Literacy Research

The Sketchbook: Making the Connection Between Verbal and Visual Literacies

The combination of writing and drawing can expand verbal and visual literacy within the art classroom.  Alternating between visual and verbal communication systems improves comprehension within the discipline of art and understanding of both dialect’s vocabularies.  The sketchbook provides an optimal location for this combination of literacies to occur.  It gives students a place of their own to explore these two languages and the discipline on a personal level.

Before children have learned to write fluently they often confuse writing with drawing, seeing both letters and images as being symbols for objects in their surroundings (Lowenfeld & Brittain, 1987, p. 283).  This is not so strange, however, when it is considered that visual symbols, like verbal language, are also a way of communicating (Eubanks, 2003, p. 13).  Language can be considered as any combination of symbols with culturally universal connotations that allow individuals to reflect on ideas and abstract concepts (Eubanks, p.13).  Children display the possibilities of combining verbal and visual languages as they make “meaning by interweaving play, talk, and drawing (Eubanks, p. 15).”  Both forms of communication are also quite interdependent in the other’s development.  Verbal communication has been found to be a fundamental element in the progress of drawing in the young (Eubanks, p. 15).  Likewise, involvement in the arts has been shown to increase multiple academic abilities, such as reading (Richards, 2003, p. 19).

Going back and forth between verbal and visual communication is called codeswitching (Eubanks, 2003, p. 13). As a practice, codeswitching can improve imagination and communication (Eubanks, p. 14).Visual literacy is more encompassing than verbal and is more easily remembered than verbal passages (Rice & McNeil, 1990, p. 118).  Visual literacy is also less linear than verbal communication and is less bound by rules of structure such as grammar (Eubanks, p. 15).  Verbal literacy, however, gives the viewer vital information and helps the artist clarify ideas and explain works of art in a more universally understood manner (Rice & McNeil, p. 118).  Visual and verbal skills work jointly to aid in comprehension, and although something may be lost in translating from one mode of communication to the other, new understandings may be gained (Eubanks, p. 16).

Critiques are an excellent opportunity for the student to become skilled in codeswitching (Eubanks, 2003, p. 17).  The sketchbook could be used here to help the student take note of works that are discussed, ideas that were presented, and suggestions for improvement.  Taking on the role of an art historian while utilizing the sketchbook is another opportunity for the student to experience codeswitching.  Students can record observations, respond to gallery trips, collect images, and compare multiple works (Linderman, 1971, p. 112).

Supplying samples of literature gives students an opportunity to combine the two literacies within the sketchbook.  A small sample of writing can be used to stimulate creativity.  Students could be asked to come up with pictures that exemplify some element of the work, and could even make their own pictures or passages to accompany their response (Rice & McNeil, 1990, p. 115).

Metaphors in both communication systems can be used to help students connect course material to their prior knowledge and provides motivation (James, 2002, p. 1).  The ability to think metaphorically can be developed by having students write individual metaphors in response to art (James, p. 1).  A teaching strategy called “I am…” writing can be used to immerse students in the use of metaphor (James, p. 2).  As an introduction and a way to get students to relax when sharing emotions, they can free-write about their favorite type of music and share it with the class (James, p. 2-3).  Next an exercise would follow in which students would pick one portrait painting that they felt some connection to from the teacher’s collection (James, p. 3).  In the first paragraph of the assignment the students would write as if they were the person depicted in the portrait, and in the second, the student would become an object or another element in the painting (James, p.3).  This helps to make the students’ thoughts even more creative (James, p. 3).  In the third paragraph the students compare their characteristics to what is found in the works of art, and in the fourth, students trade portraits so that they can look at something that they would not have chosen for themselves (James, p. 4).  To help students reach a more concrete understanding of their metaphors, they can come up with several adjectives to describe their work, and then turn them into nouns, which creates more general concepts instead of precise descriptions (James, p. 5).  The best place for this writing exercise to take place would be within the sketchbook especially if reproductions of the artwork can be supplied to the students to place next to the writing.

