Thursday, October 10, 2013

On the Value of Visuals

Art is the representation, science the explanation, of the same reality. -- Herbert Read, quoted at the top of the rubric for aligning CC Anchor Standards for Reading with Art Interpretation, from DePaul University, link at the end of this post. 

As an illustrator and science comic creator, I wanted to know what the Anchor Standards for Reading: Informational Text said about visuals in books. Here it is: 

English Language Arts Standards >> College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading >> 7 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 :  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Well, that sounds great! The overall standard (Anchor Standard 7) is promising, but I wanted to know how this broke down in terms of learning objectives at grade level. What I found concerned me. 

Below, I quote the standards for each grade level that refer to illustrations and other visual media, give my interpretation of their implications, and add a reference to a book that I think exemplifies the vital importance of "reading" visuals as well as text. 

The Common Core language is in bf Roman, and my comments appear in italics. 

Kindergarten/   Craft and Structure 
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.K.5: Identify the front cover, back cover, and title page of a book
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.K.6: Name the author and illustrator of a text and define the role of each in presenting the ideas or information in a text. 
  Visual elements are explored here as tools to understanding what a book is and where it comes from.

         Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.K.7:  With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the text in which they appear (e.g., what person, place, thing, or idea in the text an illustration depicts.) 

This standard reflects functionality of illustration only, does not reflect criteria important in children’s literature in which illustrations are expected to enhance, not simply reflect text, and in many cases tell their own parallel but closely integrated story.

 Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words  by Leda Schubert, illustrations by GĂ©rard DuBois 

Grade 1/Craft and Structure 
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.1.6 Distinguish between information provided by pictures or other illustrations and information provided by the words in a text. 

This is a key analysis, but I’m not sure the standards and I are on the same page. Once again, the illustrated representation of the information and story seems to be undervalued. 

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.1.7 Use the illustrations and details in a text to describe its key ideas. 
If an illustration tells its own story, it may reflect the theme of the text, but again, the focus is on how the pictures illuminate the text -- and never the other way around. 

Grade 2/Integration of Knowledge and Ideas                                                                                                                   CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.2.7 Explain how specific images (e.g., a diagram showing how a machine works) contribute to and clarify a text. 

Although the example pertains to nonfiction, I think it’s an interesting question to ask where a picture book or other illustrated story is concerned.  Nonetheless, I'm glad to hear that the standards recognize the use of a visual in explaining processes. 

Grade 3/ Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.7 Use information gained from illustrations (e.g. maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur.) 

Is it me, or are the standards distinguishing between informational illustrations and setting a criteria that the only Truly Useful illustrations are those that add facts to a text? 

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrations by Beth Krommes

Grade 4/ Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.7  Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g. in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears. 
Now we are ignoring actual artwork-type illustrations in favor of those with a purely informational purpose. 

Grade 5/Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.7  Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. 

The line in the K-4 standards that referred to visuals now makes no mention of visual elements. Lack of specific mention of visuals makes me wonder whether finding answers or solving problems through illustrations or any kind of visual is considered a viable way of getting the job done.  I'm particularly shocked because this is the beginning of the target age for much of my graphics work, including my Humanimal Doodles science comic.  And yet, as April Pulley Sayre said yesterday, teachers are constantly telling me how my work can help them meet the Common Core standards, because they draw students in through their eyes, and go on to involve them in the text. 

Grade 6/ Key Ideas and Details 
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.3 Analyze in detail how a key individual, event, or idea is introduced, illustrated, and elaborated in a text (e.g. through examples or anecdotes). 

         Visuals are back!  Or are they? On second thought, I wonder whether that word “illustrated” pertains to visuals at all. 

               Integration of Knowledge and Ideas   
               CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.7 Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g. visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue. 

This one, I can get behind. It seems to acknowledge that there are  multiple access points to “a topic or issue.” 

Grade 7/ Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.7  Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject (e.g. how the delivery of a speech affects the impacts of the words). 

                Print visuals are gone completely, giving the lie to the use of illustration in the first grade 6 standard listed above. It must not apply to visuals, but refer only to figurative illustration through text. 

Grade 8/ Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.7  Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g. print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea. 

Print is back! I wish they had left out “different mediums” altogether if their only inclusion is intended to inspire kids to evaluate them in such general terms. This seems to indicate that one particular medium may be a poor choice for presenting an idea.  Wouldn’t it be better to assess the value of a specific video, graphic, or illustration? 
Laika by Nick Abadzis 

Grades 9-10/ Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7  Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g. a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account. 

I had a teacher in AP American History who gave us biography assignments like the one in the example. 
Not only did we read texts about a public figure, we also used documentaries, fictional portrayals, artwork, and other sources. No wonder I think visuals are so valuable in learning.   

However, I’m concerned that the purpose of looking at different mediums is to determine which details each emphasizes, rather than to use them together to form a more complete, rounded, and perhaps even-handed
understanding of the topic. Must we be so quantitative? 

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Grades 11-12/  Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7  Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g. visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem. 

Yes!  There you go. Now you’re cooking with gas. I wonder why it took us so long to get to this point -- and why the emphasis, at the ages at which visual presentations of nonfiction information are so popular, is so firmly on text and on squeezing visuals for the details or other quantitative information they offer, rather than to use them as they are usually intended -- to illuminate and enhance information, as well as to invite and involve all kinds of learners to new topics and ideas.  


  DePaul University education specialists have put together a rubric for giving visuals in nonfiction books the emphasis and value they deserve: Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading Align with Art Interpretation  


Maria Sosa said...

Very interesting and thought provoking post. My gut reaction is that the inclusion of visual analysis in the common core is a good thing and that there is certainly room for the kind of interpretation that Karen Romano Young is advocating. However, it is certainly not stated very explicitly, so there's always the danger (as with most standards and reform efforts) that only what is explicitly stated will prevail in actual practice. This is a problem that needs to be addressed by giving more visibility to the questions posed by Young. I certainly intend to share this widely.

Laura Fleming said...

Reading visuals is a vital skill in this digital age. It is one that I have tried to teach my students over the years. I have never seen my students understand this more than with the transmedia novel, Inanimate Alice ( As I have said before about the story, Inanimate Alice creates an experience for a learner that is akin to a digitally-induced synesthesia, the sound and visuals combining to assail all the senses, immersing the reader in the complexity and the emotional journey of the story. Thanks for the great post!