Visual Rhetoric: Teaching Students to Decode Media Images

From a young age, students get inundated with images. From advertisements to political cartoons to the pictures accompanying news stories, images are everywhere.

Teaching students to understand visual rhetoric improves their ability to analyze complex topics.Because images convey meaning just as words do, students need to learn the principles of visual rhetoric. This knowledge helps students better understand visual arguments in the world around them, and it lays a foundation for getting into deeper levels of analysis and dissecting more complicated rhetoric.

Here’s how to help your students improve their grasp of visual rhetoric:

Start with a surface-level analysis

To begin with, help students get the more obvious analysis out of the way. That is, ask them to look at an image that is conveying a specific message, and have them identify the visual rhetoric and determine what it is about.

For example, a hotel advertisement is probably selling both the location and the hotel. True, this type of analysis is rather straightforward, but students often need to start with the surface-level analysis to get the basic ideas out there. Then they’re better able to do a more complex analysis.

Go from broad to narrow

Next, teachers can get students to dissect individual components of the visual. Start by asking students to look at the composition as a whole and ask for specific responses to the visual rhetoric.

  • What first grabs their attention and how do their eyes travel around the ad? Is this significant?
  • Does one specific element have more importance, and does this grab the eye first?
  • Do their eyes travel around the piece in a way that presents an argument?

Break down the individual elements

As students describe how their eyes travel around the visual, ask them to look at each individual component independently — including image selection, color use, text choice and font.

Have students take notes describing each one of these components. From there, ask them to consider how this affects the product being sold or the argument being made, and suggest how/why it might be effective for that audience.

For instance, if the student is analyzing the hotel ad, does the image show a family and use bright colors? If so, this probably adds to the sense of fun and enjoyment that a family might be looking for in their travels, and therefore might be convincing.

Students need to do this for each individual element.

Take in the whole picture and write about it

After exploring the components of the visual, students should be able to complete the deepest level of analysis. For instance, while the ad might be selling a hotel to family travelers, the word choice and images might reveal that it’s actually selling the sense of togetherness more than the actual hotel.

After students have completed each step in this process, they can use their notes to write an essay revealing what they’ve learned. Notes allow students to develop a thesis based on their final level of analysis. Students should be able to make an argument about what the image is doing (i.e., selling togetherness) by using specific techniques (text choice, image placement, color use, etc.).

Next, students can use their extensive descriptions to summarize the images. They will then be able to analyze individual components in supporting paragraphs, as they will have already listed the evidence needed to support their arguments.

Encourage students to dig deeper

Many students’ analyses go no further than the surface. All too often, they simply state what the visual is doing on a basic level without considering its deeper implications. Learning how to dissect images will make students better at interpreting our highly visual world. Additionally, teaching deeper analysis of visual rhetoric makes students more likely to reach a more sophisticated understanding of more complicated works — both texts and images.

Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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