Visual Literacy + Textual Literacy = Students Learning, Enjoying, and Making Meaning in regards to what they are Reading

Making meaning is the name of the game. Does it matter how that meaning is made? Does it matter what kind of texts students are using if they are employing effective literacy skills and strategies? My answer is no. I want kids to want to read; I know that when kids want to read they can read at levels beyond what any test may tell them their abilities lie. This is why engagement is so powerful and important, it creates connections between the reader and the text that allow for a deeper understanding, and makes it enjoyable. As an English teacher, especially in the middle school years, engagement is the key to all success. This means students must have a way to relate to and enjoy what they are reading, and also interact with the text. I am very much a technophile; I have a wiki that we use in my class that I maintain where students are able to add content, I set up a blog where students respond to prompts about their free choice book, and I have Smart Board in my room that we use for a variety of things. The information that kids engage with is no longer presented in a static, print only fashion. As teachers we need to be aware of how the world and word is changing and integrate that into our teaching. The articles of McVicker, Cowan and Albers, and Norton that I explore within this paper deal with understanding that ‘texts’ are not just made up of words, that teachers should be connecting the lives of students to what is happening in the classroom, and that kids already know how to use images and words together to make meaning from a text. All things that lead down the road to helping students gain important and valuable literacy skills.

McVicker describes her article, “Comic Strips as a Text Structure for Learning to Read”, as a presentation of “ways classroom teachers can use comics to build strategies to deepen their students’ understanding of content using visual literacy skills.” (McVicker, 2007). Children grow up with books that have images and words that interact; somewhere between Middle and High School students are expected to make the leap to books filled solely with words that have no support of visual representation. One idea to emerge is the use of the structure of the Comic Strip to teach reading. McVicker describes Comic Strips as “hybrid texts” (McVicker, 2007). These hybrid texts demand the use of visual literacy skills in tandem with text based practices; saying that a “picture extends the meaning of the text” (McVicker, 2007). She also points out that readers of all levels can benefit from the use of comics in the classroom, making it a perfect tool for differentiation. The point that is brought up over and over is that comics make the learning fun, and fun equals engagement in the lesson and a greater chance that the student will learn the skills being taught.

In their article, “Semiotic representations: Building complex literacy practices through the arts”, Cowan and Albers define literacy as “the ease with which learners can create or interpret others’ semiotic systems” (Cowan and Albers, 2006). In other words a person must be able to communicate and function within a given system of signs and symbols, e.g. in a math class or as a restaurant employee. Both of these examples requires the ability to understand and interpret and create the symbols and jargon specific to each setting. These authors suggest the use of hands on and visual representations of words and ideas to create connections that will improve comprehension and utilization of knowledge in students. In this case (as in the McVicker article) the use of visual literacy practices extends the students’ engagement with written word. Students create a visual representation, 2-D or 3-D, of a word or concept, write about the word or topic, and then discuss their work and the choices they made during the creation process with the class. This article has examples of student work that is a helpful addition, not to mention follows their theory of using multiple literacies to help readers create meaning.

Bonny Norton focuses on a specific comic read by elementary children in her article, “The motivating power of comic books: Insights from Archie comic readers”. She explores the appeal of the comic and how children define appropriate reading materials, and also the skills that are being employed by the students. Norton discovers that kids are sharing comics, talking about them extensively, and “debat[ing] the merits of different characters.” (Norton, 2003). There are also literary devices that the students are being exposed to and working with to create meaning such as ‘irony, puns, and plays on words” (Norton, 2003) these are sophisticated (especially irony) concepts to be encountering and understanding at the age level she is dealing with (9-12 years of age in this case). The other idea that Norton explores is what constitutes a ‘text’. She interviews two groups; one consists of student teachers, and the other of students. The student teachers did not think that the comic was a legitimate text, but some did concede that it was better than no reading at all. The kids were aware of this view of comics by teachers but were adamant about the value of Archie. The students, in their defense and discussion of the Archie comics, “spoke animatedly about their enjoyment of them and illustrated their comments with numerous references to Archie stories.” (Norton, 2003). [The kids are using textual evidence naturally in their conversations!] The interview also turned up an attitude about what a ‘text’ is; according to the student quoted, what makes a text legitimate “depends if it’s supposed to be fun or not” (Norton, 2003). This was discussed at length, trying to ferret out the reasons behind this attitude, the status quo was settled on in the end.

What I find most fascinating is the mention in all the articles of the changing world and the need for multiple literacy practices to be taught and nurtured in school. The Internet is a common example of how students already have multiple literacies that they use while surfing any number of web pages that have words and images working together to create meaning. The world is rapidly changing; technologies are bringing together parts of our world that were separate before. While we cannot teach students about each combination of literacies, what we can do is provide skills for approaching and engaging whatever forms texts and communications of the future takes.

