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Ministry of Education.

Exploring Visual Language: a Framework

Young children starting school have been brought up in an environment where visual language plays an important part in their lives. Parents know very well that children of four years old, and younger, can read the McDonalds big "M" logo and can interpret what the sweet displays at supermarket checkouts are advertising.

It is the visual impact of what children first read and write that is important to them rather than any specific meaning or message. Young students' skills at interpreting visual language play an important part in their learning about their world in general. English and language programmes in school need to build on their prior experiences and learning in order to develop their visual language skills.

Visual language plays an important part in our youngest students' entry into the world of print. In junior classrooms, especially, a visually stimulating environment is important in encouraging children to explore and understand language. Junior classrooms are exciting places, even for adults, with colourful displays of shared language work, picture books, poetry charts, students' work, alphabet charts, and bilingual signs.

Many media and techniques are used to communicate ideas visually:

  • collages, in which diverse materials are assembled to give depth and texture to a picture
  • models, which are made from materials like clay to give a three-dimensional effect, adding the visual aspects of light and shade
  • mobiles, which are suspended from the ceiling and move with the slightest air motion, creating further visual impact.

Older students' classrooms can be arranged to emulate this stimulating visual environment and reflect the importance of integrating the three strands of language in everyday school experience. Students often feel more comfortable, confident, and competent than their teachers with visual language. Such technologies as television, video, advertising, interactive computer games, CD-ROMS, and the Internet are often commonplace and very important in their lives outside the classroom. This out-of-school experience is a valuable resource for the school classroom visual language programme.

How Do We Communicate by Using Visual Language?

Whether we listen and speak, read and write, or view and present, we participate in a very similar communication process.

When we receive communication, we (the audience) receive (medium) something (meaning or message) for reasons (purpose) by some means (mode of transmission, or form).

When we communicate, we (the originator) convey (medium) something (meaning or message) for someone (audience) for our reasons (purpose) by some means (mode of transmission, or form).

A Framework

When we "close read" or view any visual language text, we consider the purpose, the audience, and the topic similarly to the way we do this when we read written text or listen to oral text. During guided, shared, and independent reading of visual language, it is useful to ask the following questions:

What is the visual text about?

  • What sort of visual language is it? This question clarifies genres and forms and the "rules" that govern them.
  • How do we know what this visual language means? This question investigates the codes and conventions that are constantly developing and that help make meaning.
  • What visual language features are used?
  • What effects do these features have on the reader?
  • How are these features produced? This question refers to technology and the techniques and technologies that determine what can and cannot be shown.
  • What clues do the visual language features give the reader?
  • How can we tell who made this visual language? This question investigates who produced the text and why and the choice and evolution of production practices.
  • How do the visual, written, and oral texts interrelate and support each other?

Is this visual language meant to represent reality? This question refers to how "true" a text is and how we know. We sometimes refer to this aspect as representation.

Who is the visual language for? This question refers to who receives the text (the audience), how it is transmitted to them, and what they may make of it.

It is also helpful to ask: how might the knowledge and understanding reflected in the answers to these questions be useful when I present my own visual text?

Some of these questions derive from a framework developed by the British Film Institute and adopted and adapted in several countries around the world. Their questions are blended here with questions similar to those that students and teachers might ask of any writing, including students' writing, and to those that listeners can usefully ask about any oral text.

Students can use such a framework from early years of school and readily answer many of the questions when viewing or close reading visual language. The question framework also reflects the choices and decisions that any originators of visual language, including students, make when they present visual texts. Purpose, intended audience, and topic influence the choice of genre: visual language, like written and oral language, has its own genres, distinctive features, codes, and conventions. These, in turn, contribute to the effects and meaning communicated to viewers.

These questions can be tested by applying them to two contrasting illustrations from Going to the Beach by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Dick Frizzell.

Most of the questions from the suggested framework can be asked and answered for these two contrasting illustrations. However, answering those questions also involves asking and answering questions specific to the two illustrations, such as:

 What is the main focus of attention of each illustration? How do we know?

 In the first picture, how well and how fast is the car travelling? How do we know? What visual and verbal features give us clues?

 In the second picture, how well and how fast is the car travelling? How do we know? What visual and verbal features give us clues? In what ways is this picture different from the first one?

Summary of Terms

collages purposes audience technology message
mobiles originator meaning models mode of transmission
medium representation    

Exploring Visual Language in Developing Technologies

Written language was the only strand of language able to be recorded, read and reread, stored, and studied, through printed text and pictures, until the relatively recent development of the still camera, movie camera, tape recorder, video recorder, and computer. These technologies enable us to record, store, revisit, and study both visual and oral language.

A video recorder and a television set, a video camera, and a computer are very useful for the teaching and learning of visual language.

Technology now enables us to record and play back at varying speeds and to freeze visual language so that students can identify, describe, discuss, analyse, and evaluate the language features used in a very short section of what they view. Thus they gain experience in interpreting visual language through close reading.

Computers and applications software programmes enable users to carry out different communication tasks that require, for example, a database, a spreadsheet, a wordprocessor, a simulation, or a drawing and to explore many of the conventions of print described in this book.

Computer programmes provide a range of graphics, including line graphics, animated graphics, and 3D graphics, as well as the variety of interactive computer and video games that many students know. Games can assist students to explore visual language by using such technologies to view, interact with, and present ideas. Students can describe the games' narratives, including their own interactions, change their narratives, describe their visual features, and create their own games.

Experiences in exploring visual language can contribute to meeting objectives at several levels in Technology in the New Zealand Curriculum.

Computers also provide access to e-mail: local, regional, national, and international communication via the Internet and the World Wide Web. These are valuable resources for exploring oral, written, and visual language.

Exploring the language of the Internet reveals that Internet users in conversation with each other have developed their own conventions. They refer to "speaking" on the Internet rather than "writing". The conventions of grammar, punctuation, and spelling applied to other forms of written language are usually not observed because of the speed and immediately interactive nature of what some have called "e-discourse". This tendency not to extend the usual courtesies of written conventions to the Internet conversationalist has created difficulties for some users. They may need to be reminded of the importance of appropriateness to the purpose and audience, in, for instance, Internet conversations between a student and tutor, where the written conventions are likely to be used.

Internet users have developed another dimension of oral language to make up for the lack of visual contact when "speaking" to each other. They use text as visual language. A joke might be followed by Chuckle Chuckle! They use the upper case when SHOUTING. They use about 50-60 symbols that need to be read sideways and communicate all sorts of facial expressions and gestures, for example, :) or :( .

CD-ROM not only provides interactive opportunities for computer users but also extends to multimedia viewing, presenting, and interaction through its ability to integrate moving images with sound and with computer text and graphics.

Developments in audiographics and multimedia digital technologies are rapid and continuing. Knowledge, understanding, and use of the terminology accompanying such developments are essential to help students explore all aspects of language. Technological language is in itself a fascinating topic suitable for a special language study, and surfing the information super-highway and entering cyberspace can be a good means of exploring language.

However, there are many ways in which technology can be used to explore not only visual but also oral and written language without expensive high-tech equipment. The office fax machine, for example, can provide excellent opportunities for young students to explore and learn about the conventions of different written genres quickly and interactively.

"English and Technology" (number five in the 1995 eTV series Getting the Message) shows teachers and students using technology in the English programme, including exploring language.

Exploring Language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009