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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Visual Language - Introduction

Students should explore various forms of verbal and visual communication and analyse the interaction between words and images, thinking critically about the meanings and effects produced.

English in the New Zealand Curriculum, page 39

In the past, education concentrated on reading and writing: until quite recently, even book illustrations were often seen only as embellishments or helpful accompaniments. In English in the New Zealand Curriculum, the study of visual language is included as an integral part of the study of the English language.

Although visual language as a subject for study might seem new, and some terminology used in this strand may be unfamiliar, teachers have long been aware of visual language, even if they did not think of it in those terms. Young children have always read pictures before they could read words and drawn pictures before they could write. We all read visual language, wherever it appears, whether accompanied by written or spoken words or not.

English in the New Zealand Curriculum recognises that the three strands of language - oral, written, and visual - are interrelated and integrated and that all are important in understanding and communicating meaning.

This interrelationship is clearly demonstrated in everyday face-to-face communication, where the spoken language cannot be separated from the visual language of gestures, eye contact, and facial expression. In the case of drama, the visual and the oral are combined for an audience. In a cartoon or comic strip, the visuals convey meanings that are not necessarily in the written text itself. In picture books, both with and without words, the visual images can reinforce or augment the narrative, provide a commentary or subtext, help create humour or irony, hold the story together, or deliver a message.

Drama, film, television, print advertising, and computer games are all strongly visual, and new technology has brought these more and more into the daily lives of students. Therefore, just as they are helped to explore and think critically about written language, students should also learn to explore and think critically about the visual language that surrounds them.

Some teachers may feel more knowledgeable about some areas of visual language than others. The Exploring Language strand of the English curriculum obliges teachers to teach about visual language in a broader sense than previously, and as with oral and written language, it is important for teachers to be well informed and confident so that they teach effectively and enjoy exploring visual language.

Why Explore Visual Language?

Children learn to use spoken and written language without learning about the structure of language and without knowing the terminology to describe it. They know what a cat is without knowing that the word "cat" is a noun. Likewise, they are able to understand visual language without being able to analyse or name the particular elements that enable it to communicate meaning.

However, by learning how visual language works, by making our implicit knowledge explicit, and by acquiring terminology, we gain the means of identifying, describing, discussing, analysing, and evaluating visual language, and we thereby gain a better understanding of visual language texts. Just as close reading of written texts promotes understanding in depth, so close study of visual texts provides important insights.

An understanding of visual language features can also assist students who are using visual language themselves to create and convey particular effects and meanings. Creating visual effects is a useful way of learning about visual language. Also, for many students, learning through visual language is an effective method or style; many people can acquire knowledge and understanding more readily from information and ideas presented visually.

Acquiring the terminology of visual language should not be an end in itself but occur as the need for it arises. As with the terms in The Grammar Toolbox, some of the appropriate terminology can be used without detailed explanation to young students, who will learn the meanings of the terms by hearing them used in context. With this knowledge and understanding, students will be able to notice features of visual language that they might not have noticed and have the terminology to usefully discuss these features and to identify the specific ways in which visual language communicates meaning.

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