The Grammar of the Visuals

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Visual Thinking is an embedded practice at Fairfield Public School in South West Sydney. So when we came to discussing the readings pertaining to ‘Visual Grammar’ at Week 7 of our PETAA, ‘Grammar and Teaching’ course with Jo Rossbridge, the Fairfield PS teachers were all chatting away using the appropriate metalanguage. It was definitely a restricted code! I was listening with my EAL/D ears and desperately trying to use all the context clues to interpret what was being discussed. Fortunately I spied some useful environmental print in the room. Look below for the key to their coded language.

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The TPL Room at Fairfield Public School

‘Demands’ and ‘offers’ had nothing to do with selling and buying on the Stock Exchange! It was all about whether the image was looking straight at you demanding your attention, or looking away at you, offering for you to leave them alone. Well … that’s how it came across to me at the time. Apparently these terms come under the heading of ‘contact’ which is speaking about the affect of the eye gaze upon how we the viewer feel about the characters and what’s happening around them.

Then people were discussing vectors! Are we now into the language of geometry? No, though they were talking about lines and angles. When noticing  vectors in images they were discussing how our eyes move across the picture, where we look first and how the eye line of the participants (where the characters are looking), causes us to look in a particular direction.

As we were discussing illustrations from various texts and especially ‘The Fisherman and the Theefyspray’ by Paul Jennings and Jane Tanner, the question came, “Who has the power?”. Hang on here … I was beginning to hear some familiar words. This was the same language that we used when were were talking about the tenor, the relationship between the author and the reader. The conversation revolved around whether we were looking equally on the same eye level as the Theefyspray or down onto or up at this amazing fish. We were being asked how the shapes, bodies and objects were being organised to show who had the power.

In amongst all of this vocabulary there were discussions about the colours, shapes, perspectives, foreground and background … just as you would expect in an Art class – But! hang on .. isn’t this course meant to be ‘Grammar and Teaching’? How does this fit in?

The visuals and the text need to work together to make meaning. One of the texts that is helpful for understanding how visual resources work, on their own and in relation to multimodal texts is The Shape of Things to Come  a PETAA publication written by Jon Callow. Jon refers to the work of Michael Halliday (Halliday and Mathiessen, 2004) and discusses how we can apply the registers of field, tenor and mode to the written parts of texts as well as the visual. Again, this is what ‘grammar’ is, a way of describing how a language works to make meaning within a particular culture’ (Beverly Derewianka, A New Grammar Companion for Teachers, 1998 p.1)  But does language always have to be using words? Jon Callow goes into great detail to explain, using the registers of field, tenor and mode, how the images and text of several visual resources and multimodal texts work together to make meaning. He does so within the framework of cultural context, audience, social purpose , text type and specific context.

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In our lives we have multimodal texts with both visuals and writing in abundance; not just picture books, but posters, films and interactive electronic texts. Writing and images are all around us. Each has its role and each has its purpose. As teachers we need to select rich texts and design activities to help our students to decode both the visuals and the linguistics of our multimodal world and to do so we need common languages – visual grammar as well as linguistic grammar.





For a more detailed explanation go to …



5 thoughts on “The Grammar of the Visuals

    1. No Norah, I hadn’t either. Jon Callow’s book is very detailed in showing how they are intrinsically linked. Such an improvement from the olden days where there were inconsistencies between text and visuals.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It does look like an interesting book. I have always looked for the relationship between text and visuals in books for early childhood, but hadn’t thought of it this way. I sent you a tweet of Russell Hobbs also talking of visual literacy. Did you see it? What he is discussing is more what I have thought of as visual literacy. I can see why it needs to be more detailed with older readers.

        Liked by 1 person

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