Learning and Development

Why visual literacy shouldn’t be overlooked

  • Why visual literacy shouldn’t be overlooked

Charlotte Hacking shares the importance of picture books for developing young children’s skills in early reading, talk and writing.

As a class teacher, school leader and lover of children’s literature, I’ve always been aware of the transformative nature of picture books on children of all ages. In too many instances, these are seen by adults as a step up into reading novels, but they are a sophisticated genre of literature in their own right. 

Far from being the easy option, picture books challenge readers in more and different ways than print alone. 

Filling the gaps

Reading pictures is just as complex, perhaps more complex, than reading print. In the best picture books, there is space between the pictures and the text – the pictures don’t just simply illustrate the words. 

This takes the child reader into very special place, in which they have to read the text, read the illustrations and then put the ideas together along with their personal experience and knowledge and understanding of the world to fill the gaps in between. 

It’s a really challenging thing to do and enables even the youngest children to develop a wealth of comprehension knowledge and skills. 

Giving time and space to discussing picture books and responding to illustrations contained within them allows children to gain so much more from the text, and to do more of the weight of the reading work. 

Through discussions around picture book spreads in a group, children are given opportunities to compose and articulate their ideas, compare these with the ideas of others, make connections between their thoughts and the thoughts of others, and gain an ability to build on or constructively challenge the ideas of others. 

A mouse called Julian

In looking at Joe Todd-Stanton’s A Mouse Called Julian, nursery children were able to recognise the facial expressions and body language of the main character, Julian, from the first endpapers, before a word of the story had been shared, connecting this to how he might be feeling and what might make him feel this way. 

As the story progressed the teacher became increasingly aware that the illustrations were open enough for the children to be able to take control of conversations around the narrative, offering and developing ideas, making connections between parts of the story and inferring why things had happened or might be about to happen.

The rich, satisfying storyline, the sophistication in the illustrations and the potential for rich discussion with an enabling adult or group of peers are what will enrich language and vocabulary, develop the social aspects of reading and take children a head above in their comprehension, making inferences, deductions and connections from an early age. 

Communicating through pictures

We must ensure that while children are learning to decode, they are also exposed to rich texts like these that support comprehension and develop their motivation to read. 

Young children can also use what they have learnt from picture books to create narratives of their own. Being able to represent thoughts, create characters and tell stories through drawing comes naturally to children in the early years. 

It’s the first route to communicating meaning, before they are introduced the symbolic system of print and the letter/sound relationships that allow them to communicate in text. 

Allowing opportunities for children to draw regularly and to communicate their ideas in pictures allows them to gain key knowledge and skills that form the building blocks of writing; to take an idea, share it meaningfully, structure and develop their thinking and create authentic characters, settings or ideas for story events. 

Models of illustration help children develop not only their artistic skills and abilities but also their fine motor skills, paving the way for handwriting. 

Author/illustrator draw along videos show children how to create and shape characters through illustration and will give them ideas to create characters of their own.

As one Reception teacher commented, “The modelled drawing activity completely shattered my preconceptions of what 5-year-olds might be capable of drawing…”

For the very youngest children, teachers involved in our Power of Pictures programme have noticed higher levels of engagement, language development, comprehension and imagination when working with picture books and when being allowed to communicate and develop ideas through drawing. 

Picture books to develop visual literacy

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
The book has a simple repetitive text which children will quickly access for themselves as they enjoy the pictures, peopled with Chris Haughton’s characteristic and comical angular and wide-eyed figures. There is plenty to discuss in regard to the actions of humans on the environment and links well to a focus on self-regulation in the early years. 

Is there a dog in this book? by Viviane Schwarz
An inventive, interactive book in which three playful cats directly address the readers, imploring them to keep turning the pages to first hide from and then find a ‘doggy friend’. 

The story offers opportunities for children to talk about fears in the context of a known story and to look at how to build and form friendships, taking the needs of others into account. All essential skills to develop in the early years.

The Story Machine by Tom McLaughlin
This book tells the story of Elliot, who one day finds a mysterious machine. He makes it work by accident and discovers that it is a story machine with letters that make words.

However, Elliott finds letters hard to contend with until, with the aid of his imagination and a magnifying glass, he notices a picture amongst them. This sets him off on the path to a world of his own story making. A wonderful stimulus for children to make their own stories using pictures and to develop empathy with a character who finds elements of learning difficult.

Charlotte Hacking is the Learning and Programme Director at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).

The Power of Pictures programme has just been part of the Education Endowment Foundation P(EEF) and Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Learning About Culture Trial, with positive gains evidenced in children’s self-efficacy, creativity and writing outcomes. Find out more and access resources and training.