Film sleuths put reading in the frame

29th January 2010 at 00:00
`Screen detectives' in Dundee are displacing the idea that literacy has to be restricted to the printed page

Music, sound effects and voices pour out of the speakers. But there is nothing to see - pupils have to ponder the film's atmosphere by listening alone.

This is screen literacy, as done in Dundee. Those behind a new P4-7 resource hope to overturn a stubborn perception that literacy means deciphering words on a page.

It centres on a 2005 Dutch children's film, Winky's Horse, Winky being a six-year-old Chinese girl coming to terms with a move to the Netherlands. Rather than watching her life unfold, pupils become "screen detectives" who delve behind the camera and pick apart seven roles crucial to the making of the film.

As foley artists (creators of sound effects), they listen to the soundtrack and make notes about its emotional impact. As Method actors - like Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep - they must stay in character even when cameras are not rolling, and be interviewed by the class. As casting agents, they analyse characters' impact on each other.

Those assigned as directors have to pore over the types of shots used in the film: what is the point of a close-up on Winky's face, or a wide shot that shows the place where she has come to live? Pupils also take on the roles of cinematographer, scriptwriter and linkmaker, the person who ensures that scenes flow together without continuity errors.

Films work in a very different way from squiggles on the pages of a book, and there is unfamiliar vocabulary to contend with. The importance of being able to make sense of moving images is underlined in the Curriculum for Excellence outcomes, which state that children should know how to analyse a broader range of texts, including films, games and television programmes.

But Dundee, a pioneer of moving-image education in Scotland, has ambitions beyond merely improving screen literacy. Quality improvement officer Margaret Foley, who for 10 years has been responsible for moving-image education, says it creates a "rich context for children to develop across the curriculum". She also believes that they can learn critical skills that are useful in all aspects of life by, for example, understanding the motives behind product placement.

Winky's Horse is a full-length feature film lasting about one-and-a-half hours and first appeared in Dundee at the annual Discovery Film Festival for young people in 2007. The new resource homes in on social and cultural themes that left a mark on audiences, not just the nuts and bolts of film- making.

Rowantree Primary teacher James Miller, who produced the resource with Ms Foley and Fintry Primary teacher Lorna Grant, believes the film strikes a powerful chord with pupils, despite being in Dutch and Mandarin (he gets a confident pupil to read out the subtitles). Winky feels out of place in her new home, as pupils sometimes do; also, the film intrigues by showing how Christmas is celebrated in another country.

The pack, which benefited from 4,000 from Scottish Screen for materials and about the same amount from the city council to train Mr Miller and Ms Grant, serves as a general primer on how to read a film. Mr Miller's pupils, who worked on an early version, have since dissected films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Mr Miller, who studied animation at Duncan of Jordanstone College, uses the basic Digital Blue animation software with pupils, some of whom produce shorts that go on to screen at the Discovery Film Festival. He believes the skills used to analyse Winky's Horse will help boost children's confidence to make films by demystifying the process.

The pack, which was sent out to every primary in Dundee last Friday but can also be used in early secondary, taps into what Mr Miller sees as a "level playing field" of learning. Children who might struggle elsewhere are at ease with film and video because they are growing up in a time when hundreds of millions of videos are uploaded to YouTube: "They're surrounded by it," he says.

- Copies of the pack are available from Katharine Simpson at Dundee Contemporary Arts T 01382 909274.

A digital version will appear shortly on


In the struggle to bring film into the educational mainstream, Margaret Foley pinpoints a "wonderful" moment in 2007. All 37 Dundee primaries were sent a "moving image education resource box", including guidance, software and DVDs (among them Wallace amp; Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit).

A recent internal report for the city council and the Discovery Film Festival found that feedback on the boxes was overwhelmingly positive. One teacher said its contents fitted "perfectly" with Curriculum for Excellence, thanks to "endless" cross-curricular links. The film studied by the teacher's class generated a project lasting a whole term, covering art, music, language, drama and ICT.

Teachers were inspired to use Laurel and Hardy to support humorous writing and demonstrate slapstick comedy, or Transformers: the Movie for shot types and character development. Many were surprised by the richness and depth of discussions generated by films.

Ms Foley can cite American research suggesting that screen literacy improves the ability to read printed texts. Many teachers in the Dundee report found that talking about film in a "sensory way" enhanced the children's descriptive language and writing skills.

Her experiences leave her convinced about the profound impact of moving- image education on children: "They say they'll never watch a film the same way again," she says.

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