Five techniques for building visual literacy in the History Classroom


Political cartoons are a mainstay of the history classroom and provide a wonderful tool not only for starter and plenary activities, but invaluable raw material for helping students draw deductions, compare interpretations and substantiate their own judgements by bringing in additional background knowledge. They also provide an accessible way into the historical debate for students who are less able readers. In earlier volumes of the History Teaching Toolbox I outlined how students can design their own political cartoon, and construct an entire essay from first principles using a collection of cartoons using the “Visual Essay Writing” technique. What follows here are several more ideas about how to help students interpret cartoons and use them to deepen their historical understanding.


1. Symbolism – can you design your own royal portrait?

A study of sixteenth-century Tudor portraiture is one of my favourite ways of introducing younger students to the notion of symbolism within visual propaganda. I start by showing the class a range of official portraits, satirical woodcuts, and early political cartoons, of figures from the 16th-18th centuries. Next, I focus in on a series of official portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (for example the Armada Portrait; the Pelican Portrait; ???), each of which is famously packed with symbols making reference to her omniscience (eyes and ears all over her clothes), religiosity (Bible in hand), vision (looking away from the viewer into the distance), power (hand resting on a globe, power-dressing) and so forth. I highlight each of these curious features and explain the meaning of each one after students have had a chance to draw their own deductions.

Next, I go through a series of steps to help students decide what colours, creatures and other symbols could be used in their portrait.

Question 1: What feelings or moods do each of these colours usually represent?

Green | Red | Blue | Yellow | White |Black

Question 2: What qualities do each of these animals represent?

Bear | Dove | Tortoise | Donkey | Ostrich | Fox | Sheep | Pig | Lion | Snake | Phoenix

Question 3: What objects could be used to reflect the following personal qualities?

Ambitious | Brave | Clever | Friendly | Generous | Loving | Powerful | Religious | Strong

At this point, students are ready to start designing their own royal portrait. To ensure they are packed with symbolism, each student is required to complete a preparatory worksheet which asks them to provide three examples of each of the following, and then consider how each of these could be represented by a particular object or symbol:

3 aspects of my personality | 3 events in my life | 3 of my interests | 3 of my ambitions

After the portraits are finished – with the explicit instruction that absolutely no words are allowed – the class swap their pictures around. Each student will write a detailed analysis of what they think the portrait they receive is trying to say. They will also give the portrait a mark out of 10. This commentary will be placed alongside the portrait itself when they are all placed on display.

2. Idioms – how do cartoonists use them literally?

Political cartoons frequently make use of idiomatic expressions, represented in literal form. To help students spot when this is happening, present them with a list of idiomatic expressions and determine how many students can correctly identify the meaning of each. Some of the most popular with cartoonists (such as my all-time favourite, David Low) include:

  • Crocodile Tears
  • Caught between a Rock And A Hard Place
  • Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth
  • Putting All Your Eggs In One Basket
  • Letting The Cat Out Of The Bag
  • Burn Your Bridges
  • Treated like a doormat
  • Bury your head in the sand
  • Have a taste of your own medicine
  • A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

After the class takes notes on the meaning of each, ask them to consider how these could be represented visually, then challenge them to use the internet to locate a political cartoon making use of some of these idioms.

3. Details – can you fill the missing gaps?

The title or caption of the cartoon (e.g. “The Spineless Leaders of Democracy”, “They Salute with Both Hands Now”) can be hidden and students challenged to provide their own before revealing the correct answer. Another idea is to cover up parts of an image and challenge students to guess what’s behind the gaps. To help with this exercise I created an online tool ( which allows you to quickly upload an image and convert it into as many “tiles” as you wish for this purpose.

4. Interpretations – Can you reverse the message?

Following on from the previous example, students could interpret the meaning of the cartoon – elaborating with background knowledge of course – and then be challenged to reverse the message by changing as few details as possible. In this way they will have to identify the most salient features of the cartoon and consider what would need to be done to reverse its message. Do certain symbols, expressions or words need to be altered, removed, or added? The amended cartoons could be placed alongside the originals with an explanation from the student to create an effective piece of display work.

5. Deductions – Can you use this transparent overlay to highlight the key features of the cartoon?

I have designed a template (freely downloadable from which can be placed over a written or visual source to provide a scaffolding framework to help students develop cartoon evaluations skills. Ask students to focus on the issues highlighted in the left-hand column first and make annotations as appropriate. Then they swap with a partner, read the work done so far, and focus on the issues covered in the top row. Display the work when it’s finished. Ensure each student has a different source. When the work is finished, remove the sources from the templates. Different students have to match the overlay to the source it was originally evaluating.