Literacy in Visual Arts


“In order to talk about art, the art teacher encourages the student to  become verbally literate in the language of art discourse”  (Emery, L. & Flood, A. (1998) in Joan Livermore, 2003)

The study of school literacy is important for teachers because “literacy is the arch skill that begets other skills” (Freebody, 2011).  Without adequate literary skills, students will not be able to competently complete many of the tasks and responsibilities required to function in and contribute to in society. School literacy is also important for teachers because the Australian Curriculum states “all teachers are responsible for teaching the subject-specific literacy of their learning area (ACARA, 2016). Some of the literacy skills teachers need to know include pedagogical, curriculum, problem solving, assessment and creating language relevant texts (Derewianka and Jones, 2012). Finally, an undeniable truth about school literacy is its “significant change in demands over time – textual, cognitive and social demands.” (Freebody, 2011) . 

In every subject at school, students will need to acquire “curriculum-specific literacy capabilities” (Freebody, 2011). In Visual Arts (one of the learning areas under “The Creative Arts), literacy is used by students to “develop, apply and communicate their knowledge and skills as artists and as audience” (ACRA, 2016). The students will also create, compose and design artworks, as well as need to express themselves by discussing, analysing, interpreting and analysing their art they make, their peers, and the art around them. (ACRA, 2016). This involves constant social engagement and a theoretical perspective to reflect this.

The NSW Department of Education and Training acknowledges this social nature and variety of literacies and defines this social view of language as a theoretical perspective where “the effectiveness of a text is judged according to how well it fulfils its social, personal or academic purpose” (Dept. Ed & T, 1998). 

In schools, learning language is different from social language. it involves a variety of uses, and contexts. Visual Art has its own distinct language usage and requirements. This is not language easily acquired from social interactions, but needs to be taught in a teaching and learning environment (Derewianka and Jones, 2012). Visual Arts teachers teachers need a solid understanding of the demands of Visual Arts literacy so their students can use its terminology capably in school, and in society. From this understanding they can embed the appropriate literacy into their classes, assignments and teaching strategies (ACRA, 2016). 

The Oxford Online Dictionary defines literacy as the “ability to read and write” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016). This traditional view of literacy is now evolving to reflect the number of different types, textural forms, and modes of information delivery available (Burnett, 2002).

Literacy now “involves students listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.” (ACARA, 2013) It also involves “increasingly complex, abstract and detailed understandings of concepts” (Derewianka and Jones, 2012). This understanding of concepts is essential for students for their interactions with peers, teachers and society, because their views will be challenged, developed and clarified (Derewianka and Jones, 2012).

The social view of language also implies language varies according to context and situation it’s used in (ACRA, 2013). Essays, creative writing, making wikis, and giving presentations all require a different language and mode of communication new technologies are creating for communication. Thirty years ago, students only had books and notepads to read, write and engage with. Now with digital technology, almost every student has access to diverse information technology platforms (Facebook, twitter, SMS messaging). These platforms involve new and evolving writing conventions that include acronyms (lol, brb, gg) spelling (cul8r), emoticons, emoji, and writing restrictions (Twitter). Powerpoint presentations need precise, note form language, emails are informal. Web pages now all readers to change the appearance of the text they read. There is collaboration in chat rooms, and shared documents over networks. These are all legitimate forms of literacy in Visual Arts (Dept. Ed & T, 1998)

Literacy in Visual Arts is defined as “the ability to read and use written information and to write appropriately, in a range of contexts” (Dept. Ed & T, 1998). The main context areas include talking, listening, reading and writing (Dept. Ed & T, 1998). Six pages of literacy skills needed for the Visual Arts students are also highlighted by the Department of Education (1998). In summary, some of the key skills needed for different purposes include:

  • Talking: Discussing an art work and point of view presentations with reasoned arguments.
  • Listening: To gather information by taking notes from a speech, documentary or explanation.
  • Reading: To discover relevant information by skimming and scanning appropriate texts.
  • Writing: To write about artists, respond to an artwork and record experiences in their visual diaries. (Dept. Ed & T, 1998)

Another, but key literacy skill needed by Visual Arts students, is visual literacy. This literacy is the “ability to construct meaning from images” (Kennedy, 2010). A popular project for actualising this is the Visual Diary. This is a collection of musings, inspirations and memorabilia. It can include sketches, paintings, photographs, advertisements and any other visual material the student finds personal meaning from. It may also document conceptualisation, key points noted during the art making process, speculations and opinions as well as the exchange of ideas between students, peers and teachers. (UNE, 2014)

Visual Arts literacy is essential to complete one of the key objectives in the NSW syllabus, which is to “critically and historically interpret art”(UNE, 2014). Literacy here can be emphasised by “written and oral accounts of an artist’s practice, a response to an artwork using one or more interpretive frames, and research into aspects of the conceptual framework” (Board of Studies (BOS), 2003). The interpretive frames in visual art are; subjective, cultural, structural, and postmodern. Within the Conceptual Framework is; the artist, the artwork, the world and the audience (BOS, 2003).

