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Put your pupils in the picture

Pictures can be used in classrooms to engage pupils of any age or ability across the curriculum. Their use in prompting written and spoken responses is an old teaching technique rarely adopted now, partly because of curricular constraints. But Alison Couchman, a teacher and in-service trainer, believes that pictures offer valuable tools for promoting confidence, literacy and observation skills.

She uses images as a resource to support early learning goals, especially at the foundation stage.

"With a picture, there is no right or wrong answer," she says. "If you use an image, you are not expecting a set response from children, so it is a great way to build confidence and it makes it suitable for any age or ability, including children with special needs.

"Children will see different things or find different parts of it more appealing. But the fact that there is no specific, set answer is why it is such an approachable way to work with kids. No matter what age or ability level, everybody has a valid viewpoint, opinion or statement to make."

More or less any image can be used, but it is down to individual teachers to select images that are appropriate for their pupils.

Ms Couchman, who is based in Suffolk, often uses French Impressionist Camille Pissarro's painting The Village Market.

"We start by speculating about the people in it; what they are doing, why they are there, who they are with," she says. "Then children may write about individual characters.

"It can be relevant to numeracy work or science as well as literacy skills.

You can even bring in some foreign language, with simple French names and so on. This is the cross-curricular element."

Studies show that people learn in many ways and that there are particular types of learners. Visual learners can retain information more easily by looking at an image or diagram than they can from the written word.

Research also shows that images stimulate the limbic region of the brain, the part that controls emotions. This means that if children look at a picture they like, the stimulation of the limbic centre enables a more powerful response.

"There are children who are not going to be good learners in this way, but it is rare that you get children who don't respond at all to an image," says Ms Couchman.

"It does require a certain amount of courage for teachers to step outside the boundaries of what we've been doing for years. It also requires the support of the senior management to say, 'Yes, it's OK to do this now and again.' But teachers have become very timid about trying new things."

It only requires 10 or 15 minutes of class time to sit down and look at a picture with children and - particularly with young pupils - get them all to express an opinion.

Ms Couchman says: "The children I work with are reluctant to speak out among their peers. Art has taken such a back seat in recent years, and I see children who don't have much in the way of visual literacy because they are not used to looking at pictures or describing what they see.

"They don't have the vocabulary, so they are reluctant to express an opinion in case everyone else laughs at them. But you begin simply by asking what they see, then ask for other words to describe this, slowly building up that literacy.

"I feel very passionately about how easy this is. You are getting pupils to develop speaking and listening skills, observation skills and taking turns to listen to someone else's point of view."

It is such a simple and accessible tool that everyone can use it to make lessons more interesting.

Alison Couchman will give a talk at the Early Years and Primary Teaching Exhibition on "Creativity in the Curriculum: a cross-curricular approach" at the SECC on November 20, noon

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