Our world is overwhelmingly visual in nature and information is exchanged in many forms.

Communication has shifted from reading words on a page to navigating a wide range of text sources. Messages are incomplete without visuals and therefore we must expand our definitions of literacy and what it means to be literate. It takes more than the abilities to read and write to be a literate person navigating the places in which we live and learn. Being literate must include the ability to analyze and represent ideas through visual communication. Literacy learning is not limited to reading, writing, listening, and speaking; we must include visual communication in our instruction.

However, a universal definition for visual literacy has not yet been established. Diverse disciplines including art, education, linguistics, media, philosophy, semiotics, and technology contribute to an ever-evolving definition of visual literacy. Indeed, the term visual literacies has been used to represent the multiplicity of perspectives and applications appropriate for the field. Regardless of discipline, most trace their working definition of visual literacy to John Debes’ seminal keynote at the inaugural convening of the International Visual Literacy Association in 1969: “Visual literacy refers to 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 an enjoy the masterworks of visual communication” (Debes, 1969, p. 27).

Although Debes delineates competencies for both viewing and constructing visuals, a definition of visual literacy for education must move beyond “creative uses” and the ability to “enjoy the masterworks.” A useful definition for education capitalizes on the thousands of images we traverse every day in our in-school and out-of-school lives and should not be constrained by language of any one discipline (e.g., art, technology, media).

Visual literacy is defined as the abilities to critically analyze and communicate through visual texts. This broad definition accommodates the many visual mediums used to convey information within the various disciplines relevant to education. The term visual text is used intentionally to be inclusive of the kinds of representations that may appear within disciplines such as drawings, photographs, illustrations, icons, graphic organizers, paintings, infographics, maps, charts, and memes to name a few. Visual texts are expressions of thinking that use pictorial features to communicate meaning and facilitate understanding. Visuals are a language with their own semantic and syntactic intentions, often specific to their disciplines.

The field of visual literacy not only focuses on the many ways we read and interpret images, but also the many ways we use visuals to convey meaning. Being visually literate include the abilities to analyze and construct visual texts. However, being literate is more than a set of competencies; it is an identity and “the visual images encountered every day play an important role in how we make sense of the world and how we see ourselves” (Serafini, 2014). This is exemplified in the way visual registers change in social context as seen in the range of images viewed while riding a bus or illustrating a complex concept.

Although demonstrations of literate behaviors are still dominated by linguistic definitions of literacy, calls for an expanded literacy curricula across varied disciplines and educational contexts are ever increasing (Callow, 2005; Kedra, 2018; Serafini, 2011). Two important principles must be considered as we move conversations about visual literacy curricula forward: visual texts deserve equal status to written texts in educational contexts, and visual literacy competencies and abilities must be taught intentionally.

It is essential to recognize the important roles images play in a world inundated with visual texts communicating a vast array of ideas. Images are no longer relegated to a complementary role where they elaborate or emphasize written text. Nor are they merely supplemental enhancing words on a page. Visual texts carry essential information for understanding and communicating meaning. Further, learners must be prepared to work in a world that is increasingly visual; one that could not be adequately described with words alone. As such, visual texts deserve a “privileged status, especially in relation to conventional text-based literacy” (Kedra, 2018, p. 69). To be clear, recognizing the critical roles visual texts play in communicating ideas does not in any way lessen the significance of the traditional linguistic literacies. Visual texts provide another option for demonstrating knowledge. In some cases, visual texts are the most effective communication tool to capture certain kinds of information.

Many of us can navigate a map, follow steps in a diagram, and comprehend basic information in a textbook illustration. However, most of us interact passively with these powerful visual messages without focused attention. A definition of visual literacy must include intention, when viewers and visualizers make thoughtful choices and decisions about the ways they communicate ideas. Visual literacy skills are too often an afterthought or taken for granted because it is assumed learners are naturally effective consumers of visual information. However, visual literacy competencies must be taught in multi-disciplinary contexts.

The expectation to include more visuals in instruction has implications for instruction. It should shift the way we think about literacy and the language arts, just as text has shifted from words on a flat surface to multidimensional and multimodal messages. Literacy researchers have long acknowledged the role of visuals in the language arts. The Standards for the Language Arts, jointly published by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English in 1996 refer to the language arts as reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and visually representing (italics added). However, little attention has been paid to the roles of viewing and visually representing ideas as literacy. More recently, the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCR) added support for enlarging our definitions of literacy to include visual texts. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects requires students to create and analyze an “extensive range of print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new” (NGACBP & CCSSO, 2010, p. 4). These standards may guide efforts to support students as they develop the abilities they need to interpret and communicate complex understandings visually.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Visual Literacy (CERF_VL) also calls for visual literacy instruction. Published in 2016, this edited volume highlights the relationship between visual literacy and twenty-first-century skills and provides curricula guidelines focused on metacognition and reflection. A framework was chosen over standards to provide advice and guidance to both art and general education teachers as they plan curricula. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) provides more specific leveled expectations of visual knowledge focussing on “students understanding how visual information contributes to the meanings created in learning area contexts” (2016, n.p.)