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Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy

reviewed by Beth Krensky - May 05, 2014

coverTitle: Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy
Author(s): Frank Serafini
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754714, Pages: 208, Year: 2013
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When I first accepted the invitation to review Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy, I did so because I thought the book would provide helpful information for the art education courses I teach. I had no idea just how important this text would prove to be. It offers an expanded approach to teaching media and visual literacy skills. This text provides educators with the theoretical underpinnings, pedagogical approaches, and curricular frameworks to help their students become critical and active producers of meaning as well as develop the ability to critically analyze the plethora of mass media images they are inundated with each day.  

Serafini asserts that we, and our students, do not encounter visual images unto themselves. Rather, they are often experienced as multimodal ensembles. He defines a multimodal ensemble as

a cohesive entity that uses a variety of semiotic resources, including written language, visual images, and design elements to represent and communicate ideas and meanings (Serafini, 2014, p. 172).

These can exist in both print and/or digital environments. The book explains how semiotic resources can help students decipher the larger context and deeper meaning of literacy. Semiotics, based on the work of C.S. Peirce, examines language, visual communication, cultural codes, and aesthetic texts as systems of signs. Peirce asserts that the world is perfused with signs (Corrington, 1993). Making and understanding these signs is an essential component to human communication (Danesi, 1995). These signs carry meanings, which are interpreted and negotiated based on the maker and viewer, located within a social, historical, and cultural context. Given that students encounter these bundled messagesvisual images, written language and design elementsdaily, the book provides the strategies to help comprehensively understand these messages through semiotics.

This text is a call for educators to help students make sense of multimodal ensembles by teaching the skills to read between the borders of visual images as much as how to read between the lines of written text (p. 4). Serafini asserts that this is not only sound educational practice, but that it is an essential component for creating a literate and informed citizenry. This expanded notion of literacy is fundamental to art education and is tied to Elliot Eisners notion of perception. Eisner asserts that perception goes beyond simply seeing and is a cognitive event. What we see is not simply a function of what we take from the world, but what we make of it (Eisner, 2002, p. xii). This level of engagement with the world calls for the critical analysis needed to navigate, question, interpret and ultimately create multimodal ensembles.

The book is divided into three sections: Part I: Theoretical and Instructional Foundations, Part II: Curricular Frameworks and Pedagogical Approaches, and Part III: Units of Study. The book builds upon itself by starting with the essential theoretical underpinnings and then adding curricular and pedagogical approaches as well as specific units of study that can be applied to any classroom setting.

Part II uses picture books as both examples and the major tool for understanding this approach. The curricular framework from this section outlines three phases. They include:

Exposureexposing students to a wide variety of visual images and/or a particular multimodal ensemble.

Explorationexploring the designs, features, and structures of various visual images and particular multimodal ensembles.

Engagementengaging in the production and/or interpretation of a particular visual image and/or multimodal ensembles (p. 92).

The book goes into detail regarding each of the phases and proceeds to explain both the rationale for and components of units of study. This comprehensive approach is accessible to educators from multiple and varied disciplines.

Part III contains classroom-ready units on multiple types of picture books (including postmodern, wordless, and historical fiction, among others), advertisements, news reports, film, and digital media. Each unit provides a detailed overview, cornerstone texts and/or visual images to use, multiple lessons, analysis guides and additional resources. For anyone interested in employing this approach, detailed information can be found within the text.

Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy is an important text, perhaps essential, for all educators who are interested in an expanded understanding of literacy. It is well written with strong theoretical foundations and curricular approaches. The book is based on ten years of research. Serafini draws from his varied background as a former elementary school teacher and literacy specialist, a scholar, and author to inform his research. His framework for understanding and implementing multimodal analysis will transform the way practitioners and students engage with their environment.


Corrington, R. S. (1993). An introduction to C. S. Peirce: Philosopher, semiotician, and ecstatic naturalist. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Danesi, M. (1994). Messages and meanings: An introduction to semiotics. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.

Eisner, E. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 05, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17519, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:21:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Beth Krensky
    University of Utah
    E-mail Author
    BETH KRENSKY is an associate professor of art education and the Area Head of Art Teaching at the University of Utah. She is an artist, activist, and educator. She received her formal art training from the Boston Museum School. She has exhibited widely throughout the United States and internationally and is a founding member of the international artist collective, the Artnauts. She is a scholar in the area of youth-created art and social change. She received a master’s degree with a focus on critical pedagogy and art education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She co-founded and spent a decade as the Artistic Director of the youth arts organization Project YES. Her co-authored book (with Seana Lowe Steffen), Engaging Classrooms and Communities through Art: A Guide to Designing and Implementing Community-Based Art Education, was published in 2009 by AltaMira Press/Rowman & Littlefield. She is currently co-writing a book (with George Rivera, University of Colorado-Boulder) about a ten-year retrospective of Artnauts’ exhibitions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The book is scheduled to be published by Diyar Press, Dar Al-Kalima College, College of Arts and Culture in 2015.
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