In Stage 4 Critical and Historical Studies, students will learn to “Identify and describe the purpose, audience and context for viewing artwork” (BOS, 2003). The literacy areas required include “reading to locate specific information, discuss techniques used, select information and ideas needed to complete particular tasks, and, to attempt strategies for reading difficult texts” (Dept. Ed & T, 1998). The writing literacy aspect would be to “consider the reader’s likely knowledge of a topic and provide an appropriate level of explanation and definition” (Dept. Ed & T, 1998). As an example of this, a lesson titled “Building Analysis Skills Through Art” on the Teaching Channel Website can be adapted (Teaching Channel, 2016). In this example lesson, students will learn how to critically evaluate a painting using specific vocabulary. First they will make their own portrait, then learn the analysis process, vocabulary and writing style. This learning outcome could be achieved using the explicit teaching and graphic organisers teaching strategies.

Explicit Teaching - also known as “I do, we do, you do” (Killian, 2015) is a student centred learning strategy that teaches a writing style by teaching a thinking style (Cornish, L., & Garner, J. 2009). It involves careful explanation, clearly presented tasks, modelling, linking to prior knowledge, positive feedback, providing opportunities for students to practice, and finally, to provide stimulating projects that allow for progression and refinement of skills (Cornish, L., & Garner, J. 2009). 

The first stage of explicit teaching is the modelling (“I do”), where the teacher models the deconstruction, then analysis of the text, as recommended by the Department of Education (Dept. Ed & T, 1998). In the example, the teacher shows a portrait she took with her camera. The teacher presents a graphic organiser. Graphic organisers are a valuable strategy for visualised scaffolding learning, as well as organising material before writing. Different organisers are used for different purposes - Wenn diagrams for comparing and contrasting, Fishbones for cause and effect, and concept maps for showing relationships. In Visual Arts, two common graphic organisers in Fine Arts are AAW (Artist Artwork World), and the Frames Analysis Organisers. The AAW organiser is used for students to organise information on the Artist, Artwork, World and Audience Conceptual Frameworks, while the Frames Analysis Organiser is used for organising the subjective, cultural, structural and postmodern frames. (BOS, 2003) 

In the example lession, the teacher uses a modified Frames Analysis Organiser and models the analysis process using the target language (inference, literal, symbolic, representational). This is filled out in front of the class while eliciting responses. 

The “We do” section is where the teacher works with the student on the active with guided instruction, gradually removing the scaffold. Finally, the students will have the ability to do the tasks by themselves (“You do”), which will be the critical evaluation.

Successful writing needs a “Well defined structure” (Cornish, L., & Garner, J. 2009, p 264), and this structure should be created around authentic texts (Dept. Ed & T, 1998). Highly developed writing and literacy skills in the Arts will empower students to create, make and express their knowledge as artists, participants, and as audience. Having the ability to explain, critique and record their art they will allow them better opportunities in the ever evolving art world. With so many changing, diverse and competing communication mediums, embedding the full spectrum of literacy ability in talking, listening, reading and writing will allow students to not just succeed in their studies, but also to become a positive and contributing member of society.



            ACARA. (2013). General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum. 2016, Retrieved from

            ACARA. (2016). Literacy In the Learning Areas. 2016, Retrieved from

            Board of Studies. (2003). Visual Arts Years 7–10 Syllabus. 2016, Retrieved from

            BOSTES. (2016). Glossary. 2016, Retrieved from

            Burnett, B. M. (2002). Technology and changing notions of literacy. Australian Council For Educational Leaders, 12(8). 

            Cornish, L., & Garner, J. (2009). Promoting Student Learning: Pearson.

            Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2012). Teaching Language in Context. Australia: Oxford University Press.

            Freebody, P. (2011). Literacy across the school curriculum. 2016, Retrieved from

            Kennedy, B. (2010). Visual Literacy: Why We Need It!   , Retrieved from

            Killian, S. (2015). The I Do We Do You Do Model Explained. 2016, Retrieved from

            Livermore, J. (2003). More Than Words Can Say(J. Livermore Ed.). ACT.

            NSW Department of Education and Training. (1998). Teaching Literacy in Creative Arts in Year 7.

            Oxford Dictionaries. (2016). Oxford Dictionaries. 2016, Retrieved from

            Teaching Channel. (2016). Building Analysis Skills Through Art. 2016, Retrieved from

            University of New England. (2014). Literacy in Creative Arts[lecture notes], Armidale, Australia: University of New England.