Teaching visual grammar in the context of digital texts

Jennifer Asha, literacy educator, explores using the metalanguage of visual grammar and targeted questioning to scaffold student interpretation of digital texts.


I love using all manner of rich texts to encourage students and teachers to think about their interpretations and understandings. In this article, I look closely at a selection of quality digital texts to share my understanding of the metalanguage of visual grammar and the potential of targeting teacher questioning to scaffold student interpretation of digital texts.

Using digital texts in the primary classroom gives teachers the opportunity to teach the skills students need to comprehend and interpret texts. The NSW English K-10 Syllabus tells us to use digital texts in our literature repertoire for a wide range of literary purposes, as Outcome EN1-10C shows with the inclusion of a content descriptor - ‘engage in wide reading of self-selected and teacher-selected texts, including digital texts, for enjoyment, and share responses’ (English K-10 Syllabus, 2012).

The syllabus also suggests the type of talk that should be included in our lessons that use digital texts, for instance, Outcome EN2-4A includes the content descriptor -  ‘use metalanguage to describe the effects of ideas,text structures and language features of literary texts (ACELT1604)’ (English K-10 Syllabus, 2012). This particular content descriptor indicates that ‘metalanguage’ is needed for students and teachers to engage in meaningful conversations around texts, an idea that is reoccurring throughout the English syllabus outcomes.

Metalanguage and questioning

So what is the metalanguage of visual grammar? Metalanguage is a set of terms used to speak about the meanings made within a language. Teachers are already familiar with the metalanguage of grammar to do with the written and spoken word. When we use a visual metalanguage, we are using specific language to describe the way text creators may choose to use visual elements to create meaning. Our syllabus suggests terminologies that have been derived from the work of Kress and van Leeuwen (1996). Examples can be seen in Outcome EN2-2A in the content descriptor – ‘create imaginative texts based on characters, settings and events from students' own and other cultures using visual features, for example perspective, distance and angle (ACELT1601, ACELT1794)’ (English K-10 Syllabus, 2012) and Outcome EN2- 8B with content descriptor – ‘explore the effect of choices when framing an image, placement of elements in the image, and salience on composition of still and moving images in a range of types of texts (ACELA1483, ACELA1496)’ (English K-10 Syllabus, 2012).

What is notable about these content descriptors, and many others in the syllabus, is not just the inclusion of metalanguage but the way students are encouraged to create meaning and consider the effect on the viewer as a result of the choices made by the text creator. This is due to the functional model of language that underpins the syllabus and encompasses all modes of communication including verbal language, images, gesture, sounds and digital affordances (Derewianka and Humphrey, 2014). I believe that purposeful teacher talk, particularly questioning, can be supportive of this type of student learning.

The way in which teachers pose questions has the ability to scaffold student thinking and encourage their understanding of the metalanguage of visual grammar.

The questions that follow the description of each digital text are open-ended to promote discussion and allow differences of opinion to be shared. However, they are carefully worded to model the use of visual metalanguage to encourage students to think about possible meanings within the text. The questions are also phrased to encourage engagement in the role of text analyst as students break the visual codes and participate in the meaning systems of the digital texts, interpreting its affect on them as the audience (Freebody, 1992).

Digital texts

Here are some starting points that can be adapted by teachers to make them age and stage appropriate for the students they teach.

Whale by Filmbuilder (3 mins 55 secs) uses stylized, low modality illustrations to tell a simple story of a whale looking for someone to play with.

The characters are depicted in a flattened way and seem to be cut out and stuck onto the background of the ocean. They move unrealistically and do unrealistic things, such as shed tears while underwater. All of these visual choices work together to give the text its lowered modality and help make the theme of ‘you have to be a friend to make friends’ easily discernible. Towards the beginning of the clip the whale is shown front on, as if it is swimming towards and up close to the viewer, at an eye level angle. These visual choices help to position the viewer as another sea creature and serve to generate viewer empathy for the character of the whale.

Teachers can prompt discussion about these visual concepts through the use of careful questioning. For example:

  • What do you think the text creator is saying to the audience about being a friend?
  • How does the text creator use shot size/distance and angle to position the viewer?
  • How do the lower modality/less realistic illustrations help you to align yourself with the whale character?

These types of questions contextualise the metalanguage so students are supported in understanding the visual element that is the focus. The questions also support the students to consider the meaning being made within the digital text.

The short story of a fox and a mouse by ESMA Movies (6 mins 20 secs) uses distance as an episode marker.

The clip orients the viewer to the setting with a ‘long shot’ showing the vast and bleak wintery landscape and then ‘zooms’ in on the fox, introducing this character. Later in the story, the scene is shown from a ‘long shot’ again and can be seen to signify the resolution within the narrative structure of the clip.

The text creators have utilised different levels of realism for the setting, the peripheral characters and the main characters. The snow-covered countryside is shown via a realistic, higher modality compared to the characters of the fox and the mouse. In turn, these main characters are illustrated in a more naturalistic manner compared to the owls, with realistic colouring, the shape and texture of real foxes and mice, and with their movements reflecting those of living creatures. The auxiliary characters of the two owls are represented in a much lower modality. They are evidently drawn, with exaggerated body shapes and unrealistically coloured plumage. The effect of this visual choice is to encourage suspension of disbelief and to alleviate viewer awareness of the unlikeliness of an alliance between a predator and its prey.

Teacher prompts can guide students towards an interpretation of the digital text. For instance:

  • How is distance used to signify certain points in the narrative structure?
  • What do you notice about the shot size at the beginning compared to the rest of the clip?
  • How does the modality of the setting differ from the modality of the characters? Why may the creators have made this choice?

Chimère by ESMA Movies (6 mins 53 secs) is the story of good versus evil, of motherly love winning out over self-centred destruction.

The fantastical creatures of Chimère, part eagle - part woman, and a Medusa-like reptile are almost surreal. This is shown through heightened modality, with the softly textured, vibrantly coloured feathers of the Chimère contrasting with the cool grey sleekness of the reptile character.

Angle is also used to characterise the protagonist and antagonist. The Chimère is shown at the viewers’ eye level putting the viewer on equal standing with this character and encouraging empathy, while the reptile is ‘shot from below’ positioning the viewer as less powerful than that character and heightening the viewer wariness of the creature.

Focused questions can scaffold students towards this type of interpretation, for example:

  • How are the different participants characterised through the use of colour and texture?
  • How does the angle that each character is shown from further accentuate the effect for the viewer?

Viewing and talking about digital texts can let teachers and students meet many of the NSW K-10 English Syllabus outcomes in an engaging and motivating way. The use of visual metalanguage can serve as a resource for teachers and students in sharing their interpretation of digital texts. Careful use of teacher questioning can develop student understanding of the metalanguage, scaffolding students towards purposeful discussion and reflection about how digital texts construct meaning and have an effect on an audience.

References and further reading

Derewianka, B. & Humphrey, S. (2014). Teaching knowledge about language in schools. Newtown: Primary English Teaching Association Australia.

English K-10 Syllabus © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in the State of New South Wales, 2012.

Freebody, P. (1992). ‘A sociocultural approach: resourcing four roles as a literacy learner’. in Prevention of Reading Failure, Watson, A. & Badenhop, A. (eds) Linfield: Scholastic Australia.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading Images: the grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.

How to cite this article – Asha, J (2018). Teaching visual grammar in the context of digital texts. Scan, 37(7).

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