An Education Endowment Foundation evaluation of CLPE’s Power of Pictures project has revealed that using picture books in primary schools, and allowing drawing into the learning process, improves writing and reading skills in primary age children. Charlotte Hacking describes the project and its results.
As a class teacher, school leader and lover of children’s literature, I’ve always been aware of the transformative nature of picture books on children of all ages. In too many instances these are seen by adults as a step up into reading novels, but they are a sophisticated genre of literature in their own right.
Far from being the easy option, visual texts challenge readers in more and different ways than print alone. Reading pictures is just as complex, perhaps more complex, than reading print. In a world that relies increasingly on visual means of communication, it’s vital that children of all ages are able to use a wide variety of reading skills and strategies to construct meaning from a combination of words and images; and that texts and reading approaches equip them with the skills necessary to be visually and critically literate, and to navigate such a world successfully. Work with picture books paves the way for this, and allows children of all ages to gain a greater sense of satisfaction, enjoyment and stimulation from reading.
Six years ago, I was lucky enough to meet award-winning children’s author and illustrator Ed Vere.
We realised we had a shared passion for the importance and value of visual literacy for children; understanding the meaning that is held, and being able to create meaning, in illustrations and images. From this conversation came The Power of Pictures, a training programme designed to help teachers use picture books to understand the value of illustration to communicate and shape ideas for writing, and to develop meaningful relationships between authors and schools. With support from Arts Council England, the programme grew over time and now involves ten other authors including Benji Davies, Alexis Deacon, Mini Grey, Chris Haughton, Tim Hopgood, and Viviane Schwarz.
Over 7,000 children from 318 schools across the UK have taken part in the training since it began. They have learnt how to become more visually literate and to analyse the messages communicated in texts and images in picture books, and how to create and shape their own narratives in words and pictures, in ways that they can easily replicate in the classroom.
The results have been remarkable. Dr Sue Horner and Dr Janet White were our first external evaluators and helped us to shape the programme, and in 2017 the programme was chosen to be part of the Education Endowment Foundation and Royal Society of Arts Learning About Culture trial, focussing on the impact on Year 5 teachers and children. The evaluation found that the visual element of this programme particularly attracted learners who traditionally have difficulties engaging in literacy activities. Teachers noted the high levels of engagement with a picture book and the depth of discussion children had around them.
Texts such as Alexis Deacon’s Croc and Bird have allowed children to have rich and nuanced discussions around complex themes such as nature and nurture, what it means to be brothers, being forced to make choices and what it feels like to be depressed, anxious or lonely. With older children, their extended life experiences meant that they could make connections based on personal experiences that they would not have done when they were younger.
Benji Davies’ Grandad’s Island also provided some incredible insights into how children’s depth of comprehension changes as they grow older and gain life experience. When studied across the primary years, the younger children of 3-6 years old took the story at face value, thinking that Grandad went on a magical adventure with his grandson Syd, relocating to a tropical island. As children from 7-11 engaged with the book, more of them made the connections with the possibility of Grandad suffering from dementia, an illness many of the children had direct experience of, and that the story was, in fact, a metaphor for Grandad’s death.
Teachers noted the impact on children’s language, vocabulary and comprehension skills when they actively taught the skills of reading pictures and opened up time for talking about picture books. Children were able to make connections, draw comparisons within and between texts and could evidence higher order reading skills such as inference, deduction and justifying opinions with evidence from the text and real life. This was true for all children, no matter how their previous ability had been judged.
Simon Smith, headteacher at East Whitby Primary Academy observed: ‘The developing understanding of how picture books work and how illustrators actively make decisions has led to children digging much more deeply into the story. The increasing understanding that the illustrator is an author has led to in-depth discussions around authorial intent. Pupils’ increased confidence in expressing understanding and a willingness to challenge ideas has impacted in ways we did not imagine. They have an increasing vocabulary and language to share their ideas.’
What’s more, children’s reading also had impact on their writing. The complete and easily accessible narratives in picture books gave them a real understanding of story structure, and incorporating illustration into the writing process supported children’s writing self-efficacy and creativity.
During the training programme, the teachers and pupils worked directly with the author/illustrators, learning how they create meaning in their illustration and talking about specific techniques that help them imbue an extra layer of storytelling in the images, such as how they decide on layout, composition, colour palette and perspective and how this works beyond the words on the page. As Ed Vere reflects, ‘Drawing is thinking. Drawing allows ideas to start growing inside a child’s head before they’ve written a single word.’
Children were able to use illustration to create characters, settings and explore story ideas and to plot the big shapes of a narrative before pacing and adding detail, drawing on the ideas they had seen in published picture books. They were able to storyboard their ideas, just as a real picture book writer would do, and gain response to their writer along the way, as an author/illustrator would do with an art director or editor.
By the end of the project, every child had made their own unique picture book narrative, being able to follow the process a real author illustrator would do, with all its challenges and successes. As one child remarked, ‘I thought that it was very interesting to actually make a picture book myself and some of the challenges were getting the right amount of pages and planning what to draw on those pages, but overall I really enjoyed it.’
Vinny Dawson, a project teacher at Harrow Gate Academy commented, ‘The Power of Pictures has not only developed my career immensely, but the effect it has on pupils is immeasurable. Even the most reluctant pupils began to find writing and reading pleasurable and rewarding. Examples of the most beautiful, thought-provoking and astonishing pieces of learning were produced as a result of the programme. I highly recommend the programme and its benefits to anyone and any school looking for an effective way to enhance their English curriculum.’
Browse the Power of Pictures books, author videos and teaching resources on CLPE’s website.
Join project co-creators Ed Vere and Charlotte Hacking for training in the Power of Pictures at CLPE in January.
- Pupils who received the Power of Pictures (PoP) programme had, on average, higher writing scores (equivalent to one month of additional progress) as compared to children in the control group. Children eligible for free school meals (FSM) also made one additional month’s progress.
- Children had higher writing self-efficacy and writing creativity (ideation) scores than those from schools in which the programme was not taught.
- The visual element of this programme attracted learners who traditionally have difficulties engaging in literacy activities.
- Teachers reported high levels of engagement with the programme, not only from the pupils and themselves, but also from the senior leadership team (SLT) at their schools.
Charlotte Hacking is Central Learning Programmes Leader at CLPE. Prior to that she was a teacher and senior leader and taught across the primary years. Charlotte led and developed the CLPE’s Power of Poetry project, designed to highlight the importance of poetry as a vehicle for improving children’s engagement in and enjoyment of reading and creative writing in schools.