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Teaching "Visual Literacy”

Release Date:
1/23/2012 12:00 AM
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UNH, Yale Center for British Arts Combine to Teach “Visual Literacy”

Visual Literacy, 500 px, Judith Randi

January 23, 2012

A collaboration between UNH and the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) is providing UNH teacher candidates opportunities to learn how to use “visual literacy” to enhance elementary-school children’s writing skills.

“Visual literacy can be integrated into the primary-grade curricula to support young children’s reading and writing development,” said Judith Randi, associate professor of education. “Art serves as the medium for creative expression by encouraging children to express their ideas through visual, verbal and written modes of communication.”

The YCBA visual literacy program is based on research that shows the human brain relies on visuals to learn and that sketching out an idea—even if you can’t really draw—brings to mind ideas and sensory memory.

“The basic idea is that you learn by connecting information from your senses to past experiences to form new knowledge,” said Cyra Levenson, associate curator of education at the YCBA, who recently spoke to Randi’s class on early literacy. “One way to do that is to draw,” she said. “Drawing is a form of thinking and doing it can activate your sensory memories in a powerful way.”

Randi and Levenson say developing visual literacy can help students get excited about writing and take ownership of it. To do that, they first teach children to see, for example, a painting as a text. They “read” it by discussing the factual information they find in the painting—clouds, a horse, a lion, a tree, rocks and so on. Then they use that information to begin thinking about what might be happening in the painting, developing an interpretation and writing about that.

Levenson is working with area teachers to use the YCBA as an extension of the classroom by bringing their students to visit up to three times each school year. Teachers then integrate visual literacy activities into their school curricula. She also is working with Randi’s teacher education classes to provide prospective primary teachers with tools to use in the classroom.

Randi, a UNH research scholar, is working with colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center to evaluate the YCBA program. She is interviewing children who have participated in the program to study the thought processes that lead to written expression after visual literacy activities and conducting teacher observation studies to describe innovative practices within the context of the visual literacy program.

So far, she has found that the children who participate in the program generate ideas for writing through creative processes such as associative thinking (making connections with personal experiences and prior knowledge) and divergent thinking (generating multiple and original interpretations of the art). They then use “sketch time” to plan, organize and elaborate their ideas before “translating” their ideas into writing.

“Teaching children in the first and second grades to see a painting, sculpture or other art work as a text helps them develop vocabulary, thinking and writing,” said Randi. “It develops many creative skills as well as their powers of observation.”

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 on the campus of Yale University in cooperation with Northeastern University, UNH moved to its current West Haven campus in 1960. The University provides its students with a unique combination of a solid liberal arts education and real-world, hands-on career and research opportunities. UNH enrolls approximately 6,400, including nearly 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates – the majority of whom reside in University housing. Through its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Tagliatela College of Engineering, and University College, UNH offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. UNH students have access to more than 50 study abroad programs worldwide and its student-athletes compete in 17 varsity sports in the NCAA Division II’s highly competitive Northeast-10 Athletic Conference.