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Introducing Graphical Literacy in the Library
Editor's Note

I've been thinking a lot about literacies lately. Of course, I'm always thinking about traditional literacy. It is the cornerstone of my work for and with students. But I've also been thinking of other literacies that students need to understand information and communicate what they know. One of those is graphical literacy: the ability to read, write, and create graphs and charts.

My interest in graphical literacy was piqued after reading the picture book Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs by Helaine Becker and Marie-Ève Tremblay. The book gives an account about the invention of line, bar, and circle graphs. I had never thought about the invention of graphs and certainly didn't know that one person had invented them. What stood out to me most though, when looking at some of William Playfair's original graphs, is how they convey complex ideas in a simple form.

These graphs may not always be easy to read and understand for elementary students though. Beyond the simplest graphs, students can often overlook more complex ideas being conveyed. Other students may struggle to connect the information from the graph to other learning or their own life. This is why the library can be an essential learning ground for students to develop their graphical literacy.

Finding Graphs to Interact With

I can walk my halls and find bar graphs of birthdays and teeth lost. Surveys of favorite pets and books may be displayed in graph form from time to time. These graphs are a great place to start, but identifying and interacting with published graphs can also bring benefits.

Government entities from small towns to federal institutions create graphical representations of information. There's the daily graph in the USA Today newspaper or those easily found online through a simple search. Our library collection's nonfiction section contains books with graphs.

Then there are the graphs you can create with data you have on hand. Think about your own library circulation. How can top checkouts, books checked out daily, weekly, or monthly be shared graphically? Consider genres, a single title, or titles in a series as potential information to convey in graphical forms.

Some graphs may at first feel too complex for elementary students. Even though graphs that students create themselves may be simple, they are likely able to interact with graphs that are more complex, especially if they are working collectively as a class or in small groups. If in doubt, check with teachers in the previous grade level. Ask what their interaction was and instead of repeating it, build on it.

Interacting with Graphs to Build Graphical Literacy

Slowing down to take in every aspect of the graph is a good first step. Students may ask themselves:

  • What type of a graph is this? Not every graph is read in the same way. As students begin to see one type of graph over and over, they can recognize its unique elements.
  • What information is being displayed in this graph? This encourages students to look at the title and text of the graph, something they often overlook.
  • How is that information grouped? Whether showing change over time, breaking one element into parts, or comparing different groups, understanding how the information is organized is key to reading the graph.

It is equally important for students to respond to the graph. Even younger elementary students can put themselves in the shoes of the graph maker to explore ideas about the graph. While you may not ask students to discuss all of these questions, select questions that drive students to interact with the graph in specific ways that you want. Students may discuss:

  • What do you already know that connects to this information in the graph? Does this add to what you already know or make you think differently about the information? This encourages students to connect their prior knowledge to the information in the graph. It is this knowledge that encourages students to respond to the graph.
  • Why do you think someone made this graph? Considering the creator of the graph gives it purpose. Whether embedded within an article, part of a larger infographic, or a standalone piece, the graph's context and objective will help students understand why a graph was created, beyond simply showing information.
  • What did the person who created this graph want us to know about the topic? This extension question can help students dive deeper into the last question. It connects the creator's purpose to the viewer of the graph. The graph was made to inform and impact the viewer. How that happens within the graph is the question.
  • Is this the best way to share this information? How else could this same content be shared? After trying to understand the person who created a graph, empower students to question its form. Let students know that another graph is not always an option. Maybe a bulleted list, short paragraph, or even an annotated map would be a different way to share the information. Exploring other possibilities can help students make decisions when they have their own material to share.

Building on Graphical Literacy

Regular interaction with both different types of graphs and graphs with different types of data will help students build their graphical literacy. Those skills will impact how students look at sharing information as well.

Consider collaborating with classroom teachers to see when those graphical literacies can be put to use. When are students researching or interacting with nonfiction text? When are they collecting or taking in scientific information? Are they tracking the weather? All of these can be opportunities to build on their experiences interacting with graphs. If those opportunities aren't present, look back to the numeric information coming from your circulation statistics as a prompt for students.

One way to assess students' graphical literacy is to put them in charge of sharing information. Instead of giving them directions to use the data to create a certain type of graph, let groups decide how their content will be shared. Encourage other students react to their decisions, and let the original group change how they share the information if they are persuaded by others' reactions. I've explored this idea in the accompanying lesson to this post, "Developing and Utilizing Graphical Literacy."

By building students' literacy around where, when, and why graphs are most useful—as well as helping them to interpret, and respond to, the graphs' information—we can broaden their overall source literacy.

Tom Bober

MLA Citation

Bober, Tom. "Introducing Graphical Literacy in the Library." School Library Connection, February 2020,

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Entry ID: 2235469