From an early age, children use images to make sense of the world. Exposed to a multimedia environment from birth, there are so many opportunities to become visually literate - through television, film, computer games and the internet. Once they reach school age, the emphasis shifts to functional literacy and, for many children, visual literacy begins to take second place. But teachers and educationists are recognising the importance of visual literacy in raising standards of reading and writing, particularly through film.
David Parker, research officer for education projects at the British Film Institute, has found that children taught a written text in tandem with the moving image perform better than those exposed to just the text.
"Film is an incredibly powerful medium," he says. "It's child centred and often relevant to children's lives. It works in education because film makes things immediately explicit in a way that the printed word can't.
Conversely, the printed word can enable us to see things like the inside workings of a character's mind, which films can't usually do. The strengths of one offsets the other, which is why they work so well together."
The National Literacy Strategy at key stage 3 emphasises the importance of the moving image in reading for meaning and many English teachers are capitalising on this.
Catherine Bourne, an English teacher from the Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, has found short film extracts particularly useful in helping students understand difficult concepts.
"One of my Year 8 classes was struggling with the concept of parody," she explains. "We were studying the mechanicals scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream and I wanted them to understand how it parodies the ending of Romeo and Juliet. I decided to show them the opening of The Lord of the Rings, then showed them a parody sketch by the comediennes French and Saunders.
Finally, we looked at the end of Romeo and Juliet and they grasped the idea immediately. It confirmed my belief that moving image can play a crucial part in helping children access what they already know."
Gill Clayton, head of English at Great Torrington Community College, Devon, agrees. "Film is a great medium for introducing difficult concepts," she says. "With a literary technique like pathetic fallacy, it can be useful to show how films use particular techniques to create atmosphere and suspense.
I show students the opening of ET and encourage them to talk about how those opening scenes are designed to evoke tension. Then we look at the opening of a text like Jane Eyre and it's like switching a light on - suddenly they understand difficult concepts, such as pathetic fallacy."
Catherine Bourne uses moving image to familiarise students with the conventions of a particular genre. As part of a scheme of work in Year 7 on Gothic fiction, she shows extracts from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Little Vampire before looking at Dracula and Frankenstein. And the moving image doesn't only improve reading skills. English teachers are seeing an improvement in their students' writing which meets the aims of the literacy strategy. In Years 7 and 8, students should be focusing on the development of character and setting, and imaginative use of film has enabled Catherine's Year 9 students to develop rich, life-like characters.
"When we studied Sherlock Holmes, I wanted the students to understand the idea of stock characters so they could use this later when they wrote their own mystery stories," she says. "I showed them the opening of Moulin Rouge - where the character roles are very exaggerated - and they grasped the concept quickly. In their stories, it was clear they had tried to make their characters individual, with odd quirks or memorable habits. I was really impressed."
According to David Parker, moving image plays a crucial role in developing understanding about narrative structure. "Films are a fixed representation of time and space," he explains. "So working with film makes children realise that in a narrative, events have to be linked. They have to find ways of fitting the plot together and showing the passing of time."
Catherine Bourne agrees. "Young people are buzzing with original ideas, especially in fiction writing. But many students - even the very able - struggle with organising their ideas into a coherent order."
She regularly uses storyboarding of extracts from literary texts to encourage students to organise their thoughts and think about narrative structure in a visual way. The literacy strategy encourages children to develop their skills in storytelling and experiment with different narrative structures and styles. Gill Clayton believes this is best achieved through practical work and often asks students to make a short film in a particular genre before they analyse a print-based text.
"Thinking about developing a film from different shots and scenes helps children think about continuity and structure. I've found it improves the organisation of their work, such as paragraphing."
Many films have complex narrative structures that are easily understood by a young audience. Practical activities can provide opportunities to experiment with different structures, such as dual narratives and flashbacks.
David Parker believes it's important to start with a print-based text and encourage students to think about how short sections could be adapted for a film. Schools keen to encourage film-making will need to buy some basic equipment and David recommends an Apple Macintosh computer, the editing software package Final Cut Pro and a digital video camera. Apple offers discounts for teachers - see www.apple.com education.
If your budget is limited, there are a number of good packages that can be downloaded on to existing PCs. Schools with Windows XP should find they already have Movie Maker - a package that gives you the tools to create, edit, and share home movies. Those with Windows 98 or 2000 can use editing software such as Ulead VideoStudio or Adobe Premier. Ms Clayton uses an editing machine, the Casablanca Avio, which KS3 students find easy to use.
"Production work is a real motivator," she says. "And it's great for raising confidence and self-esteem. It's a familiar medium, so all students can have a positive input and no one feels left out. Everyone can contribute something of value."
Janet Murray is a freelance education writer