The sketchbook can also be used to hold photographs of the student’s artwork with accompanying comments.  The student can write what was successful or unsuccessful about the piece and what adjustments could be made (“Using Sketchbooks,” 2003, p. 3).  A similar system could be used in which the students insert replicas of master works into their sketchbooks and write information and comments next to them (“Using Sketchbooks,” p. 3).  The sketchbook can also hold clippings from magazines, photos, fibers or other found objects, inspirational poems or music, and lists of materials required for projects (“Using Sketchbooks,” p, 2).  It is a perfect place for collecting details that can be pulled together for a later piece of art and for trying out new drawing methods (“Using Sketchbooks,” p. 2).

Sketchbooks can serve as documentation of a student’s growth in art, and fosters autonomy and self-assurance (“Using Sketchbooks,” 2003, p. 1).  Although sketchbook activities may at times be guided by the instructor, the student is urged to amass his or her own responses to experiences (Rice & McNeil, 1990, p. 113).  With the help of the sketchbook, the teacher and student are also able to discuss works in progress, reach more intimate levels of learning, and regulate progress (Rice & McNeil, p. 113).  Above all, keeping a sketchbook is “an activity that allows students to observe how their minds work and encourages that knowing, that editing of sensation into meaningful experience, as they deal with their contacts with art curriculum and the world (Rice & McNeil, p. 107).”  The only problem that may arise with the use of sketchbooks is that students are usually too impatient to reach “critical mass,” the point where ideas that were once unrelated come together to create new knowledge (Rice & McNeil, p. 110).  However, once students become relaxed and stable within the subject, they will take a much more good-humored stance when dealing with the sketchbook which will aid in retention and understanding (Rice & McNeil, p. 110).

The sketchbook provides a place for the accumulation of a saturated assortment of information from many disciplines necessary for “creative and intellectual engagement (Rice & McNeil, 1990, p. 118).”  They also promote cognitive and academic progress (Rice & McNeil, p. 112), and offer an intimate relationship with understanding (Rice & McNeil, p. 109).  By making the connection between the individual and the subject, the sketchbook helps to make the past contemporary, dispositions are restructured for aesthetic honesty, and the ability to deal with varying technique is exhibited (Rice & McNeil, p. 107).  The sketchbook holds subconscious realizations and verbal and visual ideas permitting the artist to assemble the pieces in a logical order (Rice & McNeil, p. 109).

Verbal and visual literacies are two areas within the curriculum that should be utilized together to receive the most benefits.  Translating back and forth from one communication system to the other provides a rich learning environment and fosters understanding.  Through the use of critiques, art historian role-play, literature as stimulation to create art, and identifying metaphors in artworks and literature the student can receive ample practice at codeswitching.  The sketchbook further helps the student by providing a place to store references, suggestions, and notes for later projects.  It can serve as a record of the student’s advancement within the class through which the teacher can assess the student.  Above all, however, it is a place for learning and understanding to take place.  By collecting sketches, pictures, thoughts, and writings, the student is engaging in an age old process which artists, scientists, writers, and many others from all disciplines have taken part in throughout history as a way to gain understanding of the world around them.


Eubanks, P. (2003). Codeswitching: Using language as a tool for clearer meaning in art.  Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association, 56 (6), 13-17.

James, P. (2002). Fostering metaphoric thinking. Journal of Developmental Education, 25 (3), 26-33. Retrieved April 6, 2005, from

Linderman, E. (1971). Teaching secondary school art: Discovering art objectives, art skills, art history, art ideas. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Company.

Lowenfeld, V., & Brittain, L. (1990). Creative and mental growth. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Career & Technology.

Rice, R.,  & McNeil, S. (1990). Sketchbooks. In B. Little (Eds.), Secondary art  education: An anthology of issues (pp. 107-123). Reston: National Art Education Association.

Richards, A. (2003). Arts and academic achievement in reading: Functions and         implications. Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association, 56 (6), 19-23.

(2003). Using sketchbooks in primary schools. Primary Resources. Retrieved April 6, 2005, from


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s