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Art to Heart

Visual Literacy

Art teacher Won Jung Choi teaches young students at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia to draw by teaching them to see the world in terms of a visual alphabet. In the activity featured in Art to Heart, she focuses on five basic elements of shape:

  • dot
  • circle
  • straight line
  • curved line
  • angled line

The chart she shows of these basic elements comes from the book Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes, whose “Monart” method of teaching drawing has drawn national acclaim. It begins with the observation that since the contour edges of objects are made up of patterns of these five elements, being able to isolate and observe these elements provides the information needed to re-create any shape in a drawing. Students then move on to filling in the contour drawing with volume and shading.

Brookes recommends beginning by looking for these elements in your environment. In working with young children, her book recommends handling objects that you discuss. For example, after discussing and looking at dots on the chart, “You might go to a doorknob and feel it in the palm of your hand, pluck a grape from a bowl of fruit and feel it in your mouth, or throw a ball back and forth.” She also recommends making a game of moving through space in patterns that replicate the elements. Have children pretend they are straight lines as they walk, make angles of their arms and legs, or hop in dot patterns around the room.

Why Is It Important?

Teaching her students to “see,” Won says, is an important skill beyond the arts classroom. She is helping her young students become visually literate.

“Literacy” usually refers to the ability to read and write, but it can also refer to the ability to “read” communication other than words—like images or gestures. Visual literacy is the ability to “read” images and to create images that communicate. It is a life skill that is needed every day.

Think of all the images you encounter in the course of a day—from street signs to television. Images surround us in newspapers and magazines, in advertising, on television, and on the Internet. When we read street signs or a map to find our way, follow instructions and fill out forms or applications, read the labels on grocery products, or evaluate advertisements, we use visual literacy. All of these tasks combine written and visual information to make meaning, and all are organized along elements and principles of art that can be taught explicitly.

In every classroom, there are students who might be described as “visual learners.” For them, visual communication is key to learning in any subject area. But most teachers agree that at times all students are visual learners and that learning to communicate visually is a basic and vital skill.

Find Out More

For more information about the Monart Method and the book Drawing with Children, visit Mona Brookes’ Monart web site. It includes a color version of the elements of shape chart.

Reading Images: An Introduction to Visual Literacy, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, includes an overview and links to more articles.

The Visual Literacy K-8 site has information and resources for teachers.

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