Roberts, K. L., Norman, R. R., Duke, N. K., Morsink, P, Martin, N. M., & Knight, J. A.
(2013). Diagrams, timelines, and tables--Oh, my! Reading Teacher, 57(1), 12-23.
According to the authors, graphical literacy is the ability to comprehend graphical devices such as captioned graphics, diagrams, flowcharts, graphs, insets, maps, tables and timelines. As we all know, this material is abundantly present in nonfiction, and it is quite informative IF you know how to use it. Unfortunately, many children do not. They don't learn about graphics all at once either. In fact, not all concepts related to graphics are even learned by the end of third grade.
Fortunately, the article cited above has a dozen ideas for teaching graphical literacy that teachers will find useful. Check it out. This material is urgently needed, since graphical literacy is necessary for effective reading comprehension. To put it bluntly, if we don't stop and look at graphics, we miss a lot of information that isn't in the written text. That's a huge loss for us.
Being aware of graphics is making me read in a more wide-awake way. I stop and ask myself these questions: What new information is this graphic teaching me? Is it extending the text? How? Why did the author choose this graphic? What if another type of graphic were used? How would the message be different? My reading is richer for this.
Here's an example. Right now I am reading Stephen R. Swinburne's Sea Turtle Scientist, a part of the "Scientists in the Field" series. This book details the work of Dr. Kimberly Stewart, a scientist who is working on the island of St. Kitts, trying to save the leatherback turtle from extinction. As I am reading, I am asking myself questions: What does the map of St. Kitts show me about the setting of Dr. Stewart's work? What can I learn from the labeled diagram of an adult leatherback sea turtle? What does that table of sea turtle species show me? I am slowing down to see how graphics and text work together. I think I am becoming a better reader for it, and this is something I can share with my students. And believe me, I am!
Try it for yourself: Think about the graphics you encounter in your reading. And, in addition, consider reading Sea Turtle Scientist. It's clearly written, abundantly illustrated, appealingly formatted, and just plain interesting. It gives you a close look at what a scientist actually does and how she works with members of the community. It's inspiring.