CHILDREN'S early skill in drawing is as important as their reading and writing in developing literacy, yet concern over the words on the page quickly pushes the pictures out of focus, a literacy expert said this week.
Myra Barrs, director of south London's Centre for Language in Primary Education, believes that the message that drawing is a less academically important medium for storytelling is the first step on the road to visual illiteracy.
"We start to see drawing and writing as competing rather than complementary systems," she told teachers and literacy advisers at a Tate Gallery conference during The Word, the London festival of literature.
"Children learn little in school about developing the visual communication which flowers early and which increases their capacity to visualise, to empathise and to imagine. The decline in arts activities in early education is damaging to literacy as well as regrettable in itself."
Her key example of how pre-school drawing generates enthusiasm for narrative - which can help propel children through the early stages of learning to read and write - comes from studying 8,000 drawings of trains by a boy called Charles between the ages of two and 11.
Charles, who lived near two railway stations and was taken to meet his commuter father from the train every day, learned to draw the movement of the train before the train itself. His first piece of writing was a caption saying "Toot-toot". "The main function of drawing for him was to tell a story - movement was pre-eminent. He drew the smoke before the smokestack."
The Tate's education officer, Colin Griggs, said we were now in a "golden age of authorillustrators" whose work can help children explore how text and illustration can work together.
Shirley Hughes, one of several picture-book artists at the conference, stressed the importance of "learning to leave space between the word and image that the child can inhabit. Children are bombarded with visual material from the cradle and their responses have to be lightning.
"If we're not to become a punchdrunk society, they need the space which is something only a book can offer."
The Tate has also launched Visual Paths, a joint project with London University's Institute of Education which will introduce 1,000 primary children a year to literacy activities at the gallery using images to stimulate written work.
Raising visual literacy of both children and adults has emerged as a key area of interest during the National Year of Reading. During May, the NYR's activities will focus on "Reading Without Print". In June, a conference on comics and graphic novels will be held in the North-east and Homerton College, Cambridge, will hold a major conference on visual literacy in September 2000.