Pictures can add some bite

24th September 2004 at 01:00
John Gallagher on how memorable images help students recognise and apply what they know.

Since we English teachers talk so much about imagery, why don't we actually get students to visualise the different kinds of texts they encounter? It's not just visual learners who benefit from a memorable image as a model. Give a student a picture as well as an explanation and you have just doubled their chances of recognising and applying what they know.

Think of a newspaper report as a Christmas cracker, for example. The snappy opening paragraph is one end of the cracker. The main points of who, what, where, when etc, give you a grip on the overall story at the start, even if the average reader doesn't read right through to the end. The long columns of text in the story's body contain the details, just as the cracker contains the gifts. Whether analysing a story or planning one of their own, students find the humour of the cracker idea far more accessible than journalism's dry "inverted pyramid".

A literary essay should also start with plenty of bite, so here a dinosaur is a good image. Its head is the introduction, looking ahead to where the essay is going. Draw it with plenty of teeth and it shows how a sharp opening can grab the reader's attention.

r maximum effect sketch a stegosaurus. The plan then has as its backbone a series of connected, clear points; its tail saves a final point to pack a punch as it ends. And since the dinosaur, or "essaysaurus", needs meat to survive, feed it on quotation burgers.

The "point-evidence-explanation" model is easy to remember as a kind of sandwich; and children love drafting out "quoterpounders" when planning their response to a text. Without their crucial opinion or the analytical explanation, the quotation just isn't ready to serve.

Food images are always successful (if a little distracting before lunch).

Any discursive essay can therefore be compared to a pizza. The arguments for and against are the ingredients, prepared in advance and sorted into the various "trays" or points of the plan. The chef then serves them up in paragraphed slices, blending the flavours by combining different points that go well together - like the different toppings in their favourite pizza. You don't want a one-sided essay on an issue, just as you wouldn't serve pizza topped with only tomato or cheese.

So the ideal image should get the students drawing and imagining - even moving -to harness those kinaesthetic skills tools. The five-stage structure of a narrative can be literally mapped out. Students can then walk it, to see if it flows. The arresting opening is the start to a journey, where the students begin to head to a chosen destination. During its development they are picking up speed, but the complication makes them turn off the path previously taken. By the crisis they should feel the uphill struggle of the effort to reach the top. But, once there, the resolution is easy: short and sweet, the final leg is back in the right direction and downhill all the way to a satisfying halt.

= John Gallagher teaches English at King Henry VIII School, Coventry

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