The Visual Image

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant.

Visual images are powerful teaching and learning tools, providing windows into the past. We need to teach visual skills to children, and that means treating pictures as sources of information. Pictures can be read as texts in their own right, not as mere illustrations. Although children are surrounded by visual images, particularly on television, they often cannot comment on or remember what they have seen - they have not engaged with the images, have not 'read' them. For that they need to look deeply, to enter imaginatively into the picture, to question, to hypothesise.

Here are some strategies for engaging children in reading pictures.

  • Play 'I spy with my little eye'.
  • Quick flash of the picture: What did you see?
    Another flash: Look for something someone else saw, and another new item.
  • Counting: How many pearls is Queen Elizabeth wearing? How many people are wearing brown? How many children are there?
  • What do you think were the artist's favourite four colours?
  • Put a photocopy of the picture in the middle of a sheet of paper.
    Write down three things it tells us, and three questions you want to ask about it.
    Or, list all the feelings this picture arouses in you.
    Or, list the colours, the people, the objects, and so on.
  • What are the people in the picture saying? Draw and fill in speech bubbles.
  • Picture as video: What happened before the scene depicted? After?

We then move on to consider the meaning of the image, its purpose, its context, what it meant to people at the time, what we can learn about the past from it.

Short lesson exemplars


We give accounts of the visual image in use in the following teaching resources available on this website:

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