Visual Literacy in the Classroom

Posted on September 26, 2016

Aurelie Norman is a teacher at Wardie Primary School in Edinburgh and recently gave a talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about visual literacy. She talks to us about how pictures can be used in the classroom to teach pupils basic literacy skills.


Can you tell us about the project you ran with the illustration students from Edinburgh College of Art?

Vivian French from Edinburgh College of Art ran three workshops with Wardie Primary School that connected second-year illustration students with primary school children on a collective art project. This was an exciting opportunity for the art students to work with their potential audience and to understand the interests of five- and six-year-olds. For the children, it was a wonderful experience to work with artists and play with new materials to create posters.

The first two workshops took place at Wardie, where the children collaborated with the illustrators to create their own superheroes. During these sessions the pupils discussed and sketched their chosen character at length. They decided who their superhero would be, what powers they would have, and consequently where they would live. The art students then took the joint drawings away and designed wonderful superhero posters.

Storytelling sessions allow children to be creative and tell stories without the restrictions of literacy and writing skills.

The final session was at Edinburgh Art College where the Wardie pupils had a tour around the illustrators’ studios and to the exhibition of their joint work. For the final part of the visit, Vivian French did a storytelling session, which included students drawing her stories and pupils acting it out. It was a fantastic and memorable project!


visual literacy school


What was the impact on the pupils?

The pupils had a rare opportunity to develop a new character and its surroundings with skilled art students. The posters that they created were then used for storytelling. The children were able to imagine scenarios for their superheroes using some of the details in the posters.

Storytelling sessions like this allow children to be creative and tell stories without the restrictions of literacy and writing skills. Their detailed stories were first drawn out as a plan (black line drawings) and then written down. This process helped children of all abilities to create excellent stories.


What other hooks have you used to inspire your pupils to write creatively?

I have been fascinated by storytelling over the past few years and it has been very beneficial to my pupils. They enjoyed one storytelling project with the Scottish Book Trust that we took part in immensely, and afterwards I discovered their literacy skills had improved dramatically. The writing results at the end of that year exceeded expectation, with 2/3 of the class achieving above average levels for their writing.

After researching storytelling further, I rolled it out throughout the school. It is key for children to be confident when talking and telling stories, whether they be known family stories, re-told tales, using puppets, storytelling dice and maps, or making up their own stories. These alternative storytelling techniques help children to develop not only their listening and talking skills but also their writing techniques.


visual literacy school


Can you give us some hints and tips about using picture books in the classroom?

Whilst reading skills like de-coding, fluency, and expression are of great importance, it is equally necessary that children understand what they are reading. Picture books are a wonderful resource for understanding the writer’s message, and make a great comprehension tool for children of all abilities and ages.

Picture books are a wonderful resource for understanding the writer’s message.

Picture books encourage children to look at the illustrations before the text. They discuss amongst themselves what they have noticed and what they think the writer is trying to convey. The teacher is there as a facilitator and is not there to influence observations. Children start to ask open ended questions, such as ‘I wonder why?’, which leads to a great discussion amongst the pupils. One observation often sparks another and develops the discussion.

I run these sessions in mixed ability groups of around eight children and only look at a few pages at a time. It is just as important to look at the cover and end papers of a book, as the illustrators often spend a great deal of time adding detail that gives clues about the story.

Once a group has been trained, it may run independently and do follow up tasks like predicting what happens next in a book or making connections to their own lives.


Can you teach non-fiction topics using visual techniques?

Well sought out video clips and songs can support non-fiction books, which are critical for improving children’s understanding and enjoyment of language.

In a recent project with my class we watched video song clips that imparted facts about the solar system. Children discussed the information they had picked up and made notes in their draft jotter. Some drew the facts that they had learnt and others created annotated diagrams.

Once these notes had been collated the children created their own non-fiction books, using some of their favourite formats they had found in other non-fiction texts. They drew pictures and diagrams to support their written facts. This was a great example of using visual literacy techniques to learn facts, take notes, and to create non-fiction texts.


space visual literacy


How else can you bring visual literacy into the classroom?

We have used a variety of visual techniques at Wardie to give children feedback. The use of ‘Tickle Me Pink’ and ‘Green for Grower’ is an effective tool for written activities. Children’s work is highlighted in pink for something positive and green for a point needing improvement.

Another useful resource is writing feedback stamps. These are especially useful with infant classes, where children often can’t read the ‘two stars and a wish’ comments that teachers write. It is both meaningful to the child and takes less time for the teacher to mark, which allows for more time to plan fun visual literacy activities!

Storytelling maps are another useful visual tool. I used them when I taught my class about the Middle Ages. The children made up ‘historical fiction’ stories about people living in that period. As they re-told their stories it was evident that they had picked up many historical facts along the way. This was an effective and valid way for me to assess them without any writing.

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