Image conscious

Sue Palmer on the importance of teaching children to put words to media pictures. Over the page, she looks at a scheme in action

It's half a century since television began to edge its way into the nation's living rooms, making moving pictures a part of our daily lives. The children we teach today take these images for granted. They can access them whenever they want - on TV, on video, via their home computer. In a few years' time - as transmission bands grow ever broader - we'll all be able to download even more moving pictures from the Net than we can now. And along with the pictures, we'll access words.

There are, of course, always words. Apart from the dialogue of drama and the crooning of advertisers, TV is awash with commentary - disembodied voices accompanying all factual material, from documentaries, travelogues and home improvement programmes to the serious business of news. But moving pictures make such a strong impression, it's easy to take the verbal accompaniment for granted.

A Year 6 boy from Walmsley school, near Bolton, expressed this lack of awareness when discussing his class's multimedia project: "It was funny when we first saw the video and it was silent," he said. "You never think about having to write words to go with it. You sort of think it all comes together." But images must be chosen and assembled, and words must be written to fit them. The people who fuse those words and pictures together create our view of the world. Anyone who thinks media education is a frothy non-subject must be either remarkably innocent or deeply cynical.

For today's children, true literacy involves more than reading and writing. They must be able to "read" the images presented to them by the visual media, and recognise the writing that inevitably goes alongside. Talking books and informational CD-ROMs are a familiar part of literacy prvision in many classrooms. Like TV, video and home computers, however, these resources turn children into "the audience" - making them receivers of the commentators' wisdom. To help them become aware of the daily fusion of words and images on our screens, we need opportunities for children to use multimedia as a stimulus for their own writing, to learn for themselves how moving pictures can be interpreted in words.

As Walmsley school's project demonstrates (see p40 ), video is an excellent stimulus for writing. But you don't have to turn into a news reporter to use it. Granada Learning has also included some short video clips in its latest word processingDTP package, Primary Writer. These, linked to banks of words, sound effects and still pictures, make an excellent starting point for talk, then for descriptive writing. This even works for very young children. Forthcoming online materials from the BBC will also feature short bursts of video footage as a stimulus, initially for writing in non-fiction writing genres. Starting in Years 5 and 6 and eventually extending across the primary age-range, the clips - along with still-pictures, notes and simple animation - will provide a bank of information to which pupils can refer when producing a particular type of non-fiction text.

There's no doubt that children in the 21st century respond more readily to the stimulus of moving images than text-based resources, and video-based writing will no doubt be popular in the classroom. But there's more to it than motivation. The experience of analysing video for its content and providing words to describe or accompany it, is an opportunity for children to notice how visual media work. It's also a chance for teachers to point out how words and images can be used to influence an audience. It's another tiny step along the road to 21st century literacy.

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