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Introduction to visual literacy


In this lesson, students explore how information is portrayed visually, especially through news photography. Students will learn how to discern relevant information from photographs and are exposed to common problems with image manipulation or composition that might affect the news value.


  • Students will consider how news photographs convey information.
  • Students will critique how the presentation and context of images in the news affects the news value and interpretation of information.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.


50 minutes


Slideshow: Photo Context

Photos: Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Kennedy

Projection device/smartboard

Computer access: 1:2 ratio

Pair set: Front Page Activity

Link: Newseum front pages

Alternatively, if lab access isn’t available, you can project the Newseum front page activity to the whole class.

Lesson step-by-step

1. What visual literacy means — 10 minutes

To start the class, ask students to close their eyes and think about their photo. Why is this image so important? What makes it so meaningful? What story does it tell? What story would others be able to get from that photo?  Give students a couple minutes to consider these questions, and then ask if any students would like to share their responses (you might start by sharing your own). Explain that because we know images and photographs are so powerful, they require their own kind of literacy. Today, we’ll explore concepts related to deconstructing images, and we’ll apply those concepts to news photos.

2. Deconstructing images — 15 minutes

Explain that any news consumer can deconstruct images in the same way a reporter sets out to write a news story — by looking for the 5ws and 1h. So, when you are trying to understand what information a photo conveys, or how to interpret the message, see if you can identify the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the photo. Write these on the board, and give examples of the followup questions provided.

Who: Who is the subject? What attributes are conveyed through the photo? Old? Young? Professional? Powerful? Is the person/subject central to the message of the photo?

What: What is happening? Can we tell? Do we get a main message from the photo? Or do we feel like we’re only getting part of the story? What is the focus? What is the background?

Where: What is the location? How do we know? Why might the location matter to the story? Does the location seem central to the message of the photo?

When: Can we tell how recent this is? Day or night?

Why: Why do you think this photo was chosen? Why is it appropriate or not?

How: How is this photo supposed to make us feel? How is it supposed to add to our understanding of the information or the story?

Now, show students the three photos of man first walking on the moon (all photos courtesy NASA and from the public domain). Ask them to deconstruct each image according to the previous questions. Be sure that for each photo, the class comes to a general understanding on the “takeaway” or “message” of each photo.

3. Context matters — 5 minutes

Now, use the slideshow to show each photo with a new headline, and ask students how the context of the story changes the message of the photo. These are fake headlines, but the students should notice how the mood or tone of the photo changes because of the context.  This is a reminder that while we like to think of news photos as having their own innate truth value, they are just as much subject to interpretation as the written word.

4. Front page activity — 15-20 minutes

Working in pairs, students should complete the Newseum front page activity. Spend the last few minutes to regroup as a class and ask about what students found during their activity.