Myra Barrs celebrates a study that finds evidence of growing visual literacy in children's artwork
The meaning of the striking design of the cover of this absorbing and scholarly book becomes clear only as the book unfolds. It shows a detail from a street scene drawn by Charlie, a nine-year-old boy described by his teacher as "slightly autistic".
Charlie's drawing is part copy, part interpretation, of a picture from Satoshi Kitamura's Lily Takes a Walk. His drawing combines a bold graphic treatment with painstaking attention to detail and has some of the menace of Kitamura's original.
Charlie was a "struggling reader" and not a very articulate talker. In the study this book describes, his ability to interpret pictures and read the narrative that emerges from the combination of text and pictures is revealed, above all through his drawing.
Part of the originality of this research lay in the invitation to children to respond to pictorial narrative through their own pictures. Other researchers have examined how children talk about picture books - and this research, too, explores their ability to interpret and interrogate texts. Few have used children's drawings to gain another dimension of understanding about their response and their growing visual literacy.
This rich book takes off from the work of two prizewinning picture book artists, Kitamura and Anthony Browne. These artist-authors are chosen because in their texts "the said and the unsaid" come together. The words tell one story, the pictures a slightly different one. For children learning to read, such books are crucial; the pictures provide a rich subtext for the words. In this study, the authors focus on what children know about how to read pictures, and how they become more sophisticated readers as their experience of visual texts grows.
Kate Rabey's powerful account of how her reception class came to be more confident and thoughtful readers of Browne's work, helped by talking, looking and making, shows how far very young children can go in these circumstances. After several months, the children began to talk knowledgeably about the visual symbolism of Zoo, drawing parallels between the pictures of people and animals, finding references in the book's iconography to the Crucifixion, and discussing facial expressions and body language. Some articulate such understandings, including four-year-old Lyle, who said: "I think the animals are becoming wiser and the people are like animals."
It might have been good to have considered a wider range of texts, but no study has looked in this much depth at this kind of reading, and at the amount of work that is going on as children pore over illustrations.
Among the treats the book holds (including a perceptive chapter about talk by Helen Bromley, and interviews with Kitamura and Browne about their own work) is a chapter by Kathy Coulthard about young bilingual learners responding to visual texts. This contains striking insights into the possibilities the discussion of visual narrative opens up for bilingual children.
Six-year-old Mehmet cannot read the words of Browne's The Tunnel, but is alive to the significance of the images. Initially reticent, he leads his group of children to see that one picture is full of references to the story of Red Riding Hood, with which he is familiar in Turkish. Although he has been learning English for only six months, he strives to articulate the story he can see in the pictures.
Coulthard's commentary suggests that "Mehmet is positioned to succeed" by such books. The texts are complex and challenging enough to "push (pupils') language to the outer limits, with the drive to communicate overcoming their natural fear of making mistakes". Her eloquent analysis of the empowering nature of this experience for inexperienced learners is only one of several pleasures in a many-faceted book.
Myra Barrs is co-director of the Centre for Language in Primary Education