December 12, 2017

Visual storytelling & literacy development

Illustration as a vital tool for inclusive teaching & learning


Drawing on Braden and Horton (1982), we define visual literacy as “the ability to understand and use images, including the ability to think, learn, and express oneself in terms of images”. We firmly believe that visual literacy is of tantamount importance to linguistic literacy; that, indeed, they reinforce each other. Fundamentally, a differentiation between visual and linguistic literacy is no longer productive in the 21st century, where nearly all text combines visual and verbal modes of communication (Serafini 2014). Children understand images (and their emotive impact) naturally – and produce them long before they learn to write. However, pupils “often lack a shared language for expressing their insights about nonlinguistic text, and this lack can interfere with their ability to be metacognitive about their viewing” (Chandler-Olcott in Frey & Fisher 2008); their comprehension of images is predominantly superficial and their visual capacity has to be trained, both by observing and creating illustration in the classroom and outside (Stafford 2011; Riddle 2009).


Illustrations are fundamentally accessible across languages, abilities and ages; and their enjoyment is encouraged in schools in the early years, but due to the perceived hierarchy of text over image, as children develop their writing, illustration gets sidelined and is viewed as secondary. Carter (in Frey & Fisher 2008) deems this hierarchy a question of policy, because it builds a curriculum around the canonisation of certain types of texts pertaining to white upper-middle-class culture. Enacted by teachers it is a form of censorship, because teachers are also “policy makers” in their classrooms. “[T]o choose not to recognize the importance of visual literacy and students’ visual cultures and to not make efforts to incorporate these elements into the classroom, for any reason, makes a very powerful political statement. The statement reads: ‘I support racist, elitist, and classist notions and policies of literature and education.’” Versaci believes that “with every nonreflective presentation of canonical literature, we indirectly encourage student passivity and, perhaps, resentment” (in Frey & Fisher 2008). However, Yanow states: “[W]hat implementers do, rather than what policy “says” in its explicit language, constitutes the “truth” of policy” (2000). We therefore believe that, working together, writers, illustrators and teachers can show pupils at all key stages how images and text ‘interanimate’ each other, for example in accessible literary forms like comics and picture books; this gives children and young people the opportunity to develop a well-rounded understanding of literacy and become critical and discerning consumers and knowledgeable, creative producers of multimodal texts. It also turns classrooms into more inclusive, democratic spaces in which teachers “share interpretive authority with young people” (Chandler-Olcott). Similarly, Sipe encourages teachers to be “fellow wonderers and speculators”, to “[yield] some of their power and control” and to “[tolerate] ambiguity and multiple interpretations” (both in Frey & Fisher 2008).


In the National Curriculum in England (DfE 2014) there is scope for including visual texts such as picture books, graphic novels and comics, especially in primary education but it does not specify or prescribe their use. “In Wales and Scotland there is more overt recognition of visual literacy and teachers are expected, for example, to ensure that children themselves can understand how something can be represented in different ways, e.g. moving image, multimodal and print” (Bearne 2015). In England visual literacy only finds implicit mention in the art and design curriculum; decades ago, this is where it would naturally have been located. However, visual literacy can no longer be “an elective course of fine arts studies” (Riddle 2009), as it has become a core part of our fundamental critical thinking skills, needed to understand and communicate the world, and as such should be found in the national curriculum for English – and any other subject. Comments John Hickman, Chair of the National Association of Advisers in English: “This does not appear to be a curriculum for the 21st century, given that there is almost no mention of media education and visual literacy or of ICT and digital texts.”


However, the national curriculum defines the term ‘text’ very loosely; it stands to reason that teachers who do not recognise the importance of digital, multimodal and visual texts will relate it mainly to ‘traditional’ books. Those teachers who understand the demands of the media varied environment in which children grow up today will see it as an opportunity to explore all kinds of texts, including visual and digital ones. Because visual literacy is not explicitly included in the curriculum, and because national research organisations like the NLT do not collect ‘hard data’ in large-scale visual literacy research (as they regularly do with reading and writing), it is hard to say what the current state in schools is – how much it is, or is not, taught, and how visually literate pupils really are. There will be many exemplary schools that embed visual literacy learning across the whole curriculum and for all key stages, but we cannot know for sure. Equally, there will be schools without strategic approaches to teaching visual communication skills and potentially without the knowledge, skills and support to develop them.


Pop Up has a strong track record of programming high-quality visual texts which make it easy and fun for teachers to teach pupils how to “move gracefully and fluently between text and images, between literal and figurative worlds” (Frey & Fisher 2008). According to children’s author Sarah Dyer, picture books especially are a very suitable medium to look at differences between text and image, and how they work together, including contradictorily (2016), which opens up interesting questions for students around reliability and sources of information. Versaci argues that the same is true for comics, which create “a unique kind of ‘graphic language’, where meaning ‘does not happen in the words, or the pictures, but somewhere in-between’.” He continues to analyse how the sense-making in comics is very differently from reading writing-only texts. “When reading an entire page of comics – especially one put together by a skilled visual architect – the reader’s eye is very active and not always working in the simple left-to-right motion that reading requires. In many ways, the act of reading a comic cuts much more closely to how our students today receive information […] especially [on] the Internet”, where sites “are densely packed”, asking the readers “to move their eyes diagonally and up and down in addition to side to side – the same kind of movements that come with reading comic book panels and pages” (in Frey & Fisher 2008). We believe this shows that visual literacy and digital literacy are as intertwined as visual literacy and linguistic literacy.


