Visual Fluency—Is it on your radar?

By Ed Cuoco
August 12th, 2015

I have often noticed that many of my students have little experience using visual media. Most of them have easy, casual access to photos, videos and a broad set of graphics—yet few of them integrate visuals into their writing, and those who do, often do so with little skill and nuance. Often, when used, graphics decorate rather than inform.

It’s as if no academic subject has taken ownership for visual fluency—certainly standardized tests provide little coverage of the subject. Many of our students are left to themselves to discover how to integrate media of all sorts—how to exploit graphics and media to complement or express their messages.

The irony is that we swim in a visual information ocean; new forms of narrative are emerging that string together images and text, such as Snapchat stories. Visuals provide much of the heavy lifting in business to compare and contrast, show trends, demonstrate concepts. Yet we provide little formal instruction on the subject and few of us require some level of visual fluency.

For many reasons, we may not have the time or resources to explore visual fluency with students. A few reasons include:

  • Most educational outcomes do not include specific visual skills
  • Creating, enhancing, or manipulating graphics, though not difficult, are not generally taught outside of art programs
  • Integrating visual information effectively requires higher-order skills that require time to model and demonstrate

However, we need to consider integrating visual fluency into our curricula in all subjects. By the time students leave a community college, they should be able to integrate visuals into their essays to complement and support their text. They should be able to create a simple bar and pie chart. They should be able to create a simple pictorial to convey a point. And they should be able to create a simple table and corresponding text to express a concept.

If I have time in one of my classes, I try to work in a brief assignment. I give students a copy of pictorials from an IKEA instruction sheet and I ask them to write a description of what they think it means. When we finish, we read our pieces—it makes for an interesting discussion that highlights ambiguities based on gender, culture, language and ability and interpretation.


A pictogram excerpted from an IKEA instruction sheet.

You may be assembling your new coffee table. Describe what it means!

It is time for us all to consider visual fluency in all our subjects and to make it an integral component in our curricula, because in our digital world, words are only half the picture….

Add your opinion to the discussion.