The OPTIC Approach: Strategies for Teaching Visual Literacy
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The OPTIC Approach: Strategies for Teaching Visual Literacy

Last month on the Mondays Made Easy blog, I examined the importance of Media Literacy in the 21st-century classroom. Part of what inspired me to write about this was the undeniable role that media has played in shaping the first half of 2020; what stuck with me after writing this blog post, though, was the observation of media’s impact on the reading process. The evolution of the internet has demonstrated that readers prefer content that is predominantly visual, with bite-sized information that can be quickly digested. Outside of school, our students are primarily consuming news, entertainment, and information that is convenient and appealing to the senses. This got me thinking about how integral visual literacy is when it comes to teaching our students how to fluently read media.

Strategies for Teaching Visual Literacy in Any Subject Area

On my very first day in my very first classroom, I relied on a lesson plan that was shared with me by a colleague. He was teaching the same 10th grade English course and wanted our students to discuss and analyze Pablo Picasso’s painting, “The Girl on a Ball.” This lesson plan made me apprehensive – partially because there was no guidance from a framework, but also because Picasso’s painting seemed incredibly ambiguous. I was having a hard time deciphering this image myself, and so I wasn’t sure what conclusions my students could possibly draw. This was the last thing I wanted to imagine for my first day in the classroom. I now realize that my apprehension was partially due to the fact that I myself had never focussed on visual literacy during my own education.

Pablo Picasso’s “The Girl on the Ball”

When I was in grade school, the standard courses I took were mutually exclusive: in English class, we read novels and articles; in math class, we analyzed statistical data; in art class, we observed certain features of paintings and illustrations. But I can’t recall a moment during my own education where these three avenues merged. I majored in English literature and went on to study literacy education, which continued to focus primarily on written texts. It seemed that there was little acknowledgment of the fact that visual images are also texts – ones that are becoming more commonly relied upon in the digital age. It is because of these reflections that I wanted to share one of my all-time favourite lessons with you today: The OPTIC Strategy for Visual Analysis.

What is Visual Literacy?

The definition of visual literacy is the ability to comprehend visual texts. Visual texts include graphics, illustrations, paintings, photographs, and other images. When students can comprehend visual texts, they can interpret them, draw meaning from them, and use them to further communicate their ideas. Examples of visual literacy include the ability to read a graphic novel or comic book, the ability to comprehend a graphic organizer or statistical display, and the ability to communicate the purpose of an advertisement, painting, or illustration.

The OPTIC Strategy for Visual Analysis in the Classroom

What is the OPTIC Strategy?

The OPTIC Strategy is a tool for visual analysis that can be used to approach any visual text. I learned this strategy while teaching the AP Language and Composition course back in 2015; this strategy was an essential component of approaching the synthesis essay prompt for the AP Language and Composition exam. It wasn’t long before I began using this device in all of my literacy courses, and even my history and sociology courses as well. The OPTIC Strategy can be used to support lessons in art criticism, historical inquiry, business, graphic design, and many other areas of the curriculum. This is because the information age is continually relying on images to facilitate communication.

The OPTIC Strategy is a mnemonic device and represents the Overview, Parts, Title and Text, Interrelationships, and Conclusion of a visual text. This strategy establishes a framework that students can utilize to interpret any image. Here is an in-depth explanation of each step within this framework:

  • Overview: The overview is the general summary of the image, based on the first impression. The student can start with a few single words or phrases, or describe what the image reminds them of.
  • Parts: What elements or details within the image seem important? Students can identify the subject, and look for facial expression, gestures, identity, surroundings, layout, movement, colour, perspective, texture, border, balance and rhythm, contrast, etc.
  • Title and Text: Titles and text are like clues. If provided a title or with text, students can consider it in relation to the overview and parts.
  • Interrelationships: What relationship seems to exist between the overview and the parts? The parts and the title? The parts to one another?
  • Conclusion: Students will then draw a conclusion about the visual text as a whole. What does the image mean? The conclusion will summarize the message behind the visual text, based on the preceding steps within the OPTIC Strategy.

To demonstrate this strategy in action, let’s use “The Girl on the Ball” as an example. An overview of this image would likely describe a girl balancing on a ball, with a man overlooking her performance. Examining the parts, the audience may note any of the following: the outfits that the two subjects are wearing, the expression on their faces, the shape of the block that the man is sitting on, the body language expressed by each subject, the people and animals in the backdrop, the neutral colours, the dark shading, the perspective and layout of the subjects, the barren landscape, etc. While this painting does not feature any text, the title provides an objective summary of the image. The audience may note a number of characteristics when examining the interrelationships, including the contrasting colours, the polarity of the subjects’ body language, the differences between the shapes in which these subjects are situated on top of, the dynamic of rigidity and fragility, and more.

The OPTIC Strategy: An Acronym for Visual Analysis of Advertisements, Graphic Design, Paintings, Illustrations, and More

While your students may have similar responses to the first four steps of the OPTIC Strategy, their conclusions will likely be open to more interpretation. For Picasso’s painting, some of your students may comment on gender roles, or analyze the image through a feminine lens; others might associate the colors and shading with psychology and emotion. Depending on their prior knowledge, some students might see the painting as a reflection of a historical era, or of specific cultural norms. Like many critical thinking exercises, it is not so much what your students say, but rather the support they use to explain their interpretation.

With so many conclusions to draw, it was a shame I was so apprehensive to examine this painting on my first day of teaching. Fortunately, it turned out to be a fruitful discussion, and my new students were exceptionally creative and imaginative. Today I’m much more prepared to approach visual literacy with a structured strategy for learners that are as reluctant towards visual texts as I was.

Visual Literacy Activities

Whether you teach English, History, Art, Business, Graphic Design, or Photography, you can use the OPTIC Strategy in a number of ways in your classroom. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Media Literacy: Have students analyze advertisements in magazines or featured on billboards
  • Visual Art: Utilize the OPTIC Strategy as an outline for students writing an explanatory paragraph about their own art pieces
  • English: As a pre-reading activity, have students interpret book covers to make predictions about their upcoming novel study
  • History: Interpret political imagery from a historical era, such as cartoons and propaganda
  • Music: Have students analyze album artwork from a specific genre or from a specific artist
  • Graphic Design: Compare illustrations and graphics used in different industries
  • Creative Writing: Have students interpret graphic novels, or create and illustrate their own comic strips

Teaching Visual Literacy in the Digital Age: A Guide for Teachers

Mondays Made Easy offers a FREE resource that can be used to teach the OPTIC Strategy in your classroom. This resource includes an explanation of the OPTIC Strategy, along with an abstract illustration that can be used to model this process with your students. Also included is a blank OPTIC graphic organizer that can be used to analyze any visual text.

Click here to Download The OPTIC Strategy Handout and Worksheet