Not just a pretty picture part two: testing a visual literacy program for young children

AuthorIrene Lopatovska,Tiffany Carcamo,Nicholas Dease,Elijah Jonas,Simen Kot,Grace Pamperien,Anthony Volpe,Kurt Yalcin
Not just a pretty picture part two:
testing a visual literacy program
for young children
Irene Lopatovska, Tiffany Carcamo, Nicholas Dease, Elijah Jonas,
Simen Kot, Grace Pamperien, Anthony Volpe and Kurt Yalcin
School of Information, Pratt Institute, New York, New York, USA
Purpose In an effort to advance visual literacy (VL) education, the purpose of this paper is to develop and
test a VL instruction program for 2.5-4-year-old children in a public library setting.
Design/methodology/approach The study was designed as a series of VL workshops for young public
library visitors. Each workshop collected information about childrens existing VL knowledge, introduced
them to new visual concepts, and measured their engagement and comprehension of the newly acquired
material. The study data were collected via questionnaires and observations.
Findings Most of the children who participated in the study workshops showed a solid baseline knowledge
of colors, lines, shapes and textures and were actively engaged in instruction. After the instruction, children
generally showed an improved understanding of the newly introduced VL concepts and were able to answer
questions related to the new concepts, recognize them in images, and apply them in art projects.
Research limitations/implications The study relied on a relatively small sample of library visitors inan
affluent neighborhood. The findings are influenced by variations in the topics and delivery methods of
instruction. The study findings might not be generalizable beyond the US context.
Practical implications The study methods and findings would be useful to VL educators who work
with children.
Social implications As information continues to proliferate in non-textual contexts, VL is becoming an
increasingly important educational goal. The study advances a VL agenda and advocates for introducing VL
early in life.
Originality/value The authors are not aware of any other study that tested VL instruction on a group of
very young children in a public library.
Keywords Public Libraries, Education, Literacy, Visual literacy, Visual media, Children (2.5-4 yr old)
Paper type Research paper
Withinthe USA, the concept of visualliteracy (VL) was introduced to educational and scholarly
discoursein the 1960s (Avgerinou andPettersson, 2011)and is generallydefined as an abilityto
interpret and create visual messages (Pettersson, 1993; Avgerinou, 2003; Hattwig et al., 2011;
Lopatovska et al., 2016). Along with textual literacy, VL is often viewed as a component of
general literacy that is essential to individuals critical thinking and intellectual capacity
(Avgerinou and Pettersson, 2011; Kennedy, 2010; Heinich et al., 1982). Similar to textual literacy,
most VL skills do not come naturally and need to be developed (Brumberger, 2011). However,
while textual literacy is considered fundamental to formal education, VL is not generally
recognized as a fundamental educational need and is rarely introduced to children at the same
age as textual literacy (Eckhoff, 2010; Metros, 2008; Williams, 2007).
This paper reports on a study that developed and tested a VL instruction program for 2.5- to
4-year-old children in a public library setting. The reported study was designed as afollow-up to
previous research that confirmed young childrens abilities to comprehend VL instruction, as
well as identified support for VL training from parents and educators (Lopatovska et al., 2016).
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 74 No. 3, 2018
pp. 588-607
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-08-2017-0119
Received 7 August 2017
Revised 1 December 2017
Accepted 2 December 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The authors would like to thank Jodi Shaw and all the staff of the Carroll Gardens Library Branch of
the Brooklyn Public Library for their contributions to this study.
Literature review
The Association of College and Research Libraries defines VL as a set of abilities that
enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and
visual media(Hattwig et al., 2011). Earlier research on VL is traced to John Debes, who, in
1968, defined VL as:
[] a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time
having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is
fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to
discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he
encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to
communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able
to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication (Debes, 1968, p. 27).
VL is becoming an increasingly important educational goal, as information continues to
proliferate in non-textual contexts (Carter, 2015; Cunningham, 2015; Flynt and Brozo, 2010;
Williams, 2007). Students today are expected to create visual representations of ideas and
information, in addition to the traditional skills required to write a textual report.
The American Association of School Librarians has developed standards for the 21st
Century Learnerthat broadly define literacy as the degree to which students can read and
understand text in all formats (e.g. picture, video, print) and all contextsand as a key
indicator of success in school and in life(American Association of School Librarians, 2007,
Reading is a window to the worldpara. 1). The Common Core Standards 1.1.6, 2.1.6, and
4.1.8 are particularly focused on VL and define VL as reading and writing in (or through)
pictures (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2017). For example, kindergarteners
(4- to 6-year-olds) are expected to use drawings to complement writing of opinion pieces and
informative/explanatory texts. Kindergarten to fifth grade students (4- to 11-year-olds)
are expected to create visual displays to complement speaking and listening skills and
identify relationships between illustrations and the story as integration of knowledge and
ideas in reading standards for literature/informational text (Common Core State Standards
Initiative, 2017). However, despite the standards that relate to VL, much more time and
testing is concentrated on developing and evaluating studentsability to communicate
effectively in a purely written form (Silverman and Piedmont, 2016).
Developing and exhibiting VL
The literature describes multiple ways in which children develop and exhibit VL.
Some reports suggest that children start to consume digital visual content at a very early
age (Chassiakos et al., 2016; Rideout et al., 2010). However, there is little evidence that
exposure to digital visual content alone directly translates into childrens abilities to
interpret it (Cook et al., 2015; Metros, 2008). By studying a group of second graders during
story time, Prior et al. (2012) found that children used some visual clues to infer information
about characters, including character actions, facial expressions, body posture, and how the
characters related to each other. The children also referred to line and color but not symbols,
position of characters, focal point, or other elements of VL. A few children discussed size and
breaking the frame, but overall children were not attuned to the elements of VL found in the
illustrated books for their age (Prior et al., 2012). Work by Lopatovska et al. (2016) found that
preschool students ( five-year-olds) were already familiar with the elements of color, shape,
and line, and could recognize most of these elements in a visual artwork. However, children
needed guidance and instruction to understand and recognize the more advanced concepts
of primary and warm/cool colors, perspective and salience, and the use of shapes to
construct objects (Lopatovska et al., 2016). A survey of students enrolled in undergraduate
writing courses at Virginia Tech demonstrated that VL skills do not inherently develop with
Visual literacy
program for
young children

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