Curriculum Approaches

2 Engaging Activities to Develop Your Students’ Visual Literacy

rainbow bag

As art teachers, we have so much to fit into our precious time with students. Sometimes, more abstract concepts like visual literacy get pushed to the side. Sure, we know visual literacy is important, but we might struggle with how to explicitly teach it to our students.

Stephanie HeadhsotThat’s why I’m so excited to introduce you to Stephanie Stern. Stephanie is the K-12 Programs Assistant Manager at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA, an organization dedicated to improving visual literacy for its guests.

I recently had the chance to talk to Stephanie about how we can improve our students’ visual literacy. She has some great suggestions and also will share two specific Barnes Foundation activities that you can recreate in your own classroom.

The Barnes Foundation

Stephanie describes the Barnes Foundation as, “a non-profit art and educational institution where people can learn about art by looking carefully at that art.” So, while it’s technically not a museum, it functions much like one today. In fact, according to Stephanie, “The Barnes holds an incredible, world-class collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern paintings, African sculpture, Pennsylvania German furniture, and American and European metalwork.”  If you’re unfamiliar with the Barnes, you can learn more by visiting its inspiring website.

The Barnes Foundation
The Barnes Foundation

Part of what makes the Barnes Foundation so special is this unique vision. Stephanie told me, “At the Barnes Foundation, our educational philosophies and practices are influenced by our founder, Dr. Albert Barnes. Dr. Barnes worked with John Dewey in developing a way of looking at art. Dr. Barnes believed that if viewers focused on four elements of art, they could understand any artwork, no matter who created it, when it was made, or where it was made.” According to Dr. Barnes, the elements to focus on were color, light, line, and space.

Using the Elements with Students

Stephanie says that these four elements can be used by students of all ages to better understand a piece of art. The elements can also be used as jumping off points to dive deeper into topics like narrative, culture, and materials.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that developing visual literacy should be an inquiry-based skill. Says Stephanie, “We use inquiry-based teaching to guide students in looking carefully at art to create their own understanding. In most cases, we are not looking for a specific right answer. Instead, we allow students to shape their understanding of art and tell them that if they have proof, that statement is right for them.”

In fact, unlike most traditional museums, the Barnes Foundation doesn’t focus on art history. Instead, “Through explorations of color, light, line, and space, students sharpen their observational skills, analytical skills, problem-solving skills, and critical-thinking skills, and develop visual literacy.”

For example, when looking at Van Gogh’s painting The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin), educators ask students guiding questions such as:

  • “What colors do you see in the postman’s skin? In his beard?”
  • “Why do you think Van Gogh chose to use those colors?”
  • “Where do you think the postman is? What is in the background?”

In this way, students are asked to really think about and understand the painting in their own way. Whatever answers they come up with are right for them.

If you’d like to recreate this kind of learning experience in your own classroom, you’re in luck. Stephanie is graciously sharing two specific activities that are used at the Barnes Foundation in their Pictures & Words program. The program is free for K-3 students in the Philadelphia School District and combines literacy and art.

Here are 2 simple activities from the program that you can use in your own classroom.

Activity 1: The Rainbow Bag

This group activity asks students to think carefully about color.

rainbow bag

Materials Needed

  • Resealable bag
  • Fabric strips in a variety of solid colors
  • Poster or projected image of an artwork of your choice


  1. Tell students you are going to play a game about color.
  2. Show students the bag. Explain that it’s a very special bag because it’s filled with every color in the rainbow. (For older students, you could also include tints, shades, and neutral colors to make things more challenging.)
  3. Choose a student to reach into the bag and pull out a fabric strip.
  4. Then, ask the student to find a place in the painting that matches the strip in their hand. (Depending on the colors in the bag and the painting, there may not be a match!)
  5. If there is a match, then ask the rest of the students, “Do you see that color anywhere else in this artwork? On the count of three, point to where you see the color. 1, 2, 3!”
  6. Discuss the areas in which the color is present.
  7. Repeat a few times with different students.

Activity 2: White Strings

This activity is a great way to get students thinking about brushstrokes and line.

white strings

Materials Needed

  • 4-6 Paintbrushes of varying sizes
  • Small, stretched canvas
  • Resealable bag
  • Foot-long pieces of white cording or yarn
    (Insider tip: Tie the cord or yarn at the ends to prevent fraying.)
  • Poster or projected image of an artwork of your choice


Part 1: Examining the Art Tools

  1. Show students some tools that artists use to make paintings (brushes and canvases).
  2. Discuss how paintbrushes can be thick, thin, round, or flat and how different kinds of paintbrushes make different kinds of brushstrokes. (If you have time, you can even demonstrate this or have different students use the brushes to create strokes in front of the group to compare and contrast.)
  3. Show students the canvas and explain how it’s stapled to a wooden frame. Explain canvases come in different sizes.
  4. Let students feel the canvas and ask them to describe the texture.
  5. Explain that when artists apply paint to a canvas with a brush, the mark is called a brushstroke. Show students examples of different kinds of brushstrokes. Talk about how they can be straight or curvy.

Part 2: Experimenting with Line

  1. Pass out the white strings and explain that students will use them to help them understand lines and brushstrokes better.
  2. Demonstrate how to create a horizontal, vertical, and diagonal line by holding the white string between your two hands in different ways. Have students follow along.
  3. Then, ask students to find each kind of line in the artwork and match their string to those lines.
  4. Finally, talk about how sometimes artists use wavy, curvy, curly, or swirled lines in their artwork.
  5. Ask students to find a wavy line in the artwork. Then, have them use their strings on the floor in front of them to make that wavy line.
  6. Discuss how everyone’s wavy lines are different. Ask students to describe them.

These two simple activities are perfect to introduce your students to some of the key components of visual literacy. You could use them to introduce or wrap up a project or as stand-alone activities. They’re also great because they can be used with almost any piece of art, making them easy to fit into your curriculum.

Connecting Art and Storytelling

When students come to the Barnes to complete these activities through the Pictures & Words program, they also work with the concept of storytelling. You can watch a great video that depicts some of these activities on the Barnes Website. (Scroll down to the Pictures & Words section and press play.) Many of the ideas in this video could also be translated to your classroom for some truly powerful cross-curricular learning experiences.

Examples include:

  • Discussing a painting and then having students draw what comes next in the story.
  • Having students describe a painting using only body movements.
  • Having students use a famous artwork as a jumping off point for their own painting on the same theme.

If your classroom is located in the School District of Philadelphia, it’s worth your time to check out this amazing program. If a visit to the Barnes isn’t feasible for you, make sure you check out all the wonderful program descriptions and videos on the K-12 Outreach page for ideas you can use with your students.

Thanks so much to the Barnes Foundation and to Stephanie for sharing their work with us!

Tell us, have you ever visited the Barnes Foundation? What did you think? 

How do you approach visual literacy with your students?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Amanda Heyn

Amanda Heyn is AOEU’s Director of K–12 PD & Media and a former AOEU Writer and elementary art educator. She enjoys creating relevant and engaging professional development just for art teachers.

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