The fifth skill – 'viewing'

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The fifth skill – 'viewing'


We are living in a visual world. The advent of the internet and the digital revolution, the ubiquity of mobile devices which allow us to capture still and moving images easily, the appearance of video-sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, and the emergence of social media networks such as Instagram and Facebook whose users upload largely visual content, have all contributed to an extraordinary rise in visual communication and to the image, and increasingly the moving image, becoming the primary mode of communication around the world. 

The majority of texts young people are encountering and creating are multimodal. (A multimodal text is one where the meaning is communicated by more than one mode – e.g. written text, audio, still pictures, moving pictures, gesture, use of space, etc. Digital multimodal texts can include, for example, videos, slideshows and web pages, while live multimodal texts can include theatre, storytelling and dance.) The fact that communication nowadays is largely multimodal changes the construct of communicative competence. This has huge implications for our educational systems.

The changing nature of communication is reflected by the fact that in the English language curricula of a number of countries – for example, Singapore, Canada and Australia – two new skills, ‘viewing’ and ‘visually representing’, have been added to the traditional skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. 

In this article I’m going to look at what ‘viewing’ is, why it’s important in the language classroom, what effective viewers do, and then explore three tried and tested frameworks we can use to implement viewing in the language classroom and improve our students’ viewing skills.

What is viewing?

In the Canadian Common Curriculum Framework, viewing is defined as follows:

‘An active process of attending and comprehending visual media, such as television, advertising images, films, diagrams, symbols, photographs, videos, drama, drawings, sculpture and paintings.’

So ‘viewing’ is about ‘reading’ – analysing, evaluating and appreciating – visual texts. Viewing is an active rather than a passive process.

Why is viewing important?

We are language teachers, so it’s obvious we should focus on the written and spoken word in our classes. So why should images, or multimodal texts that use images, matter at all to language teachers? Many teachers argue that language and text-based approaches should take priority and that the image just distracts from the word. However, as the majority of texts our students are accessing outside the classroom are visual texts and multimodal texts which use images, surely we should give our students opportunities to ‘read’ – analyse and evaluate – these types of texts in the classroom. Furthermore, the majority of these multimodal texts – YouTube videos, infographics, websites, blogs, social media sites – are a combination of print text and image, where the image, far from distracting from the text, actually enhances it. 

Therefore, viewing is important because as students are dealing with mainly multimodal texts they need to understand them and to become more effective, active and critical viewers to be able to participate fully in society. Viewing helps students develop the knowledge and skills to analyse and evaluate visual texts and multimodal texts that use visuals. Viewing also helps students acquire information and appreciate ideas and experiences visually communicated by others. 

What do active viewers do? 

According to the Canadian Common Curriculum Framework, active and effective viewers would ask themselves a series of questions such as:

  • What is the text representing?
  • How is the text constructed?
  • What assumptions, interests, beliefs, biases and values are portrayed by the text?
  • What is the purpose of the text?
  • To whom is the text directed? Who does the text exclude?
  • What is my reaction to the text? What causes this reaction?
  • What personal connections and associations can I make with this text?

It’s important that students are aware that understanding the viewing process is as important as understanding the listening and reading process. Students should understand that effective, active viewers engage in the following procedure: 

  1. Pre-viewing:Students prepare to view by activating their schema (the prior knowledge they bring to the study of a topic or theme), anticipating a message, predicting, speculating, asking questions, and setting a purpose for viewing. 
  2. During viewing:Students view the visual text to understand the message by seeking and checking understanding, by making connections, making and confirming predictions and inferences, interpreting and summarising, pausing and reviewing, and analysing and evaluating. Students should monitor their understanding by connecting to their schema, questioning and reflecting. 
  3. After viewing / responding:Students should be given opportunities to respond personally, critically and creatively to visual texts. Students respond by reflecting, analysing, evaluating and creating.  

Viewing frameworks 

We’re now going to explore three frameworks which have been developed by prestigious institutions to help students become better viewers. These models, which have been tried and tested with thousands of students at schools and universities around the world with great success, help to systematise viewing effectively into the language classroom.

Film and video: The 3Cs and 3Ss
This framework was developed by Into Film and is used widely in schools in the UK. The 3Cs (Colour, Camera, Character) and the 3Ss (Story, Setting, Sound) framework can be used to help students discuss and analyse all the elements of a film text.

