Our mission is to develop visual literacy through fine motor skill development and academic drawing lessons. So why is visual literacy important? And what is it? Isn’t literacy just about reading and writing? To answer those questions, we’ll explore the definition of visual literacy, why it is important for children, and effective ways of developing it. Part 1 of this 3-part blog series explores the meaning of this often elusive and unfamiliar concept.


To be honest, visual literacy is a relatively new concept to me. In my 20+ years as an educator, I had never heard of it until I met Wendy and the Drawn To Discover team. I found it fascinating and my understanding is still evolving. For this exploration, I want to dive into its definition in two ways and create a deeper understanding for myself and for you, the reader.

DIGGING TO THE ROOTSuncovering the root of visual literacy

When looking to understand a concept or term, I often like to start with the definition and etymology of the component words. What does each word mean on its own and what are the original definitions of its parts (e.g., Latin or Greek meanings)?

So, let’s go to school…

VISUAL (adjective): Webster’s Dictionary lists 6 definitions for the adjective visual. Two are relevant here:

  • “of, relating to, or used in vision”
  • “producing mental images”

Visual comes from the early Latin word, visus, which means “a sight, a looking; power of sight; things seen, appearance.”

LITERACY (noun): “the quality or state of being literate” (It’s the noun version of literate).

LITERATE (adjective): is defined by Webster’s in 5 ways. Three are relevant here:

  • “educated, cultured”
  • “able to read and write”
  • “having knowledge or competence”

Literate comes from the Latin, literatus, which means “educated, learned, who knows the letters.” The Latin, litera, means “alphabetic letter.”

Thus, in a strict and literal sense, VISUAL LITERACY = knowledge or competence of things seen. This is a bit clunky, so let’s continue our exploration…

visual literacy is a science that if learned can help us better understand learningLOOKING TO THE EXPERTS

There is no standard definition of visual literacy, so to better understand the concept, I turn to another favorite approach: reading what the experts say.

The term “Visual Literacy” was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, co-founder of the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA). As he so eloquently explained,



Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication. (Debes, 1969)

Carol Bintz (2016), from the Toledo Museum of Art, defined visual literacy as an ability comprised of three components:

  1. Interpreting visual images
  2. Analyzing their impact
  3. Communicate using visuals

An important aspect of education is synthesis. When students are able to synthesize information, they are able to connect new knowledge to old knowledge and create meaningful learning. In that spirit, I have created a definition here that connects the etymology of the words with the expert definitions and is relevant to our mission at Drawn To Discover.

I now pronounce the definition to be: (drum roll please)

“Visual literacy is the ability to comprehend and communicate through imagery.”

This has been a fun and somewhat arduous journey. Thank you for traveling it with me. Now it’s time for some rest and some re-creation before our next journey, exploring WHY IS VISUAL LITERACY IMPORTANT? Stay tuned…

teaching math fractions through visual literacy with a colored math wheel

Continue with “Exploring Visual Literacy – Part 2: What Does it Mean for Children?”

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