Happy face or smiley face? Teachers face up to emoji culture

This generation of primary pupils are faced with the primacy of the visual – which makes for an interesting challenge for schools

Helen Ward

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Smiley face or crying face? That emojis are becoming one of the fastest-growing “languages” will come as little surprise to teachers. After all who invented the idea of replacing the words “good work” with a smudged stamp of a smiley face in the first place?

And when faced with children’s love of the slang du jour, it is now an important part of teaching to explain that it is the context that should determine whether words or pictures of smiling poo are most apt.

But there are concerns over the rise of emojis that are not quite like previous concerns over text speak, slang or the sick changes to what words mean. Whatever you think about most “youth speak”, it is still largely about words. Emojis are not.

If you deal in words, as does poet Ian Gregson, who is in the running for professor of poetry at the University of Oxford, the rise of the visual is becoming a major issue. He points out that while television shaped the shift to visual over verbal, this has intensified with the internet which ranks images above words and that poetry has suffered ‘a catastrophic loss of cultural prestige’.

It may seem a rarefied concern to those in the primary classroom, where picture books have long been used to introduce children to stories and motivate them to read (especially when the quality of some picture books seems to far outstretch that of some of the “early readers”). But there is a growing concern that looking at pictures will soon stop being a step on the path to literacy, and instead replace it.

One area where this debate is most pronounced is in the burgeoning business of book apps, which are increasingly blurring the boundaries between reading stories and the games which have proved so successful in this format.

That is not to say that games themselves can’t be beautiful or thoughtful – when My Very Hungry Caterpillar, an app based on the much-loved story by Eric Carle, won this year’s Bologna Ragazzi Digital Award at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the most important event in the children’s publishing industry, it was praised for its humour and surprises and for “communicating entirely without words”.

Indeed, some in this world have gone even further. Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow, which produces apps and books, wrote last year in her blog that she could “absolutely imagine a scenario where mass literacy is just a historical blip… technology could easily make the ability to decode text irrelevant”.

Her solution is for publishers to do their best to make sure that technology engages children with reading – to ensure it is not the most boring thing that children can do on a screen.

Similarly Professor Vyv Evans, of Bangor University, whose comments on emojis began the latest round of the debate, points out that they are being used to enhance, rather than replace, written language. He concludes that emojis will not replace text, but neither are they a passing fad. He predicts, instead, that emojis will increasingly invade professional language.

It seems that the vital work of primary teachers in teaching children to read will become increasingly important as the way we read becomes not simplified by images, but perhaps more #complex.

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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