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Picture books provide medium for incomers to express themselves

Immigrant children's literacy skills can be improved by giving them books without words, Glasgow University research has shown, writes Henry Hepburn.

A small study involved ethnic-minority and Scottish children aged 10 and 11 at a Glasgow primary, who were asked to draw their own comics, take photographs and annotate images.

Some of the six-month pilot project's most intriguing findings emerged when pupils had to explain images in The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, a graphic novel about a man forced to leave his family behind to seek better prospects in an unknown and bewildering country.

The task was completed by five Scottish children, one Pakistani-Scot and four immigrants. The latter needed more help writing their comments, but there were also less expected developments.

The researchers noted: "What is surprising is that language was not a barrier to constructing meaning from images because it was often the immigrant child who made more insightful comments, not only because of their experience of immigration, but also because they are more used to having to consider pictorial clues to make sense of the text."

The view of picture books as a simplistic art form for young children had been dismissed, the researchers stated, with some now aimed at an audience "far beyond" primary school.

"Research has revealed how images and their relationship to text have the potential to 'teach' the reading of both words and pictures as well as providing a space for reflection, dialogue and creativity," they said.

The pilot in Glasgow was part of the international Visual Journeys project, looking at responses of immigrant and non-immigrant children to Shaun Tan's graphic novel and a picture book by David Wiesner, Flotsam. The researchers were Evelyn Arizpe, Maureen Farrell and Julie McAdam.

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