Narrative is the unifying factor between image and text, and by focusing on characters, plot, theme, tone, etc., teachers can ensure not to veer ‘off topic’; they can achieve “a twofold objective: to explore dynamic new forms of literacy while simultaneously reinforcing and consolidating the skills already taught” (Stafford 2011). Drawing on her years’ of experience as children’s book illustrator, Sarah Dyer states: “Illustrations are a vital aid in helping pupils learn about narrative, sequence and page turn. Exploring pictures offer children layers of meaning and can engage complicated ideas through a simple approach.” (2016). Picture books and comics especially are easily accessible and meaningful introductions (Croker 2011, Moula 2011).


Sipe makes the case “that picturebooks are valuable resources for developing visual aesthetic understanding in all grades”, including in secondary school and tertiary education institutions as they teach “higher-level critical thinking, inference-making, and literary understanding” through “intricate and recursive process some call ‘transmediation’,” i.e. where pictures and words are inextricably linked and the reading process requires rereading, reviewing, slowing down, turning to previous pages and reinterpreting (Sipe in Frey & Fisher 2008). Chandler-Olcott argues that especially comics, manga and anime are able to “bridge the gap that exists for many students between their out-of-school literacy competence and their in-school achievement”; she finds that teachers know strikingly little about their students’ reading interests, if these are outside the “sanctioned curriculum” and the reason is often that “students don’t trust their teachers to take those interests seriously.” Discussing these narratives in the classroom, we have the potential to “reframe classroom communities and position new groups of students as capable” (in Frey & Fisher 2008) .


Educators must ensure the process of teaching visual literacy is broken down into multiple steps: looking, seeing, describing, analysing, and then interpreting and constructing meaning from the image; all of these are fundamental life­skills that form part of children’s overall intellectual and creative capacity, and are involved in the production of any textual meaning. Therefore, the teaching of visual literacy also enhances linguistic literacy and helps children visualise what they read – a key to reading enjoyment and proficiency. Through visual literacy learning, children become “creative readers, readers who ask questions of texts, use available evidence and each other to make multiple interpretations and personal connections and who imagine, appreciate and understand the texts they read on several levels”. Looking at, speaking about and analysing images will also help children to expand descriptive vocabularies as they study language in new and creative ways, as well as develop “writing which has a strong individual voice” (Bearne 2015). The Comic Book Project in New York, for instance, developed by the Teachers College of Columbia University, proved significant progress in students’ writing skills (Versaci in Frey & Fisher 2008).


Visual literacy approaches have great benefits beyond supporting the development of critical thinking, creative reading and writing skills: by being enjoyable and inclusive they support class cohesion. Teaching heavily supported by visual elements can help reach children with poor ‘book behaviour’, such as pupils with SEN or boys. This has been proven true for underachieving boys through the UKLA’s research (“Raising Boys’ Achievement in Writing”, Bearne & Cremin 2004). Adele Devine, creator of prize-winning SEN Assist software, explains how the traditional teaching of linguistic literacy favours auditory-sequential learners because an emphasis on phonics and handwriting puts visual-spatial learners at a disadvantage. Visual learners are often – but by no means exclusively – pupils with disabilities and special educational needs, such as deafness, Autism, ADD/ADHD and Dyslexia, who are more adept at visualising and learning words as a whole, as well as typing rather than writing by hand. Thus, amalgamating ‘traditional’ linguistic literacy with visual and digital literacy teaching can help create inclusive classrooms by reducing media-specific barriers (see also Kluth in Frey & Fisher 2008). Because of different training, which mainstream teachers usually do not, or cannot, access, SEN teachers have “visual tools up [their] sleeves” that help “support, differentiate and include every child” (Devine 2016). Other groups of pupils that will particularly benefit from visual learning approaches, according to Devine, are EAL and gifted. Researchers from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge have furthermore shown a connection between arts-based approaches to education and pupil wellbeing and quote teachers as saying that “creative activities re-engaged those students who found a more structured classroom challenging” (The Impact of Creative Partnerships on the Wellbeing of Children and Young People, 2012); in their study, both primary and secondary students experienced highest positive motivation – and least negative motivation (i.e. anxiety) – in art subjects. Primary students, for instance, were observed to be much more motivated in art and least motivated in literacy. At Pop Up we are therefore convinced that utilising the positive motivation for art to fight the lack of motivation for literacy learning is crucial in ensuring inclusive classrooms.


Calls to reflect the changing media landscape in classrooms and include visual literacy in the curriculum must go hand in hand with “ongoing professional development to help teachers develop the skills and strategies necessary” because “we can no longer hide our heads in the sand and focus our literacy instructional practices exclusively on decoding written language” (Serafini 2014). The House of Illustration, specialist in delivering illustration projects in schools, quote as one of the main barriers to appropriate visual literacy learning in schools that teachers frequently believe they “can’t draw” and therefore rely on clip art for classroom displays and lack confidence in teaching practical art lessons and modelling illustration.


Emily Jost, Head of Education at House of Illustration, notes that teaching both pupils and teachers the skills to tell stories and explain ideas through illustration is “desperately needed as art, design and creativity have been sidelined in education, with the written word taking precedence even at Key Stage 1. Many teachers are very keen to use illustration and creative approaches to support learning but often don’t know where to start.” She continues to state that it is crucial to “nurture teachers’ own skills and by using very accessible techniques aim to boost their confidence to use hands-on illustration to enhance learning – and attitudes to learning – in literacy and across the curriculum.” Their practice has shown that even a short hands-on CPD session can provide teachers with an array of new and accessible tools. Pop Up’s two-year CPD programme for teachers puts equal emphasis on developing creative writing and illustration practice as we believe ‘teaching  the teacher’ is the best route forward to invigorate and facilitate visual literacy teaching. Furthermore, we hope to be better able to articulate the importance and impact of a teaching approach that combines visual and linguistic literacy, and refrains from valuing one over the other.


2017, by Franziska Liebig, Company Manager