Visual Literacy in Mathematics

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”-Dorothea Lange

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What is Literacy? Contrary to the once commonly held belief that teaching reading and writing is solely the responsibility of elementary teachers and secondary English teachers, educators and researchers across the country now assert that teaching students the skills necessary to make sense of a variety of texts and write for a variety of purposes is a task to which all teachers must commit themselves…Literacy is far more than merely learning to read.

Adolescent Literacy: A Position Statement.  International Reading Association, 2009

So it seems as though the new standards have caught up the research on literacy.  One of the major benefits of the Common Core, or for those of us in Pennsylvania the ‘PA Core Standards’, is the overall ability to focus on students making their own meaning through text-rendering/close reading, considering different purposes and audiences for their reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and helping to understand an look at literacy as making meaning in a variety of different types of texts (visual, multi-media, physical, etc.).

With almost all of the content area literacy work I have been involved in over the past several years, the same question around ‘yeah, I get it…but how does this relate to Math?’ was constantly asked.  Since the last formal math class I had almost 20 years ago was AP Calculus (the 5 I earned on the exam placed me out of any math requirements in college…thank YOU Dr. Goldberg), I still cannot give a definitive answer to that question.

However, from working as an instructional coach and colleague with some great math teachers who loved to think ‘outside the box’ for ways to engage more and more of their students into math class, I can offer up 1 simple strategy that fits nicely into the ‘Before’ part of the Before-During-After lesson planning format. Keeping in mind the purpose of the Before activity can be any combination of trying to make connections to engage students in the lesson, access background/prior knowledge, set-up that lesson/units content, and/or preview upcoming material for the lesson, the following B-D-A uses photographs, a visual literacy analysis strategy from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (adapted from ELA & SS originally), and writing in the content areas.

This lesson also incorporates a few of the Common Core Literacy standards related to Key Ideas and Details-Text Analysis (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1), Integration of Knowledge and Ideas-Diverse Media (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7), and Range of Writing (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10).


Please Do Now: List any terms or phrases that you commonly associate with Geometry. Students can write/list these, share with a partner, then chart the classes responses on the board/with technology.


  • Give students a photograph of a building, series of buildings in a city, well maintained gardens (we use photos from Longwood Gardens, local here in PA), or any other structures, parks, etc…that have a range of different shapes, angles, lines that would lend themselves to discussion around Geometry.
  • Then, give the students the Photo Analysis Worksheet designed and developed by the Education Staff from the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.  You will have to modify this for Math, however…most likely Steps 2 and 3 (see below).

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Reflection/Extend/Wrap Up: Where you decide to have your students take this is up to you based on your goals or objectives for your lesson.  A few ‘After’ activities I have seen teachers use are:

  • Revisit the terms and phrases from the Please Do Now and look to connect, define and clarify many of the terms and how they apply to ‘real life’.
  • Use this as a jumping off point for a conversation and series of lessons about Math’s relevance in the ‘real world’ (i.e-architecture, sculptures, etc.)
  • Create a poem related to math.
  • Allow students to explore their school or local town/community/city depending on location to take photos of buildings, gardens, and other areas that contained the different Geometric concepts they were studying.
  • Where might you take this??

One of the ‘Norms’ we look to practice and preach in the district in which I currently work is defined autonomy.  The idea behind this is that once an idea or strategy is shared with a group, we each have the ability to modify and adjust that to our unique situation.  It is the same in the classroom.  How this strategy can be tweaked and adapted to your specific grade level, content, learning objectives, and group of students totally depends on you, the educator.  That is, after all, how this particular lesson came about from its origins in ELA/SS class, and then eventually made its way into Science and then Math class.  Special thanks to Ryan and Melisa Perlman, Carl Atkinson and Lara Paparo, Mary Jo Burgoyne and Patti Gill for helping in the original, ongoing and continuous development and growth of this strategy and its many applications for students to access their learning.

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