Four of the major factors that influence comprehension are discussed in each of these articles: 1- Accessing prior knowledge, 2- Motivation and interest in the subject, 3- Text structure, and 4- Metacognitive awareness. Comics and comic strips are structures that students are aware of and have most likely interacted with before; therefore the motivation to read is based on prior positive experiences with these hybrid texts. Using semiotics builds a knowledge base built upon the students’ initial response to and research upon a topic in order to create a visual representation. The discussion of the students’ processes of creating their own hybrid texts provides them with an understanding of their own thinking (metacognition). So we can see that using McVickers’ ‘hybrid texts’ is just good practice, as they are vehicles to discussing, practicing, and monitoring the meaning making that kids are engaged in.

In each of these articles the main points are: accessing prior knowledge, connecting that knowledge with new knowledge (by using what they like and already do outside of school and using that in school), and developing and using multiple literacy practices.  Each strategy is part of a larger group of strategies that are used together. By designing lessons that require literacy practices that are not usually found inside the classroom, but typically encountered outside the school setting, the students are drawn in and are more invested in the lesson due to their own interests being used in class.

I did have some concerns while reading the articles. When I first saw the title for Norton’s article I assumed that it had been written decades before. I didn’t think that Archie comics were that popular and I am surprised that she didn’t use a more contemporary comic to base her research on. McVicker also references older comic strips (Garfield, Peanuts, and Family Circus). I think that their research would be more compelling if more recent comics had been used, I suspect this may have something to do with their own comfort levels with the texts they chose.

In the McVicker article the phrase that sticks out to me is not, “comics” (which I assume most would pause at), but “deepen their students’ understanding”, this is the goal is it not?  For the new or struggling reader the structure of the comic strip provides an engaging way to develop some sophisticated skills. Picture cues help with comprehension; comics depend on the interplay of the word and the image, one without the other is incomplete. In order to decode the meaning of a panel of the strip inference, deduction, and summarization all play a part. The students experience success in reading and this will aid in lowering their resistance, or fear, of reading; success that may even lead to reading for the sheer pleasure of it. We know that the more they read the better they’ll do in school so this should be a main goal of teachers. What I liked about this article was all the different ways comics were shown to have an impact. Reaching students across the stratification of reading abilities is a powerful support for bringing comics into the classroom. The changing literacy demands on humanity with the internet becoming more widely available and cell phones that have access to the web seemingly ubiquitous, teachers need to use the structures and semiotic representations students interact with on their own each day in order to ensure students having a clear understanding of how the world works and how they interact with it.

Cowan and Albers I think went to far in analyzing a piece of work done by a fifth grade student, Warren, saying it was a study in the use of the student’s use of “irony and ideological beliefs” (Cowan and Albers, 2006). An image of the work is included in the article and while I don’t argue that Warren’s work may indeed contain some irony and certainly is representational of his ideological beliefs but I do not think that they were put there consciously, as the authors imply. I think they maybe a bit overzealous in their demonstration of the product of their research.

Teachers ask students to read difficult texts, understand them, and form an opinion of them. In order for students to be ready for this, they must have a love of reading and the necessary skills needed to tackle difficult texts. A successful teacher is one who: fosters and encourages a love of reading through modeling, reading choice, discussion about required and free choice books, and provides tools, tips, and strategies to approaching challenging texts. All of these things happen within and through a safe, nurturing, and supported classroom environment. To gain the skills to become one of these successful teachers, one must be willing to step back from conventional practices and evaluate what works best for the students you have in your classroom.

I have already begun to think of ways that the use of multi-media literacy can be increased in my classroom. Differentiating is challenging for me, I am constantly asking myself how a lesson might be altered to fit different students. My fall back for differentiation is choice. I ask students to write about the book and use textual evidence but they can write about anything they want within those guidelines (and we brainstorm possible ideas). Or I provide fourteen questions over two chapters, students have to pick five to explore, free choice books are used to respond to writing prompts . . . you get the idea. Using hybrid texts, and creating hybrid texts really appeals to the techno-geek in me. These are the types of texts students see all the time; Facebook is awash with images and text, kids use Tumblr to write words, post pictures, and respond to each other. News sites, magazines, comics, and billboards are combinations of words and images. Students are bombarded by hybrid texts. It only makes sense to bring them into the classroom and discuss the structure, analyze it, use it, and bring the outside world into the school setting. That is really the overarching message in these articles – use the text structures that kids are engaged with outside of class (Facebook, Tumblr, Comics) in the class. Getting them engaged in the lesson is when real learning begins, and hybrid texts are clearly a way to do just that.


Albers, P., & Cowan, K. (2006). Semiotic representations: building complex literacy practices through the arts. The Reading Teacher, 60(2), 124-137.

McVicker, C. (2007). Comic strips as a text structure for learning to read. The Reading Teacher, 60(1), 85-88.

Norton, B. (2003). The motivating power of comic books: Insights from Archie comic readers. Reading Teacher, 57(2), 140-147. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Visual Literacy + Textual Literacy = Students Learning, Enjoying, and Making Meaning in regards to w… ( […]


  2. […] Visual Literacy + Textual Literacy = Students Learning, Enjoying, and Making Meaning in regards to w… ( Filed under Uncategorized ← Rubric for assessing student created learning […]


  3. Posted by Mr. P on May 31, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Special thanks to Tomasen C. for the feedback!


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