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How to improve your students’ digital literacy skills by working with visuals in ELA

As educators, we know how important multiple means of representation are to effective teaching. 80% of the information we process is visual, and yet most literacy in classrooms focuses on reading words, rather than reading images or other visual representations. As our world becomes increasingly digital, students are tasked with even more visual input. Now, more than ever, students are reading more than words every day and need to be able to show their thinking in a variety of ways through a variety of media. So how can we incorporate this into our English Language Arts (ELA) classrooms?

It can feel overwhelming to dive into digital literacy when it is not a part of the already packed curriculum you are provided with, but this is becoming the majority of texts that students are consuming outside of school. If we do not equip them with the strategies to critically examine and consume this type of text, they will be unequipped to participate as an informed citizen.

Below I have outlined some challenges and responses to those challenges to begin developing your students’ ability to work with visuals, improving their digital literacy skills.

My school lacks technology. How do I develop digital literacy without those tools?

All classrooms and schools are different. Some students have 1:1 devices, some schools have interactive white boards, and some schools have little to no technology available. However, even without the actual digital tools, we can teach our students to analyze and interpret images, thus preparing them for the increasing amount of that type of text.

Preview texts by using images.

This is a great way to work digital literacy into your already structured curriculum. We know that activating background knowledge is an essential part of effective teaching, so why not do this by analyzing an image? Pick a picture from the book you will be reading or pick pictures of some new vocabulary students may encounter in the book. Have students ask questions about the images, make predictions based on them, make a KWL chart from what they see, etc. (Colwell et. al. 2020). Whether the image is projected on a screen or shown from a piece of paper, the students will get practice in interpreting visual information.

Practice close reading of images

Just like when we read text, ask students to identify story elements or the main idea from a picture. Have them tell characters, setting, key details, and other aspects of the picture they notice. Then, ask them to explain their thinking and use the image as the basis for their response, just as you would with text-based questions in print (Colwell et. al. 2020).

I feel like my knowledge of digital literacies is limited, so how do I begin? It is easy to feel overwhelmed, but just like your students, you have a lot of background knowledge you can draw on. You have been a teacher of print literacy and can use that to help you expand to digital literacy.

Connect text features to web features

In teaching nonfiction texts, we teach about text features, or items outside of the regular print text that help us read nonfiction. We can do the same with “web features” (Colwell
et. al. 2020). Have students look for images, or videos and tell how they add to the information shared through print. Connecting it both for yourself and them to text features can
help make the jump to using digital tools as learning devices, rather than solely entertainment devices (Colwell et. al. 2020).

How do I use technology to have my students be creators rather than just consumers of digital information? I have been sharing so far ways to help your students become readers or consumers of visual information. However, it is important for them to go beyond that and become writers or creators of visual information as well.

Teach them to create infographics

As with all production, students will have to understand the format, features, and purpose of an infographic before creating one themselves. However, once they have seen and analyzed some mentor texts, infographics can be a versatile tool across subject areas. In ELA specifically students could create infographics that show information learned from a nonfiction text, that share an opinion, that show a character's journey, etc. (Colwell et. al. 2020). Some websites that can help students create visual presentations to show their learning include Canva and Google Slides. You can find mentor texts for infographics at Kids Discover or What’s Going on in This Graph? (Colwell et. al. 2020).

Use digital graphic organizers to scaffold for students

Using digital graphic organizers rather than pen and paper can improve your students' learning in many ways. Online, students do not have as many limitations including space, style, and types of media they can include (Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020). Working online can also remove barriers for struggling readers by using voice-to-text and incorporating images to share thinking. Students could start with a template or create their own using Google Slides or Canva.

Hopefully, these recommendations have been helpful in making you feel like you can dive into developing digital literacy using visuals. These types of texts are becoming as common if not more so than print texts, and therefore it is our duty as educators to make sure our students are prepared to consume and create with them.

More To Explore


Colwell, J., Hutchison, A., & Woodward, L. (2020). Digitally supported disciplinary literacy for diverse k-5 classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Ziemke, K. & Muhtaris, K. (2020). Read the world: Rethinking literacy for empathy and action in a digital age. Portsmouth, NH.

Author Note

Anna McCarthy-Reynolds is a 4th and 5th grade English Language Development teacher at East Silver Spring Elementary School and currently working towards a master's in teaching literacy to culturally and linguistically diverse populations at Loyola University. Click to find out more information about the Literacy Program at Loyola University Maryland.