Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Graphicacy: 4 Steps To Understanding An Image

It’s easy to recommend that students learn how to decipher an image. It’s harder to explain the specific steps of instruction that can help children comprehend the pictures they encounter.

P.D. Wilmot (1999) cites Dale’s and Seel’s (1994) earlier works in outlining methods of graphic communication. They point toward understanding literal meaning, inferring between the lines, and applying ideas in one’s own voice.

In our classes, we've used similar practices. Our approaches toward elementary and middle school learners have tried to be clear and systematic. Here are two formats that we’ve used successfully for several years in analyzing political cartoons and in questioning media advertisements.


Typically, we move through four steps in guiding students to interpret charts, maps, cartoons, infographics, and logos. These four steps progress from base-level identification toward more analytical and sophisticated skills. The understandings proceed from: 1) Substance, 2) Scaffold, 3) Story, and 4) So What?

By “Substance,” we mean the literal things that appear in an image. Regardless of meaning or significance, what actual items do we see? Is that a bear and a honey pot, a continent and an ocean, or a curved line and an arrow? Are there words or numbers in the picture? By listing all of the details, we can be sure that we’ve noticed all the necessary pieces before beginning to determine what they might mean.

Scaffold” refers to how the image is constructed. What structures define the picture as a graph, or a map, or a painting? What are the relationships between the details? For example, is there a grid, or an x/y axis, or a table of rows and columns? Are there cartoon people of different sizes between a title and a caption? Are there percentages connected by flow-chart arrows? Are there lines of latitude and longitude? Are there keys or legends explaining the color-coding? Are there markings or symbols or abbreviations? By defining the type of image and its construction, we can identify how the details unite to create a meaning.

Story” is the message or the meaning of an image. In other words, what is a picture trying to tell us? What is the opinion of the cartoonist or the narrative of the illustration? What is the take-away from the pie graph or the point of the cause-and-effect comparison? The “story” is the purpose of the military map or the corporate logo. It is the overall meaning of the graphic.

Finally, “So What?” emphasizes an image’s importance. Who cares? Why is the graphic valuable? What deeper significance can we construe? How can we put the image in its proper historical, financial, or media context? How can we glean ideas to apply in our own lives or in other situations? Why would we waste time examining this particular image? What are the larger, interesting conclusions to infer from this unique picture?

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