How illustrations can assist children’s language development

by Ramya Manoharan | Oct 11, 2017

Illustrations to help kids write

This blog post has been written by young award winning teacher, author and visual artist Casey Hawkins.

An ostrich... you know what it is, but could you draw it off the top of your head? It’s likely that you would start with its long legs or neck, but struggle to imagine the specifics like its beak and body shape. 

When we ask children to develop characters for a story, they often face a similar problem. They will write down words describing characteristics like age or height, but struggle to provide specifics. For example, ‘the old short witch’ versus ‘the haggard witch with mottled red skin who stood waist high due to her wicked hunch’. 
Reference materials such as photos or illustrations can prompt children to use more complex language to describe what they see. Here are some strategies I use during my creative writing workshop to assist with language development and help students reach their full writing potential.  

Making comparisons

Students tend to find it easier to be critical of peers’ writing than their own; as if being detached from the ideas provides an unobstructed view. This notion can be applied to help students distinguish the attributes of characters in the stories they read and enhance their own. By placing similar kinds of characters side by side (e.g. Aladdin and the Genie), students are prompted to list defining differences. For example, the Genie has a ponytail, gold cuffs, big muscles and a blue complexion. Whereas, Aladdin’s thick hair is always brushing his shoulders and he usually gets around in peasant-style clothing. 

Constructing character descriptions

Have you played the board game, Guess Who? Two players take turns asking strategic yes or no questions to identify which character (out of 24) each selected. The first few questions are usually very general, like “Are you a boy?” The questions become more specific as players start to eliminate characters. For example, “Do you wear glasses?” 

To get students to think critically about the characters in their story, borrow the concept of the game. Here’s how: get into pairs. One partner must describe their character while the other draws. After the set time limit, ask the describer to evaluate the drawing. Use prompting questions such as, “Does it look exactly the way you imagined it? Why or why not?” The purpose of the activity is to get them to recognise whether they provided enough detail in their description for their partner to construct a detailed image in their head. 

Self-evaluation tool

Illustrations are intended to supplement the text. They usually provide readers with more information about a character’s appearance, mood and surroundings. It’s important the illustrations don’t conflict with the text or provide important details not mentioned by the author. Students can inadvertently develop a self-evaluation tool by illustrating their own story. When they finish, ask them to check if their illustrations provide new information which should be mentioned in the text. New details about their character may have immerged, or stimulate better word choices than they initially used.    

Giving and receiving feedback 

Including illustrations encourages children to share their work with others. Students tend to show greater enthusiasm towards reading peers’ illustrated stories and can provide feedback on the illustrations if they don’t know what to say about the text. It’s important for young children to become comfortable sharing their work, as well as providing and accepting feedback. Encourage children to identify one positive element and give one suggestion for improvement each time they share stories. 

Next time your students are reading and writing their own stories, try and allow time to discuss and explore the significance of illustrations. Children should learn to interpret illustrations and use them as a way to enhance their writing, not just regard them as a ‘reward’ exercise or something those who finish the writing task early get to do. 

About the author

Casey Hawkins is a young award-winning teacher, author and visual artist, who aspires to work with as many students as possible to boost their confidence and know-how in creative story telling. In 2016 she was awarded an ASG National Excellence in Teaching Award for her ability to engage the wider community.

Casey is also the author of Noonie and the Missing Bone. As well as being a great story, Noonie and the Missing Bone has also been designed to be used as a resource for parents and teachers to inspire children to write and illustrate their own short stories. It includes helpful story writing instructions and planning pages to assist students to develop their own wonderful short story. Find out more.

She will be speaking at a free ASG webinar on how 'Art can assist children's language development and writing' on 11 October 2017 from 7.30pm to 8.30pm AEDT. Register for free now.

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