Visual Literacy – No Longer a Luxury

We are fast approaching that time of year when we gather together to celebrate the birth of the moving image. More television – and especially films on television – will be watched in the next three weeks than at any other time of the year. Living, as we do, in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, one would think it almost perverse for schools to ignore the extent to which these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still often find it difficult to justify using film as a medium in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising ‘traditional’ literacy standards, and this despite the fact that various studies have recognised that working with moving image texts can improve those very skills. Digital Beginnings, an extensive study carried out by Jackie Marsh and colleagues at Sheffield University in 2005 concluded that in England “the introduction of popular culture, media and/or new technologies into the communications, language and literacy curriculum has a positive effect on the motivation and engagement of children in learning”, that “practitioners report that it has a positive impact on children’s progress in speaking and listening….”, that “parents feel that media education should be included in the school curriculum” and  that “this should be so from when children are very young.” In 2006, an independent evaluation of Scottish Screen‘s MIE (Moving Image Education) project in Brechin, conducted by the University of Glasgow, reported that ‘all teachers were aware of a significant impact of MIE on pupils’ listening and talking skills….by the second round of interviews, teachers reported significant developments in writing skills.’

Cartoon by deleuran at www.toonpool.com

Cartoon by deleuran at http://www.toonpool.com

Most young people have watched countless hours of film and television before they enter pre-school education, and already they have set about building, in their heads, a rich audio-visual library. Unfortunately, it is most often a library – to extend the metaphor –  in which the texts are simply piled up in a disorderly heap in the middle of the floor. Rarely do they have any understanding that what they are watching and listening to is a sophisticated text which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, and not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life and real-time events.

In order to illustrate this point, in the course of preparing this post I contacted the Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok De Wit, creator of the hauntingly beautiful animation Father and Daughter, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 2000, and asked him how long it took to make (the film itself is eight and a half minutes long and not a single frame is wasted.) This was his response:-

“It’s exactly as you say, animated films like these belie their complexity. It was a challenge to make the final result look simple and whole, but this challenge was enjoyable and very motivating. I worked on the film about four years on and off; I interrupted the production to teach and to do some commercial work. Altogether it took me about two years to make the film (writing, direction, most of the animation and all the backgrounds). I had one animator helping me for roughly four months and one assistant animator for two-three months. Two technical experts did the scanning, colouring, camera movements and compositing (combining all the different layers) for about three-four months altogether. The music composer and sound person each worked for about week, and finally, the film had two producers (for international funding reasons) who altogether devoted several weeks of their time each. One could say that if one person would have done everything alone, the film would have taken three years to make.”

With best wishes,

Michael

Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems to me that teachers responsible for the development of literacy therefore have a responsibility, not only to use moving image texts in their classrooms, but to teach film literacy as part of the mainstream curriculum. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be familiar with some basic concepts relating to films and filmmaking, including a vocabulary which allows them to discuss – and possibly create – moving image texts with their students.

If you are thinking of introducing moving image texts into the classroom the key to success, as with printed texts, is to begin with short films. A full-length feature film is a hugely complex piece of work and can be quite daunting to a teacher and students hoping to engage in critical analysis, while at the same time there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom. Shorts can be played in their entirety within one lesson while longer films lose their impact by being viewed over a number of lessons or by being screened only in extract form; the short running time of the films makes it possible for repeated viewings, allowing teachers and pupils to become quickly familiar with the texts and to explore them in more detail. Short films, like short stories, are not governed by the same conventions as longer films, and often provoke stronger responses from their audience. Finally, film and print, while different in many ways, are also very closely allied, so that the study of film can be used as a vehicle to improve the traditional literacies of reading, writing, talking and listening, and, importantly, film is an inclusive medium, often accessible to pupils who are more visual learners and who otherwise may feel that they have little to contribute. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is the celebrated film director Martin Scorsese talking about the importance of visual literacy.

See also my Ten Tools for Reading Film

See previous post for the best sites to find short films for free

Find some amazing resources at The Literacy Shed

Further Reading: Download a copy of Moving Image Education in Scotland here.

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4 thoughts on “Visual Literacy – No Longer a Luxury

  1. Good to know that this is in line with what I have just been writing in my 4th year education essay. I found this is true for a class I’ve just been teaching whilst on placement. They have additional support needs, mostly dislexia, and required scribes to write. Working with media allowed them to access higher order thinking and activated a rich discussion whereas working with a short story seemed much more prohibitive.

    • Thanks for that Fiona. The good thing is that technology also allows us to capture spoken responses to texts as well, so that a written response is not the only option. At the same time, writing can be improved when it is required in preparation for the spoken response and has a very real purpose.

      • Yes and it is so good that the Curriculum For Excellence gives us more freedom to use different methods of assessment.
        Very embarrassed that I spelt dsylexia wrong!

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