Story, Setting, Sound, Colour, Character and Camera are simple headings with discussion questions teachers can use as an easy way for exploring any film. Here are some of the discussion questions:


  • What colours do you see?
  • What do the colours make you feel?
  • Why do you think certain colours are used?
  • What mood do you think the colours create?


  • What shots have been used? Can you name them?
  • Through whose eyes do we see the story?
  • When do we see different characters’ point of view?
  • When does the camera move and when does it stay still?


  • What do the main characters look like?
  • How do they speak and what do they say?
  • How do they behave?
  • Which character interests you the most? Why?


  • What happens in the beginning, middle and at the end of the story?
  • What are the most important things (events) that happen in the story?
  • How do we know where the story takes place?
  • How long does the story take place in ‘real’ time?


  • Where does the action take place?
  • When and how does the setting change?
  • How could you tell where the story was taking place?
  • How could you tell when the story was taking place?


  • How many different sounds do you hear? What are they?
  • How does the music make you feel?
  • Are there any moments of silence?
  • Can you hear any sound effects?

The simplicity of the 3Cs and 3Ss framework makes it easy to remember and use.

Paintings and photographs: See, Think, Wonder
The See, Think, Wonder routine is one of the Visible Thinking Routines developed by researcher-educators for Project Zero at Harvard University. This routine helps students make careful observations and develop their own ideas and interpretations based on what they see when viewing a painting or photograph by asking these three questions.

  • What do you see?
  • What do you think about what you see?
  • What does it make you wonder?

By separating the two questions – ‘What do you see?’ and ‘What do you think about what you see?’ – the routine helps students distinguish between observations and interpretations. By encouraging students to wonder and ask questions, the routine stimulates students’ curiosity and helps students reach for new connections.

This routine is designed to be easy to remember, practical and invite a broad range of thinking moves. Watch this video to see the See, Think, Wonder routine being put into practice with secondary school students

The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)
The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) approach was co-developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine 30 years ago. It finds meaning in imagery and develops visual literacy skills through learning in the arts, fostering thinking and communication skills through listening carefully and expressing oneself. The approach works in the following way:

  • Students silently examine carefully selected art images
  • The teacher asks these three open-ended questions
    • What’s going on in this picture?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What more can we find?
  • Students then …
    • Look carefully at the image
    • Talk about what they observe
    • Back up their ideas with evidence
    • Listen and consider the views of others
    • Discuss many possible interpretations
    • Construct meaning together
  • The teacher …
    • Listens carefully to each comment
    • Paraphrases student responses demonstrating language use
    • Points to features described in the artwork throughout the discussion
    • Facilitates student discussions
    • Encourages scaffolding of observations and interpretations
    • Validates individual views
    • Links related ideas and points of agreement/disagreement
    • Reinforces a range of ideas

Watch these videos to see the Visual Thinking Strategies approach being put into practice:


Viewing helps students to slow down, reflect and think about the images they are seeing, and develop the knowledge and skills to analyse and evaluate visual texts and multimedia texts that use visuals. Viewing also helps students acquire information and appreciate ideas and experiences visually communicated by others. Undoubtedly, viewing will become part of English language curricula in many more countries in the near future and we, as teachers, need to be able to help our students become more effective viewers. To achieve this there needs to be specific multimodality and visual literacy training on pre-service and in-service training courses.


About the author

Kieran Donaghy is a freelance writer, international conference speaker and trainer. He has held teaching, teacher training and academic management posts in the UK, Italy, Portugal and Spain. He is the author of several books for students and teachers of English as a foreign language.

His website Film English has won a British Council ELTons Award for Innovation in Teacher Resources, the most prestigious European media in education prize, the MEDEA Award, and an English-Speaking Union Award. Kieran is the founder and organiser of the only conference exclusively on the use of images in language teaching, The Image Conference. In addition, Kieran is the co-founder of the Visual Arts Circle, a professional community of practice for language education professionals interested in the use of the visual arts in language teaching. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. You can find out more about Kieran and his work at his author website: http://kierandonaghy.com/.

Watch Kieran’s webinar on viewing as the fifth skill here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfDWHBnTsAk 

Find out more about Language Hub, a new six-level general English course for adult learners designed to take the complexity out of teaching English, here: http://languagehub.macmillanenglish.com

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