Improve Visual Literacy Skills with Picture Books

Visual literacy is the ability to gather meaning from an image. It’s the practice of asking questions about what we see and why it matters. Giving learners opportunities to look closely at images will sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Picture books are the perfect medium for visual literacy exploration. Captivating illustrations on book covers, jackets, and endpapers are all worthy of examination. Readers will contemplate the context and wonder about what they see. Facilitating conversations around the artwork cultivates a deeper understanding for the story.

Take a look at the examples and ideas below to improve visual literacy skills with picture books.

Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry)

When we think of Charlie Chaplin, we imagine a silhouette of a skinny man with a top hat and cane. This mental image might have been the inspiration for Ed Young’s illustrations in Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry). We see outlines of figures, places, and objects throughout this intriguing story. These silhouettes will engage readers to make connections and ask questions.

Visual Literacy Lesson Idea

View the double-page spread from the book Smile by Gary Golio and Ed Young. Ask learners the following questions:

  • What information can you gather about the story by looking at the silhouettes?
  • Why do you think the outline of the boy’s face takes up an entire page?
  • What do you notice about the figure in the bottom-right corner of the page? (Further exploration of the book will reveal that the little guy moves as you flip through the pages.)

Practice visual literacy skills by considering the use of silhouettes to give meaning to a story. t

Visit Library Lessons to read more about this book.

The Breaking News

Author Sarah Lynne Reul tackles a relevant topic in a gentle way in The Breaking News. Young audiences can read this story by narrating what they see in the illustrations. Facial expressions, body language, and color choices give important clues about the story. Readers will appreciate learning how a young girl can help people feel better by doing small acts of kindness.

Visual Literacy Lesson Idea

Explore this double-page spread from The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul. Ask learners the following questions:

  • What is happening on this page? How can you tell? What details in the illustration support your observations?
  • Invite readers to think of a time when they tried to make people feel better. What did they do?

This double-page spread from the book The Breaking News helps learners practice their visual literacy skills.

For more ideas to use with this book, visit the Library Lessons blog.

Every Month Is a New Year: Celebrations around the World

Readers of all ages will want to touch and explore each page of the gorgeous Every Month Is a New Year: Celebrations around the World. The illustrations, done in collage, feel like they can pop right out of the page.

The book opens like a regular calendar. Every month features a new year holiday from a different part of the world. More information about calendars and celebrations are included in the back of the book.

Visual Literacy Lesson Idea

Introduce Every Month is a New Year: Celebrations around the World by Marilyn Singer and Susan L. Roth.

  • Ask learners what they can expect to learn from this book.
  • Open to the first page. Invite learners to notice how you turn the pages of the book. Ask them, “What’s different about reading Every Month Is a New Year? Why do you suppose that is?”
  • Open the book to the month of September. Ask learners what they notice and what they wonder about the illustration before reading the text. Consider why daisies and a grid fill the pages.

Double page spread of Every Month a New Year by Marilyn Singer and Susan L. Roth.

Do you have a book recommendation for a visual literacy lesson? Please share in the comment box below!

For more ideas to strengthen visual literacy skills, read “Encourage Conversation with a Compelling Illustration: A Lesson That Supports the AASL Standards Framework for Learners” from Knowledge Quest.


Author: Maureen Schlosser

Author: Lessons Inspired by Picture Books for Primary Grades and Social and Emotional Learning for Picture Book Readers published by ALA Editions
Skillshare Teacher:

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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4 replies

  1. Great article, Maureen! Thank you for pointing out the importance of visual literacy for students. It’s an easy thing to overlook and assume that kids are getting, but providing clear examples and guiding questions can really help enhance and expand their thinking and abilities.

    We recdntly added Shaun Tan’s excellent book The Arrival to our 8th grade curriculum as a supplemental text. It has no words – the entire story must be inferred from the exquisitely detailed drawings. It’s a wonderful story whose nuances can be explored through careful examination. Without strong visual literacy skills, many readers miss important elements of the story.

  2. Steve,
    Thank you for your insight and book recommendation! I’m looking forward to borrowing it from the library! It looks and sounds like a powerful story.

  3. Maureen – thank you so much for including a spread from THE BREAKING NEWS.
    And Steve – THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan is one of my very favorite books! I wrote a blog post about it several years ago – It is a wonderful book to pore over, for middle school students and grownups like me.

  4. Wow! Thank you for sharing your blog post about The Arrival! It looks like a remarkable book with thought provoking illustrations.

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