I am a woman of many, many, many words! I have a tendency to say in 50 (read: 100) words what someone would normally say in 10. I use a lot of words because I am a quick processor. I can come up with an oral argument quickly and when I need to articulate my point, I use additional words to paint the picture I think the speaker requires to magnify my point. It’s kind of like visualization in reading. You know… it’s that skill from your childhood where you made a “movie in your mind.” So yeah… I am a woman of many, many, many words! But not when it comes to visual displays. In my background as an invitation designer, my language has always been sparse. When designing a graphic, I have time to be more evaluative and deliberate. I don’t want to confuse the viewer with too much text and details. I design for a twitter world.

As a second grade teacher at an international school, I work with students who have a reading level from KG to grade 3. It’s important that visual media used in my classroom reaches my students effectively. It must:

  • be visually appealing
  • be generated with (and usually by) students
  • contain limited language

I don’t really teach media literacy. Even if students have created some sort of poster to support their learning, they present their thinking orally so we forego a lot of the laws of CRAP. It is only when we share our learning to a bigger global audience that our class considers the audience and I teach media literacy.

When I came upon David Willows’ work with the International School of Brussels (ISB) and then a post about Wordless Books: Unspoken Artifacts came across my blog feed, my instincts as a designer were confirmed: less is more! In his explanation of the wordless (not really) brochure, entitled Impressions, Willows notes that information about ISB is rampant on the web. Beyond the school’s website, there is no shortage of information about the school, it’s ethos, or personal and professional reviews of their programs. So they endeavored to redesign the school brochure with images and a limited number of words that could convey their school’s “impressions”.

After reading Willows’ article, I thought about my favorite wordless picture book, The Flower Man by Mark Ludy, and how the visuals in the book convey such a meaningful message. I figured this would be the best way to test the power and impact of visual literacy in my classroom. So my class and I “read” this book. I asked the students not to discuss what they saw but rather, jot down their thinking as we “read.”

Page by page, students wrote their version of the Flower Man’s tale. For some, they wrote a story. For others, there was extravagant dialogue. Still others wrote down their feelings and wonderings about the story or why an author would create in this manner.

When we finished “reading” the book, the students “tweeted” their reaction to the story by writing about the author’s message. (Left Text: “I think the author wanted us to learn that we musn’t be sad and make people happy by [showing] caring and friendship.” Right Text: “I think that the author’s message was to be a risk-taker when he was the only one walking outside.”)

Despite the nonexistence of words the students understood the story in great depth (for a 7 year old) and despite their varied language acquisition–each student could define the story’s message.

Before finishing my test, I showed the students the video below. The music and words that accompany the story make it come to life and have the power to bring a tear to even the most cynical amongst us.

When the video was over, they turned-and-talked with their reading buddy. I heard: “I didn’t understand all of the words the lady talked” and “I liked the music and how they close-upped the pictures. Mrs. L didn’t do that” and “Some of the words don’t make sense.” But the most poignant comment came just as I was wrapping up. The student tugged at my pant leg and whispered, “I liked my version better.” And there it was! There was the truth I have know to be true. Think back to every time you’ve read a brilliant book but been disappointed by the movie (I’m talking to you directors of If I Stay, Still Alice, and The Giver). A picture (whether an image or a self-conjured one) is worth a thousand words. And your words are usually better than anyone else’s because they mean something to you.

So… What words will you choose?