Reading pictures with Primary 6

Claire Gibson, teacher at Murrayfield Primary in West Lothian tells us about a visual literacy project she was asked to run by her Literacy Development Officer.

‘Visual literacy is about analyzing and creating messages. Images can be used to influence and persuade, so it is incumbent upon educators to learn how to teach with and about images and to help our students understand…’ (ISTE, 2012)

When I was first approached by Clare Crosse (Literacy Development Officer, West Lothian Council) with regards to setting up a Visual Literacy project I was initially intrigued and then almost at once extraordinarily excited.

After an initial discussion to set out a success criteria, I had stumbled upon an area of literacy previously unknown to me.  The project, driven by an inter-authority hub seeking to develop a reading culture in mid-late primary, was to take the shape of a series of sessions revolving around picture books.

Picture books?! I hear you cry. Why picture books?

The rationale is simple: to remove the barriers some children face when dealing with thick and unyielding chapter books.

And so we set about adding meat to the bones of the project. We were to begin with the three books shortlisted in the Scottish Children's Book Awards Bookbug category. Primary 6 were made ‘experts’ in the book through a series of short sessions to coach them in the art of pausing for effect and how to get the most out of sharing a book with a younger child. My class are now the proverbial authority in the ways of higher order questioning and are now able to sniff out a simple-to-answer knowledge questions and the coveted synthesis questions.

Sharing these texts with their Primary 1 reading buddies has had a huge impact on how the pupils view reading. Most pleasingly it has had a huge impact on their understanding of the importance of not only decoding the text but reading into the pictures and gaining a greater understanding of the intentions of the author or illustrator. 

The three SBCA books came and went and our appetite for picture books grew. So a new book list was chosen, amongst them Black Dog by Levi Pinfold the 2013 Winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway medal.

We ended with a list of six (in order):

Running through the list in a carefully considered way meant that we could ensure progression with regards to the children’s skills and capabilities.

We began with an easy to access tale of a stolen hat and as a result it captured the imagination of my entire class. Before I had even finished reading the (crudely estimated) two-hundred words, there were vivid backstories coming to life, varied and colourful character descriptions and higher order thoughts and high order questions flying around all over the place.

This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

We're now embarking on our second book, Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne, an intriguing and enigmatic feast for the eyes and mind. I hope that the children in my class are as enthused by this tale, and the process will continue to spiral outward, in both breadth and depth, across the curriculum until my class are equipped with the literary observational skills to take on the world of secondary school and beyond.  Watch this space!

To find out more about shared reading, check out this blog by another primary teacherwho explains the practicalities of setting up a shared reading project.

If the idea of using picture books with upper primary appeals to you, why not also read about using them in secondary schools for more information on the benefits of doing so, as well as some recommendations of which books to use.

Claire Gibson

Claire Gibson is a class teacher at Murrayfield Primary School in West Lothian.