What do our children think of as ‘good writing’? One child I asked said, it’s when “it has a capital letter at the beginning of each sentence, a finger space between each letter and a full stop at the end of every sentence”... This isn’t an isolated example – there’s a real danger in the current climate that children are focusing too much on the technicalities of writing at the expense of being creative.
The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE)’s Power of Pictures project was set up to help teachers redress the balance by utilising the engaging illustrations and prose of high-quality picture books to inspire creative story-writing – and following two years of action research, we’ve found that the following approaches can make a real impact on children’s engagement and achievement..
Responding to illustration
Children are naturally drawn to illustrations in picture books. Their interest in images and their ability to read them can be developed through planned interventions with an emphasis on talk, focusing their attention on elements such as facial expression, body language, use of colour and framing, where our gaze is directed, and the perspective the illustration is seen from.
Children need time to enjoy and respond to pictures, and to talk together about what the illustrations contribute to their understanding of the text. They can discuss their interpretations and use personal experiences to empathise with different characters and situations. Such discussions are inclusive and help make a written text more accessible. Focusing on illustration contributes to children’s ability to read for meaning, express their ideas and respond to the texts they encounter, and is an engaging way of developing critical thinking, vocabulary and the ability to think from different points of view.
Illustrating characters alongside an enabling adult or illustrator gives children a starting point in the process of bringing characters to life. Those who are less confident can see where to start, the shapes that are used to build up characters, and how detail such as proportion, facial expression, clothing and props adds layers of understanding about character and emotion.
Giving children the time to illustrate their own characters as part of their idea development is vital. They need to explore and experiment, trying out different ideas in a range of media. They can then talk about which ideas work best for them and which characters they feel speak their story. Throughout this process children’s thoughts will be focused on the character, allowing descriptive language and narrative ideas to develop, readying them for the writing process.
Exploring narrative through play helps children to step into the world of the picture book and explore it more completely. Opportunities for small world play, with props, puppets or using dioramas based on a known or new story, promote talk about the shape of the story. They encourage children to discuss key elements such as character and plot, experimenting with the ‘what ifs?’ and making decisions about how they create action in the setting. As they play, alone or with others, they practise their narrative skills and ‘try on’ the different characters using different voices to bring them to life. Through drama and role-play children imagine characters’ body language, behaviour and tones of voice in ways they can draw on later when they write.
When creating a picture book, the author considers the relationship between the words and images, ensuring they have distinct roles. When planning and developing ideas for picture book narratives, children approach the process in different ways and should be supported to do so. Some, like some authors, may think of the words in writing first and then the images that will accompany them. Others may think of the pictures first before composing accompanying text, while others will work with a combination of the two.
Throughout the writing process, children must be given materials and space to allow them to plan and compose ideas in different ways. Providing personal sketchbooks to develop ideas in and out of taught sessions is helpful.
During their planning, children must work out how their story will develop. The simplest way to do this is by using a storyboard. It’s useful for marking out the key spreads in a story within a given number of pages, usually 32 pages or 16 spreads. Less experienced writers might want to work with fewer spreads to help begin to structure their story.
Working on small ‘thumbnails’ allows children to experiment with, and work out ideas for, developing a visual sequence, how spreads will look in a finished book and how words and images will work together on the page. Children can also plan ideas for book covers, front and endpapers, title pages and dedications, allowing them to use and understand the language of picture book publication.
You can help children become reflective writers by giving them the chance to talk about themselves as writers, voice their views, listen to others and develop new knowledge and understanding. Just as an author would work with an editor, children should have opportunities to help each other by having their writing read aloud, and responding as readers, allowing them to support each other as they compose and structure their ideas. Writers can tell response partners what they are pleased with in their writing, or what they may be struggling with. Response partners should reflect on the impact of the narrative and illustrations on them as a reader. Children can then redraft sections of their work, based on these conversations.
At the final stage of the writing process, children should have time to support each other with transcription proofreading, looking at spelling, punctuation and grammar, and consider the quality of the entire piece before publication.
Publishing their work for an audience helps children to write more purposefully. Making books provides a motivating context within which children can bring together their understanding of the entire writing process. They should be encouraged to explore and experiment with the language of picture books by investigating different forms (e.g. interactive books with pop-ups and flaps, hardback books with dust jackets, and e-books). Let them try out their ideas to see how the physical book will work for the reader before publishing their finished book. This is as important as drafting, redrafting and editing their writing.
Find out more about the Power of Pictures
Along with author illustrator Ed Vere (Mr Big, Banana, Max the Brave), Charlotte devised and developed The Power of Pictures project, investigating how to read and explore picture books in the primary years and the impact illustration can have on children’s writing.
A version of this blog appeared in Teach Primary 3-11 October 2016