Close Reading + Visual Literacy=Pathways for Understanding

Katie Cunninghamguest bloggerGuest blogger Katie Cunningham is an Assistant Professor at Manhattanville College. Her teaching and scholarship centers around children’s literature, critical literacy, and supporting teachers to make their classrooms joyful and purposeful. Katie has presented at numerous national conferences and is the editor of The Language and Literacy Spectrum, New York Reading Association’s literacy journal.

John Berger, in his famous documentary and book Ways of Seeing, explained that “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” Visual literacies are, perhaps, the primary and first ways young children understand the world. Young children are not only visual readers of the world they are naturally close readers as well. They closely read people’s facial expressions. They read signs to orient themselves. They read new blades of grass, flakes of snow, and changes in leaves as signs of seasonal change. For young children, close reading and visual literacies are their pathways for understanding. Yet our capacities to closely read what we see should be valued and strengthened beyond early childhood.

Society certainly thinks so. Instagram now has more than 100 million active users per month and is increasingly being taken up by teens and tweens as their site of choice over Facebook. Pinterest has more than 48.7 million users. Staggeringly, more than one billion unique users visit You Tube each month. Businesses today certainly recognize the power of visually-driven social media outlets as the primary way to reach potential clients. Yet too often the skill of closely reading what we experience visually is devalued in school over traditional print-based text. Are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) repositioning the power of the visual as part of the definition of what it means to be an attentive reader today? One hopes so.Too often the skill of closely reading what we experience visually is devalued in school over traditional print-based text.

The CCSS highlight close reading, in Reading Anchor Standard 1: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text,” but they also set forth expectations for visual literacy through Reading Anchor Standard 7: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.” Specifically, this strand begins in Kindergarten: “With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear,” while fifth graders should be able to “analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text.” Schools have an opportunity through the standards to support students to integrate, evaluate, and analyze visual texts to understand complex texts and ultimately to be producers, not just consumers, of visual and multimedia texts.

So how do we support students to attend to the visual more closely? The Writing Center at Harvard University has its ideas about How to Do a Close Reading worthy of note for teachers of students at any age. The steps cited can be applied to the close reading of written texts but are particularly helpful for the close reading of visual texts.

Step One Annotate the text: while our youngest learners are not annotating with pencil in hand, they are annotating out loud, sharing what strikes them as significant or surprising in both the written and visual components of text

Step Two Look for patterns: repetitions, contradictions, and similarities.

Step Three Ask questions: about the patterns you’ve noticed, especially how and why.

I’ve added a fourth step.

Step Four Put it all together: what do your observations and questions lead you to conclude?

To illustrate the power of close reading of visual texts, I used the above guidelines with three diverse, visually striking Lee & Low books: In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, a collection of poetry with collage artwork; Surfer of the Century, an illustrated biography; and Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a graphic novel.

Pages 1 and 2 of In Daddy’s Arms, I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, illustrated by Javaka SteptoeClose Reading and Visual Literacy

  • Annotate: What strikes me is the size of the father’s feet, how they are lightly shaded white making them seem like traces left in the dust, and how the boy’s arms are spread out wide trying to follow in his father’s footsteps.
  • Notice Patterns: The footprints zigzag, forming a repetitive pattern for the boy to follow.
  • Ask Questions: I wonder why the boy’s eyes are closed? What is he thinking? I’m wondering where the father’s steps will lead.
  • Meaning: Following in your father’s footsteps can feel like the natural path you’re supposed to take but it’s not always easy. The footsteps are sometimes too big to fill. Find ways to steady yourself.

Page 14 of Surfer of the Century by Ellie Crow, illustrated by Richard WaldrepClose Reading + Visual Literacy  = Pathways to Understanding

  • Annotate: What strikes me is how small Duke seems compared to the open water against the backdrop of the Honolulu wharf and how his swimming looks effortless.
  • Notice Patterns: The artist chose shades of blue and white to define the path of Duke’s wake in contrast to the glass-like surface of the water.
  • Ask Questions: I wonder what Duke thought as he reached the finish line and whether he knew he had won. I wonder why the spectators came out that day and what they thought of Duke’s record-breaking swim.
  • Meaning: Duke’s victory was a sight to behold because of the beauty of the place, the seemingly effortless beauty of his strokes, and the significance of his unexpected record-breaking time.

Page 7 of Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurkeClose Reading + Visual Literacy  = Pathways to Understanding

  • Notice Patterns: The choice to illustrate the story in black and white leads to visual patterns across the page. The sequences of zooming in and pulling back help the reader follow Yummy’s story across the page but also allows us to tap into the complex ways he interacted with the neighborhood.
  • Ask Questions: I wonder what caused Yummy to follow in the gang members footsteps and how he felt when he projected hardened power. Did he wish he could simply be a young boy? What did he want?
  • Meaning: Yummy’s life was complex and wrapped up in the ways masculinity was defined for him. He liked normal things young boys do, such as candy, but he was positioned to follow models of what it meant to be a man in his neighborhood. The models he had equated power with projected toughness and violence.

Of course, there are other ways of seeing, but this framework provides a roadmap for supporting students in an ongoing way to attend more closely to the visual. And remember to listen to what your students are saying and consider adding steps based on the ways they see. After all, they are the experts.

Further reading:

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