Visual literacy

Visual literacy concerns how meaning is made in still and moving image texts. It is addressed in the Victorian Curriculum: English through the mode of ‘viewing’.

Visual literacy involves closely examining diverse visual texts across a range of text types. Text types include non-fiction, textbooks, picture books, art, advertisements, posters, graphic novels, comic strips, animations, film clips, web pages, and more.

The need for a visual metalanguage

Teaching visual literacy requires students and teachers to have a shared visual metalanguage (a shared, specialised terminology) that describes meaning. Access to a visual metalanguage will enable students and teachers to accurately and consistently talk about how meaning is made in visual texts, in the same way that we use a commonly understood grammar of language to talk about meaning making in written and spoken texts.

A metalanguage enables a comparison of texts. It enables discussion and identification of visual semiotic choices made by the author to construct particular meanings, the effects of particular choices on the audience, what alternatives might have been chosen, and how this would change meaning (Unsworth, 2007, p. 380).

The visual metalanguage already in the Victorian Curriculum: English, and further expanded in this resource, is primarily informed by the work of Kress and van Leeuwen (2006). This visual metalanguage identifies and names various key components of visual meaning, and the relationships of these components with each other, using recognised visual literacy conventions, based on shared cultural and social knowledge of visual meaning, and patterns and purposes of visual design which have developed over time (Callow, 2013, Kress, 2010).

Resources for teaching visual literacy

This resource provides further support for teaching visual literacy through an expanded visual metalanguage with visual examples, discussion questions and guides.

General strategies for examining visual texts

Examination of image in context

The context, or environment in which a text is responded to, or created, is an important consideration in the first stages of examining an image or visual text. It is important to begin by examining the image as a whole.

The following sequence of questions provides a way to begin this discussion. For each question, ask students to expand on their responses by explaining reasons why, and encourage them to use evidence from the image to justify their responses, using visual design metalanguage. Through these discussions, different interpretations of the image may emerge which forms the basis for further discussion and exploration.

  1. Where does this image come from? Is it part of a sequence (page from a book or website; clip from a film) or does it stand alone (art work, poster, advertisement)?
  2. What is its purpose?
  3. Who is it for?
  4. What is it about?
  5. What do you think about it? Why?
  6. How does it make you feel? Why?
  7. What puzzles you?
  8. What does it remind you of?
  9. What connections can you make to other texts and experiences?
  10. How do you think this text positioning the viewer/reader?
  11. What might be missing from this image?
  12. Why has the image-maker chosen to show this image this way? How else might this be shown? What difference might this make?

LIE: close reading of an image using three levels of comprehension

Visual comprehension requires a focused, carefully sequenced approach to develop analytical thinking and semiotically informed observational skills. A close analysis of how visual texts make meaning can be framed around three graduated levels. This is approached as LIE: Literal, Inferential, and Evaluative comprehension.

Level 1: Literal: Locate, Recall, Connect. What do you see? The answer is in the image. Justify answers with evidence from the text. (Students search for the information within the text.)

Level 2: Inferential: Infer and Interpret. What do you think this means? Why? What evidence in the text supports your answer? (Students use the literal information and combine it with other information from the image or context, and prior knowledge to make inferences based on this information. This requires close analysis of the text and deeper thinking about this.)

Level 3: Evaluative/Applied: Evaluate, Generalise, Hypothesise, Synthesise, Think critically, Think creatively, and Apply to other contexts. What do you think about this? (Students combine the literal and inferential information from the text with other ideas and knowledge to extend thinking beyond the text.)

Visual metalanguage

This section presents a framework for identifying and organising a visual metalanguage for understanding and talking about how visual meaning is conveyed in visual texts. This framework is organised according to function, or how visual design choices are made to most effectively convey the meaning the author wishes to make. Three, simultaneously occurring, meaning functions have been identified which occur in every text (Halliday, 1975, Unsworth, 2007). This functional framework also informs the way the Victorian Curriculum: English organises teaching about language.

For this context working with images and the visual semiotic mode, these three meaning functions are described as:

A guide for examining the available meaning making resources for each function used by the image author to visually design meaning in the text, and an associated visual metalanguage to talk about this, is provided in the following sections. The brief definition of each function, in terms of designing meaning in visual texts, is based on the descriptions for the language strand (written and spoken language) in the Victorian Curriculum, with elaborations for working with the visual mode informed by Kress and van Leeuwen (2006), Callow (2013), and Painter, Martin and Unsworth (2013).

In-practice examples


Anstey, M., & Bull, G. (2009). Using multimodal texts and digital resources in a multiliterate classroom. e:lit, e:update 004. Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association.

Callow, J. (2013). The Shape of Text to Come: How Image and Text Work. Primary English Teaching Association (Australia) (PETAA).

Cloonan, A. (2011). Creating multimodal metalanguage with teachers. English Teaching, 10(4), 23.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1975. Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Jewitt, C. (2008 ). Multimodality and Literacy. School Classrooms. Review of Research in Education, Vol. 32, pp. 241–267.

Kalantzis, M., Cope, B., Chan, E., & Dalley-Trim, L. (2016). Literacies. Port Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Cambridge University Press.

Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: a social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London ; New York: Routledge. Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: the grammar of visual design (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Macken-Horarik, M. (2009). Navigational metalanguages for new territory in English: The potential of grammatics. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 8(3), 55-69.

Macken-Horarik, M. (2016). Building a metalanguage for interpreting multimodal literature: Insights from systemic functional semiotics in two case study classrooms. English in Australia, 51(2), 85-99.

O'Brien, A. (2014). Using focalisation choices to manipulate audience viewpoint in 3-D animation narratives: what do student authors need to know? In L. Unsworth & A. Thomas (Eds.), English Teaching and New Literacies Pedagogy: Interpreting and authoring digital multimedia in the classroom: Peter Lang.

O'Brien, A. (2017). Creating Multimodal Texts. Resources for literacy teachers. Retrieved from

New London Group. (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures. In B. Cope, & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan.

Painter, C., Martin, J. R., & Unsworth, L. (2013). Reading Visual Narratives: image analysis of children's picture books: Equinox Publishing Limited.

Unsworth, L. (2007). Explicating inter-modal meaning-making in media and literary texts: Towards a metalanguage of image/language relations In A. Burn & C. Durrant (Eds.), Media teaching: Language, Audience, Production. London: AATE-NATE and Wakefield Press. Unsworth, L. (2014). Multimodal reading comprehension: curriculum expectations and large-scale literacy testing practices. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 9(1), 26–44.