Charting new territory and breaking down barriers with picture books

24th September 2010 at 01:00
Pupils from all over the world found common ground working with wordless novels as part of a project on journeys

Courses on exploring the potential of picture books attract only nursery and early primary teachers, lament education lecturers at Glasgow University, but they can be used throughout primary and secondary.

Senior lecturer Maureen Farrell and two of her colleagues would like to see picture books included in the range of texts to which pupils are exposed in Curriculum for Excellence.

"In countries like Australia, they are already on the curriculum," she points out.

According to the new curriculum guidance for English and literacy, youngsters should learn to "read" a wide variety of texts, from advertisements to social networking sites. But picture books are not mentioned.

The list is not designed to be exhaustive, but it would be useful if picture books were included, says Evelyn Arizpe, a lecturer in children's literature. "Picture books are a very under-valued resource that most people think are just for babies.

"I've heard of people recommending that the pictures in books be covered up, so children learning to read can concentrate on the text. That's so sad! They are being denied this wealth of wonderful books."

Far from hindering pupils' progress, pictures can support reading, she argues: "A lot of children who are not confident with text will be confident with images and able to find clues that will help them work out what the story is about."

Dr Arizpe and her language-specialist colleagues, Maureen Farrell and Julie McAdam, have been using wordless picture books to develop the language skills of primary children in Glasgow, most of whom come from immigrant families.

"We thought picture books without words would be a door in for people who not only had reading difficulties but for whom the language was a challenge," says Dr Arizpe.

The international Visual Journeys Project, which is also being run in Australia, Spain and the USA, focuses on Flotsam, a picture book by David Wiesner, and The Arrival, a graphic novel by Shaun Tan.

Both books deal with the topic of journeys and entering strange new worlds, which allows the researchers not just to enhance the pupils' critical literacy skills, but also to use the books to spark discussion.

"A shared understanding developed, barriers were broken down and a community of readers created," Ms McAdam says.

Across the four countries, pupils used the picture books to look at narrative, characterisation, the idea of interior thoughts and internalisation, fantasy and reality, as well as the impact of design and page layout.

At St Paul's Primary in Glasgow's Whiteinch, a mixed group of 12 P6 and 7 pupils from immigrant and native Scottish backgrounds came together; at the city's Holycross Primary, eight P6 and 7 immigrant children took part.

Immigrant or native; whether they lived in Scotland, Australia, Spain or the USA, the children had shared experiences, the researchers found. For instance, children in every country commented that a double-page spread from The Arrival, depicting a port, reminded them of the blockbuster film Titanic.

Sometimes, however, the illustrations prompted quite different interpretations, as when the main character in The Arrival undergoes a medical and is shown in a series of boxed pictures having his eyes, ears and mouth examined.

"The immigrants, who had come through the process, recognised this was a health check, but the Scottish children thought he was being searched for drugs," says Dr Arizpe.

Work with the books began with small group discussions about the cover, the endpapers, the title and the author's intentions. They then went through the books discussing what was happening.

Specific spreads were photocopied and examined in more detail, with pupils noting in the margins what they could see - the characters, the places, the actions taking place. They were also encouraged to add in thought and speech bubbles.

The children were then given digital cameras and invited to take pictures of the things that were important to them, just as the children in Flotsam take pictures of their lives.

Finally, the children designed a comic strip depicting a journey they had been on.

"It was a way of allowing them to talk about themselves but without forcing them to," says Ms McAdam. "The journey could be about anything they wanted. One girl talked about having been lost as a child."

By the end of the project, the researchers claim, the children were able to make sophisticated analyses of the narratives; acquired vocabulary through reading; gained a language to discuss visual elements; used their past lives and experiences of migration to interpret texts; showed an increased awareness of cross-cultural issues; and shared their experiences and cultures.

One pupil, however, only had the chance to gain some of these skills. Originally from Sri Lanka, he was deported to Italy in the middle of the project, thrusting upon him another journey and another arrival in a strange, unfamiliar land.


Glasgow University is introducing a new course focusing on children's literature and literacy teaching.

The M.Ed can be taken on a full or part-time basis and will, according to programme co-ordinator Evelyn Arizpe, give learners the opportunity to take a critical stance in relation to well-loved texts, as well as introducing them to contemporary authors.

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