Oh là là! The appeal of international picturebooks

1st December 2017 at 00:00
Picturebooks enable language learning using a familiar, non-intimidating format that is accessible across all reading levels, says one trainee teacher

Shedding their reputation as purely for early readers, picturebooks are increasingly recognised as a sophisticated reading experience. The complex interaction between word and image challenges the reader in ever new ways, yet in a familiar, non-intimidating format that is accessible across all reading levels.

In my PhD research, I wanted to show how picturebooks could be used in language learning – given the rollout of the national 1+2 policy – and with bilingual learners, bringing their heritage languages into the classroom.

I also wanted to explore how picturebooks might help arm learners with the evolving literacies they need in today’s multicultural and increasingly visual societies. Importantly, given the rise in racist incidents in schools, I hoped the projects would offer an opportunity to challenge cultural stereotypes and promote in learners a curiosity, not fear, of unknown languages.

Using picturebooks from across the globe, the learners in the projects (a P3-4 composite and a P6 class) carried out a number of reading and translation activities, such as translating French texts into English – and also trying to translate into languages they were not familiar, using online research and translation tools for support.

Several children wanted to try Polish, because they had Polish classmates. Others wanted to try and use different scripts they had seen, such as Arabic and Russian. Bilingual learners could share and develop their language skills.

Positive effects

A teacher suggested that the attendance of one bilingual learner had improved as a result, highlighting the positive effects of welcoming learners’ heritage languages in the classroom.

The children were also encouraged to get creative and adapt the picturebooks into different mediums. In the P6 class, a Polish picturebook spread was made into collage, a Portuguese text was turned into a puppet show and an image in an Arabic picturebook of a boy playing in Gaza was adapted using sculpture to create a playpark.

As well as exploring different languages, numerous literacies were developed. Visual literacy was enhanced by considering how words and images work together and by exploring different visual cultural codes. Critical literacies were developed by questioning who has the power in the picturebooks. Digital literacies were built upon through learning about the pros and cons of tools such as Google Translate. Intercultural literacy was improved through researching different cultures and writing systems, and challenging cultural stereotypes.

Not to forget, of course, that reading picturebooks in any language can be fun, as was witnessed by the repetitive “Wow!” and infectious “Oh là là!” from two Slovak boys in my pilot study.

Ultimately, the unique playfulness and universal charm of picturebooks are perhaps their greatest appeal.

Emma McGilp was awarded a PhD from the University of Glasgow this year and is now studying at the University of Edinburgh to become a primary teacher

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