Film and Visual Literacy in the 21st Century

From the beginning of civilization, images have played an essential role in communication. In the 20th century, moving images changed not only how the world communicated but also how we viewed other people and cultures, and ourselves. Moving images play a huge role in our understanding of current events as well as in forming our decisions about who we elect as our government leaders. Moving images can educate and inform as well as entertain. In the 21st century, the ability to read critically and evaluate moving images is an integral part of literacy. How can we best approach teaching moving images in the classroom?

Teachers have been using moving images in general — and movies in particular — for many years, but often in a piecemeal way. Having students watch a film that is an adaptation of a work of literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, is often treated as a reward for reading, or the viewing is approached as a compare-and-contrast activity. This "read-the-book, watch-the-movie" approach has limited value. Students use the film to decode the book. This shortchanges both the book and the film because students aren’t learning the language of film.

In the “read-the-book, watch-the-movie” approach, questions focus on comparing one storytelling medium with another. The teacher might ask, for example, what part of the novel did the film get right, or wrong? In a multi-disciplinary approach, questions focus on the content area. For example: What can you learn about segregation by watching this movie? or What can you learn about American history by watching this film? This approach also has limited value.

In contrast, The Story of Movies is an interdisciplinary curriculum. In this approach, questions focus on how and why filmmakers create meaning through visual and audio representations. For example: How do the filmmakers depict social classes in the rural South? It is this approach that best teaches students film language, and helps them to become cinema literate.

Three key characteristics define The Story of Movies curriculum:

First, film is a language. In this program, students study the ways in which images are framed, sequenced, paced, and combined with sounds. They analyze the purpose of a shot as well as its suggested meaning and intended effect.

Second, film is a cultural document through which we can explore the values and social issues of the past. This does not mean asking what part of history a film got right or wrong. Instead, students explore the historical period in which the film was made and the social issues relative to the film’s themes.

Third, film is a collaborative art. The movies seen in a theater or at home are the result of the collaboration of many different professionals and artisans. Their knowledge and talents span science and cinematography, literature and language arts, music, art and design, and digital technology. Students learn about the various filmmaking roles and how professionals collaborate to create a dramatic structure, all guided by the director’s vision.


Teaching Strategy: The Difference Between Watching and Seeing

Film has layers. In the simplest terms, one layer is images and the other layer is sound. These two layers play simultaneously on the screen and together they create meaning. The first time we screen a film or a scene from a film, we pay attention primarily to these two basic elements. We use our inference and critical-thinking skills, even without realizing that we are, to piece together a narrative. In The Story of Movies, we call this first viewing “watching.” To analyze film as a visual text, however, requires a second, closer viewing, which we call “seeing.” Seeing implies understanding. Now that the viewer knows what happens, he or she can pay attention in the second viewing to how it happens. In the second screening of a film clip, the viewer begins to identify additional layers, and begins to ask and answer questions that lead to greater understanding.

These include the following:

Composition, the selection of images and how they are arranged within the frame. The viewer asks, “Why is the filmmaker showing me these particular images and not others?”

Continuity & Pacing, the juxtaposition and timing of the images. The viewer asks, “Why has the filmmaker arranged the images in this particular sequence?”

Cinematography, including camera distances and angles, lighting and movement. The viewer asks, “Why show these images close up or far away? From a high or a low angle? In brightness or shadow?"

Soundtrack, both visible and invisible sounds, as well as music. The viewer asks, “Why this kind of music at this point? Why is there silence here, but noise there?"


It is a rare person who can peel away all the layers of a film in a single viewing. It simply is not the way we process information. During second and even third screenings of a shot or scene, the viewer will notice new elements.


Try it. Select a short scene, perhaps the opening credits of To Kill a Mockingbird. After viewing it the first time, ask students to explain what has happened. Most will rightly answer that a child (though a child is never seen) has opened a box and seemingly plays with the contents. The child draws a picture of a bird and then tears the picture in half. You might even ask the students to identify the setting or the year. They’ll use inference skills to determine it takes place in the past. After all, the items in the book are old-fashioned — pocket watches, marbles, a whistle, crayons. There are no cell phones or tablets.


After the second viewing, ask questions similar to those above. By showing the pocket watch and adding the sound of it ticking, what was the filmmaker hoping to communicate? Why does the filmmaker show the words TO . . . KILL . . . first and then the rest of the movie title? Why does the child rip the drawing of the bird in half? How would the meaning change if the very first image shown is the torn drawing? At what point does the music begin? How does the music change throughout the sequence of images? What does the music suggest about the child? Questions like these truly challenge students’ observational and critical-thinking skills, and move them beyond read-the-book, watch-the-movie. This first-viewing/second-viewing activity is a teaching strategy used throughout The Story of Movies curriculum.