Break through the language barrier

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
European picture-books can bring savoir faire to your literacy lessons, says Penni Cotton.

Teachers are advised to use literature from other cultures during the literacy hour, particularly with juniors. But when it comes to choosing such books and discovering how they can best benefit primary pupils, teachers are pretty much on their own. The activities presented here are taken from my publication, Picture Books sans Fronti res, which suggests a number of ways that the visual narrative techniques of picture-books from other cultures can be analysed. This is to help pupils not only to understand more about language and literature but also to gain an awareness of their own national identity and what it means to be European.

Although an increasing number of children in UK schools are bi- or tri-lingual, a great many speak English as their only language. Children who are mono-lingual often find it difficult to learn another language or, indeed, to learn how to reflect on and analyse their own. By looking at the title of a European picture-book, such as Das Land der Ecken (Austria), pupils can see that English and German have much in common. Most realise that "land" is the same in both languages, and that it is a noun. They are also aware that it has to be preceded by the definite or indefinite article and, from their knowledge of English, they can guess "of".

Now comes the more difficult part. In order to work out "Ecken", it's necessary to look at the picture. Many children think it means "shapes" and some correctly guess "corners", so solving the mystery of "The Land of Corners". Along the way, not only have they discovered that there are similarities between languages, they have also focused on linguistic terminology.

Das Land der Ecken was chosen for inclusion in this European picture-book collection because it deals with the acceptance of difference, and focuses on the similarities between cultures that can help us to live in harmony with each other. It tells the tale of a child who, living in a land of corners, is suddenly confronted by an alien round object. He takes this to his teachers who, not understanding it, throw it away. In doing so, they break it, giving it sharp edges and thus making it conform to their ideals. In the meantime, the boy's angular cat has seen a balloon on the horizon. They follow its movements and soon come to a tree, portrayed as a circle, underneath which is a round-faced boy with a scooter with round wheels. Together, the two boys go off to play with their new toy.

* Structure and punctuation

The title page of Kan Du Vissla Johanna ("Can You Whistle Johanna"), can be used to discuss the omission of the question mark in the title, which sometimes occurs in Swedish picture-books. The Swedish title is very similar to the English, but this one can be used to begin a research project on the representation of question marks in different languages. In Spanish - for example El Guardi n Del Olvido ("The Guardian of Lost Things") - they are represented quite differently, while in Greek a semi-colon is used.

You can also discuss why more words are used in the Spanish than in the English version. Whereas, in Spanish, the correct conjugation of the verb is essential, in English there always has to be a pronoun which agrees with the verb. It is also instructive to look at the pronunciation of the letter "o" in the tw languages. In Spanish, it's always pronounced in the same way. But in the English version, there are three different ways in which "o" can be pronounced; making total phonic interpretation rather difficult.

* Literary awareness

The books in this collection have all been chosen because they represent the universal childhood theme of friendship and highlight similarities between cultures. By focusing on the character, setting and plot of specific books, it is possible to help pupils focus on literary structure and European understanding.

The use of an overhead transparency showing the main character in Vem Ska Trosta Knyttet? ("Who will comfort Toffle?") can help pupils to discuss Toffle's character and his likely role in the story. Questions that encourage pupils to describe Toffle by looking for evidence in the illustrations, also help foster an understanding of how illustrators use visual codes, such as position, size, shape and colour, and narrative techniques (trigger images) to give clues about the story. Discussion might also focus on why Toffle is afraid of the dark, what could be done to help him and which stories might make him feel more secure. Pupils can also look for visual evidence that might indicate life in a country where it is dark for much of the year, or a map of Europe showing Finland's northerly position, where the climate is likely to affect life and culture.

Using a similar technique, questions can be developed that relate to the setting of Katie Morag and the New Pier. This Scottish contribution invites discussion at a number of levels, and the visual codes and techniques used by Mairi Hedderwick can be contrasted with those of other European illustrators. Discussion of plot might focus around the simple visual narrative structure of Kees en Keetje (from the Netherlands), where two friends make up after a quarrel, but not until they realise that their favourite Dutch meal (chips and apple sauce) can only be eaten if they are friends - Kees has the chips and Keetje the apple sauce!

To begin using European picture-books in the literacy hour, focusing on friendship and cultural understanding, one need go no further than England's contribution, Janet and Allan Ahlberg's Starting School. Here, parents from different cultures are "united in pride" as they watch a Christmas play. Putting this book alongside all the others in the collection, pupils and teachers will begin to realise that discussing the literature and languages of other European countries acknowledges the similarities between cultures, and thus facilitates a greater understanding of what it means to be a European citizen.

For further EPBC information: http: members.tripod.compennicotton. To order EPBC books from European Schoolbook: direct@ European Children's Literature III, the proceedings from the third European Children's Literature Conference held in Hungary in May 2000 (ISBN 1 902743 28 8), is available from National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, University of Surrey Roehampton, Digby Stuart College, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PH.Picture Books sans Fronti res is published by Trentham Books, Penni Cotton is director of the European Picture-Book Collection project, which is based at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, University of Surrey Roehampton

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