Draw out imagination with a picture book

17th July 2015 at 01:00
Texts without words aren't just for the very young - their open-ended nature gives creative licence to primary pupils of all ages

It's Mr Wuffles Week at Corstorphine Primary, a school of 500 pupils in a west Edinburgh suburb, and the classroom is buzzing with creative activity. Normal timetables have been suspended, school uniforms shelved and every pupil, from nursery to the 11- and 12-year-olds of P7, is exploring the same tome: Mr Wuffles! - a picture book with virtually no words, created by award-winning author David Wiesner.

"At first I thought, `A book with no words?' " one P7 pupil recalls. "We felt awkward because the younger ones were doing the same thing as us. But it was great fun because you could go wherever your mind took you. Anything could happen."

The aim of the week, headteacher Jennifer Ross explains, is to help pupils and staff focus on creativity. "This near-wordless picture book is the perfect vehicle," she says. "Pupils can enjoy the freedom to explore what the images suggest to them, without the restriction of words. Their imaginations can soar in a way that feels very different and exciting."

The message is clear: contemporary picture books such as Mr Wuffles! should not be pigeonholed as being suitable only for "less advanced" readers in the early years.

Unlike traditional illustrated texts, where pictures often fulfil a supporting, subordinate role, sophisticated picture books are characterised by a playful and sometimes contradictory relationship between images and words.

"Twenty years of research into these profoundly enjoyable texts has provided evidence that very young children can make meaning from their complex aesthetic features, while older children can learn how words and images are used to create multilayered narratives," says Dr Evelyn Arizpe, co-author of Children Reading Pictures: interpreting visual texts.

The findings of an international study by Arizpe and colleagues in 2014 - using The Arrival, a multi-award-winning wordless picture book by Shaun Tan - suggest that children learning a new language, or those who struggle to decode written text, can especially benefit from picture books.

"This does not mean that wordless picture books are an `easy read'," Arizpe says. "They provide all children with the chance to explore the structure and purpose of narrative."

Research conducted by Mariana Souto-Manning in 2009 also shows how using picture books in the classroom can help teachers and pupils to find "ways in" to issues such as race, poverty, gender and migration, which might ordinarily be considered too challenging, particularly for younger pupils.

Julie McAdam, a lecturer in children's literature at the University of Glasgow, says pupils' empathic responses to fictional situations can be useful starting points for discussions about real-life issues. "These original, multimodal texts can provide learning spaces for readers to respond socially, culturally, critically and emotionally," she says.

According to Ross, staff and pupils at Corstorphine Primary used Mr Wuffles! as a springboard into a host of cross-curricular and cross-stage activities.

"We offered pupils the chance to respond to the book in different ways on different days," she explains. "From the word go, the children revelled in the freedom of the text and really went for the challenge. Staff consistently reported that pupils were motivated and focused, sometimes spending hours on one activity to perfect it and using resources in ways that teachers hadn't even considered."

Alien endeavour

Wiesner's story features a cat - Mr Wuffles - who appears to terrorise a band of tiny aliens. Like many other picture books, the text is open-ended and ambiguous, causing many pupils to speculate about the nature of Mr Wuffles' intentions towards the aliens and to explore issues related to friendship.

"Lots of my class wondered if he was actually a `goodie', perhaps because he looked cute," says Angela Lindsay, a teacher of four- and five-year-old P1 pupils and Corstorphine's literacy coordinator. "We used this book to explore how things are not what they seem and how to communicate without using English words."

Although many children chose to respond through art, drama or writing, others used their digital expertise to create movies, animations and computer games. Pupils hypothesised about the physical properties of the aliens' home planet; learned how to create and crack codes; devised board games; and calculated distances in light years. They transformed school corridors into rehearsal spaces filled with drama and music, and turned the walls into vast canvases for their own picture books.

Ross considers the week, now part of the school's improvement plan, to have been a resounding success. "One of the children told me that Mr Wuffles Week let her explore parts of her imagination that she didn't know existed," she says. "So we'll definitely continue to read sophisticated picture books as a school, now we know what they can give to children."

Jennifer Farrar is a freelance writer based in Scotland

What else?

This blank Cinderella picture book will encourage pupils to think about narrative. bit.lyCinderellaPicturebook

Use pictures as prompts for pupils' own storybooks. bit.lyPicturebookPrompts

Author Anthony Browne discusses the artists who inspired his book Willy's Pictures. bit.lyAnthonyBrowne

Further reading

Arizpe, E, Colomer, T and Martnez-Roldn, C (2014) Visual Journeys Through Wordless Narratives: an international inquiry with immigrant children and `The Arrival' (Bloomsbury)

Souto-Manning, M (2009) "Negotiating culturally responsive pedagogy through multicultural children's literature: towards critical democratic literacy practices in a first-grade classroom", Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 19: 50-74

Leland, CH, Harste, JC and Huber, KR (2005) "Out of the box: critical literacy in a first-grade classroom", Language Arts, 482: 257-268

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