Madeyandile Mbelani

    Madeyandile Mbelani is a research officer and PhD candidate in the Institute for the Study of English in Africa at Rhodes University. His MEd dissertation is an action research case study on ‘Making visual literacy meaningful in a rural context’. (m.mbelani@ru.ac.za)

    This paper reports outcomes from a workshop on cartoons that took place at ‘Networking’, an Eastern Cape conference for English teachers, in April this year. The need for this workshop came from teachers themselves after they were consulted about the topics they wished to see covered in the conference. Teachers indicated that they had difficulties in understanding and teaching cartoons as this was a new component of the English First Additional Language (FAL) curriculum which they had never tasted either as learners or teacher-trainees. They hoped the workshop would make a positive contribution to filling this gap, and my response was to offer a session entitled ‘”Listening” to visual images: appreciating cartoons.’

    The 90-minute workshop was planned in stages that follow Gibbons’ curriculum cycle: building the field, modelling the text, joint construction and individual construction. In building the field, Newfield’s three key aspects of enjoying and understanding a cartoon (1995: 20) as shown in the table below were taught to 42 conference delegates:


    1. Physical portrayal of characters: Facial expression and body language.  Who are the characters?

    2. Clothing: What does this reveal about the characters’ status, position in society and role in current events?

    3. Setting: This can indicate where the event is taking place, or it can convey a particular satirical point.

    4. Genre: The political cartoon is a special genre or type of text.  It combines visual and verbal aspects.  It is recognised by its style of drawing (caricature) and its relevance to current events.


    5. Words: These are important in creating a specific meaning or conveying an interpretation or message.  The words are concise, witty/clever and thought-provoking.  We need to think about them.  We should consider: headings, captions, slogans, speech bubbles.


    6. Socio-political context: Even though the political cartoon provides many clues, it cannot be fully understood unless we know the real-life events on which the cartoon is based.

    7. Media context: The publication in which the cartoon appears can give us a clue to the attitude or position of the cartoon, or the opinion conveyed in it.  We should ask ourselves, ‘Who is presenting the cartoon, and to whom?’

    In modelling the text, these key aspects were identified and discussed in the cartoon below:

    Even though the cartoon was designed and appeared a long time ago, it was ideal for the workshop partly because teachers could still remember the event, and its interpretation using Newfield’s aspects made for easier understanding; and partly because the distance in time dispelled any possibility of immediate political tensions surfacing in discussion. Cartoons that appeared in the newspapers immediately prior to the conference reflected strong political tensions in the country, something which might have distracted delegates from the focus of the workshop.

    In tackling joint construction, delegates applied Newfield’s key aspects in relation to a second cartoon, and later they practised asking questions that could help learners to enjoy and understand that cartoon.

    The last stage of individual construction was not done because of time. However, in the discussions that occurred in between the activities the following factors, which could constrain or enable appreciation and understanding of a cartoon, came out.

    Familiarity of the visual context

    There is often a tension between the visual context in which the cartoon is set and the real situation it represents. As an illustration, in the Bisho Massacre Cartoon, a tennis court scene represents the real shooting of protesters and the reactions of the two former presidents, FW De Klerk and Nelson Mandela. A constraint emerged when some delegates were not familiar with key concepts of a tennis game such as the layout of the tennis court, how participants are positioned, what rules, equipment and words are used. This unfamiliarity emerged because some delegates came from communities where tennis is not played. As a result, they had limited understanding and couldn’t appreciate this text. To overcome this difficulty, the role of the teacher was seen as crucial in building learners’ background knowledge about the topic by introducing the tennis court scene in a pre-interpretation activity that would later provide learners with a solid foundation to understand and appreciate the cartoon.

    Familiarity with topical events

    Some delegates were not familiar with topical affairs in South Africa and the world, so they struggled to identify the physical portrayal of characters. In the joint construction stage of the workshop where delegates applied Newfield’s key aspects in the second cartoon, which did not have explanatory notes, some referred to the man seating in the table as Nelson Mandela instead of Barack Obama. Those who identified the man as Nelson Mandela gave that answer because, either, they were confused by the Bisho Massacre Cartoon and thought that the second cartoon must also refer to mid-90s South Africa when Mandela was president; or because, on the other hand, they simply did not pick up the visual and verbal cues such as ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’, ’Health’, and ‘Care’, or associate these with the world economic crisis that affected many countries, including the USA, while Barack Obama was struggling to have his health care reforms accepted. All in all, delegates came to see that to interpret cartoons a person requires substantial background knowledge of the topic as well as an understanding of how cartoonists use graphic techniques such as, for example, using distortion for comic effect when they exaggerate a particular facial or body feature of the focal character (Adendorff, 1991).

