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Every picture tells a story

Children are at home in a world of multimedia literacy which combines text and visuals. And we must keep up, writes Eve Bearne

The sunny summer seems to have brought out the usual crop of "good old days" stories. The familiar claims that exams aren't as hard as they used to be have been accompanied by the Office for Standards in Education's report that very young children are dumped in front of the television to the detriment of their language development.

We'd be foolish to dismiss these claims out of hand, but the rosy glow of nostalgia doesn't serve us very well, nor the young people we work with.

One very good reason for taking a more clear-sighted view is that, in fact, things aren't what they used to be in terms of literacy.

Children in the 21st century are surrounded by visual texts of all kinds: different forms of multi-media text - internet information, Playstation games, DVDs, email - and television, as well as the now much more image-based books, newspapers and magazines.

Children now expect texts to be in all these different forms. Not only that, they know how to handle them, manipulating computers, television and video equipment with ease. This means that they have much more experience of a whole range of complex texts.

Picture books are often highly dependent on reading for inference and television, films and videos, with their added sound effects, close-ups and distance shots, framing and sequencing, require sophisticated reading.

None of this suggests that young people today have an easier time with literacy. On the contrary, it indicates that they have access to a range and repertoire which many adults find breathtaking. It is very hard to keep up - and it is often the children themselves who help us tackle the range of texts on offer.

But we do need to keep up because increasingly - and perfectly understandably - children represent their thinking in ways which mirror their text experience. They draw to accompany their ideas, use different font sizes and shapes, double-page-type layout and even represent sound as part of their own text-making.

In all the public ways that children's literacy is judged, however, these forms of "writing" are not considered valid. Sats may invite poster-style presentation for some non-fiction tasks, but assessment is made on the written parts of the text alone.

This has some serious implications, particularly for boys, who seem to draw on their visual and multimedia text experience more than girls, who tend to use written texts as models. Young writers who use pictorial information, films or video games as inspiration, but who have to write for about half an hour in a Sat without much time to redraft, face a huge challenge - small wonder that boys, whose literacy choices are visually driven, are less successful.

This shouldn't be over-simplified. Girls also draw on their experience of visual texts and there will be times when continuous prose is not appropriate. They need experience of composing in a range of forms and this has to be supported by explicit discussion of variations in the structures, purposes and effects of texts which may be a combination of writing and pictures, as well as written texts. This places great demands on classroom teachers in terms of the talk which accompanies literacy.

The UK Literacy Association (formerly UK Reading Association) has been working for a year, with the support of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, on a booklet that uses the QCA writing Sat strands to describe texts which use images and writing to explain, persuade or instruct. The materials, available early next year, contain suggestions for teaching sequences at KS1 and KS2 and give examples of using visual texts in all curriculum areas.

If we are to use the remarkable resources of text knowledge that our children have now, this means not only talking with them, but having professional discussions through whatever means we can. We invite all teachers to contribute ideas about using visual approaches to literacy through the association's website.

Eve Bearne is a senior research associate at Cambridge University faculty of education and president of the United Kingdom Literacy Association;

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