t be easy the first time but children will get the hang of it when you model how to do it a couple of times and this activity develops comprehension and visual literacy. It’s also lots of fun.

As with all literacy skills, they are developed over time and if your child struggles the first time show them how to do it, let them have a go and help them along. Before you know it they will be independent and proud of their skills.