    In addition, many delegates did not appreciate this cartoon because they valued and relied on connotation more than denotation. When presented with the cartoon, the majority simply rushed to assign meaning without noticing or describing the visual elements and identifying verbal words as clues that provided factual evidence to support their claims. Connotation is a higher-order skill that relates to the deeper, hidden and figurative meaning of the cartoon, which cannot be easily achieved if the viewer does not know the socio-political or media context in which the cartoon is set, or fails to register the visual detail provided in the cartoon and its significance.

    Beliefs about teaching and learning

    In an intense discussion of the role of the teacher in presenting a cartoon, it came out that some delegates believed that the teacher was the only source of information in the classroom. The proponents of this idea viewed the teacher’s voice as dominant so that his/her understanding of the text was the best and must be the correct one. To me, as a workshop facilitator, that was like describing learners as ‘empty vessels’ that needed to be filled with information, and this attitude explained to some extent why such teachers encountered difficulties in teaching cartoons. Depending on the learners’ age and the extent of their exposure to cartoons, there is often a mismatch between the teacher and the learners who might well have more exposure than the teacher. In such situations, the teacher’s pouring of supposedly authoritative information into learners could be contrary to the envisaged new-curriculum learner who should be ‘imbued with the values and act in the interests of a society based on respect for democracy, equality, human dignity and social justice as promoted in the constitution’. This belief in the complete dominance of the teacher does not create a learning environment conducive to learners thinking critically and expressing themselves freely. Rather, it makes them passive recipients of information who can neither understand nor appreciate cartoons themselves.

    Also, in teaching a cartoon the teacher typically assumes two roles, as a ‘mediator of learning’ and as the ‘consumer of the text’.  As a mediator of learning, his/her role is to help learners construct meaning on their own. As a text consumer, the teacher is just like learners who receive a text that has been constructed by a cartoonist who has woven his/her attitudes, values, beliefs and ideas into that text, and it is highly unlikely that, once they have interpreted its meaning, learners and teacher will automatically share the same viewpoint about a particular cartoon. This calls for a critical language awareness which ‘makes people aware of how language [and images] can be patronising, demeaning, disrespectful, offensive, exclusive or the opposite’ (square brackets mine) and if people choose to endorse the images presented, it helps them to do so ‘with open eyes, to recognise the compromise they are making, to identify their feelings about it, and to maintain an independent self-image’ (Ivanic, 1990: 129-131).  Teachers should, therefore, be critically aware of their own beliefs by being careful of their role as text consumer influencing their role as a mediator of learning.


    We currently live in a world that is bombarded with visual images among which are cartoons, those humorous and satirical drawings encountered in many magazines, newspapers and on television. However, teachers need to make sure they view a lot of cartoons whilst they develop ways of helping learners appreciate them. Learners’ appreciation and understanding of cartoons usually develops slowly over a long time, especially for those learners who come from disadvantaged homes where reading and viewing materials are scarce. Those learners should be provided regularly with current and different newspapers. Cartoons form a genre that has its own language, and this language should be introduced and explored appropriately before interpretation is attempted. Lastly, some cartoons do not have one fixed meaning but rather a range of meanings, depending on the background knowledge one brings to bear on them. Different responses to one text should be expected. Cartoons are visual texts enjoyed by many learners and many more learners would enjoy them if teachers could learn how to present them well.

    Acknowledgments The cartoon examples used above are sourced from Newfield (1995: 21) and http://z.about.com/d/politicalhumor/1/0/K/B/3/Economy-Stupid-Attic.jpg (accessed 24/04/10).

    For further reading

    Adendorff, R. (1991). Political cartoons: uncooperating forms of communication? In Prinsloo J and Criticos C (eds) Media matters in South Africa. Durban: Media Resource Centre, University of Natal. 206-213.

    Gibbons, P (2002). Scaffolded language, scaffolded learning: teaching second language learners in mainstream classroom. Portsmouth NH: Heinamann.

    Ivanic, K. (1990).  Language awareness in action. In R.Cartz (ed), Knowledge about language and curriculum. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

    Newfield, D. (1995). Words and pictures. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

    Categories: Issue I