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Classroom assessment and picture books--strategies for assessing how students interpret multimodal texts.


Picture books continue to be cornerstone resources in primary classrooms, enduring in their appeal, but at the same time evolving, with authors and illustrators exploring new forms and concepts. They have delighted generations of children, informing, changing and shaping the contemporary textual landscape where texts now integrate word, image, animation, sound, music, gesture and virtual realities (Callow, 2013). The contemporary picture book, in one sense the classic multimodal text, not only represents more traditional narrative archetypes across a number of genres, but it has also developed in visual style and form, playing with postmodern concepts and metafictive devices (Sipe & Pantaleo, 2010). It has recently been the focus of a more detailed analysis in literacy and educational research, both as an engaging and enjoyable literary artefact (Arizpe, Farrell & McAdam, 2013) and as a site for children's reading and meaning making activities (Pantaleo, 2005; Unsworth & Macken-Horarik, 2015). With growing classroom use of all types of multimodal texts, and the associated literacy skills needed to read, view and create them, picture book reading offers a familiar experience for investigating the area of assessment and multimodal texts.

The inclusion of multimodal texts in contemporary curriculum documents (ACARA, 2016; Common Core Standards Initiative, 2012) prompts the question as to how we assess students' understanding and comprehension of these multimodal texts. While an increasing number of publications support teacher knowledge and pedagogy (Callow, 2013; Serafini, 2014), the area of assessment is still developing (Botelho, Kerekes, Jang & Peterson, 2014; Callow, 2008; Chan & Unsworth, 2011; Unsworth & Chan, 2009). A number of researchers have explored students' oral and written responses to picture books and multimodal texts, including Sipe's influential research about picture books (Sipe, 2008a, 2008b; Sipe & Brightman, 2009), Pantaleo's classroom studies (Pantaleo, 2005, 2014b, 2015a) and Serafini's work on visual literacy and multimodal texts (Serafini, 2005, 2014; Serafini & Ladd, 2008). Research methods such as classroom observations, small group discussion and individual interviews, often completed over a number of weeks, may well be adapted for classroom assessment. However, classroom time restrictions and the use of academic research processes may be limitations in using such methods. There is also the more specific challenge around what theoretical framing informs a teacher's assessment of multimodal texts and what types of questions and response tasks may be most effective when working with the semiotic features across different modes. As such, there is still limited research about practical strategies and classroom practices teachers may adopt when assessing student comprehension and interpretation of multimodal texts as part of daily literacy teaching. The following sections review the areas of multimodality and functional semiotics, as well as considerations for assessment using multimodal texts.


The application of multimodal analysis as a resource to more fully explain the possibilities and meaning potentials of children's literature including picture books has developed significantly over the past 15 years, with the work of the New London Group and their multiliteracies pedagogy (New London Group, 1996) often cited as a seminal influence (Callow, 2006; Unsworth & Macken-Horarik, 2015; Walsh, 2003). Multimodality as a theoretical approach is somewhat eclectic in nature, 'primarily informed by linguistic theories' (Jewitt, 2008a p. 246), but it has also evolved to integrate other disciplines and approaches, including film theory, sociology, discourse theory and sociocultural research (Jewitt, 2008a). Multimodal theory not only engages with word and image but also 'configurations across gesture, gaze, body posture, sound, writing, music, speech ...' (Jewitt, 2008b p. 13). It is concerned with meaning making, set within larger socio-cultural contexts, where texts are read, viewed, re-mixed and reformed in a variety of settings using various media. More recent research has highlighted the importance of developing a metalanguage that students may use to more explicitly discuss how images are constructed, as well as understanding how multiple modes of meaning, including the written, spoken and visual, work in unison (Callow, 2008; Pantaleo, 2015b; Unsworth, 2006).

Researchers drawing on a social semiotic view of texts (Kress, 2010) have developed a functional semiotic approach to analysing and understanding multimodal texts (Unsworth, 2006). This functional semiotic approach considers how the written and visual modes can be understood as resources for making meaning, drawing on Halliday's systemic functional linguistics (Halliday & Hasan, 1985; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004). Halliday's work mapped systems for describing the various functions of language and related grammar, while Kress and van Leeuwen's later work developed related categories for describing how visual resources functioned, both alone and in concert with language, articulating a visual grammar to support their descriptions (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2006).

This functional semiotic approach has been applied across various texts, including picture books (Painter, Martin & Unsworth, 2012), science texts (Bezemer & Kress, 2010), film (Bateman, 2008), and online reading environments (Chan & Unsworth, 2011). While this theory offers quite a sophisticated analysis at an academic level, it has also been developed for educational and classroom purposes, making it a practical teaching resource with an associated visual grammar, as well as supporting the development of multimodal literacies now integrated into current English curriculum documents (Barton, 2016; Bates, 2016; Callow, 2013). Given that the Australian Curriculum: English includes teaching with and about multimodal texts, including a visual language thread (ACARA, 2016), the use of the functional semiotic approach has the potential to inform both teaching and assessment practices around written, visual and multimodal texts (Macken-Horarik, 2009; Unsworth & Macken-Horarik, 2015). The question of assessment and multimodal texts is explored in the following section.

Assessment and multimodal texts

When considering the literature around assessment dealing with multimodal texts, a number of areas of the literature are reviewed. These include aspects of reading assessment in primary classrooms, literature in the area of multiliteracies and multimodal texts, and more specific multimodal research focused on children's literature and picture books.

Reading assessment practices that are used daily or weekly by teachers are often, though not exclusively, formative in nature (Johnston & Costello, 2005; Shepard, 2000). Paris and Hoffman (2004) argue that teachers use multiple reading assessments to suit specific purposes, with the most common form categorised as informal assessment such as observations, anecdotal evidence, informal inventories, and work samples. Some common assessment practices used in many Australian classrooms include running records, miscue analysis, reading checklists, verbal and written comprehension questions, and anecdotal records (Clay, 2000; Oakley, 2011; Seely Flint, Kitson, Lowe & Shaw, 2014). It would seem pertinent then, that the development of a multimodal assessment task should complement such practices as well as being informed by their features, which may include the role of questions, the types of texts that are used (such as picture books), and how the use of images may be part of the assessment practice.

In a major research study, Paris and Paris (2003) developed a narrative comprehension task using a wordless picture book, which assessed a number of early reading behaviours and comprehension skills such as book handling, story knowledge, and narrative features. As well as being used as a research tool (Lepola, Lynch, Laakkonen, Silven & Niemi, 2012; Lysaker, Shaw & Alicia, 2016), the authors also encourage teachers to adapt the task for classroom instruction as well as using other wordless texts in the same manner. Citing research into narrative comprehension using wordless books as well as television with pre-schoolers (van den Broek et al., 2005), Paris and Hoffman (S.G. Paris & Hoffman, 2004) also contend that assessment of narrative comprehension using 'viewing and listening tasks can help teachers to focus on comprehension skills of young children even if the children have restricted decoding skills, few experiences with books, or limited skills in speaking English' (p. 210).

A number of features from the Paris and Paris (2003) work are instructive for developing a multimodal assessment task, such as the use of a picture walk, a retelling of the story, and prompted comprehension questions. A limitation of Paris's task is the focus on the pictures in the wordless text mainly being used to retell the narrative but not being interrogated for other layers of semiotic meaning, or considered as part of an interplay between visual and verbal text. Their focus on assessment in the early years is pertinent for this article, which reports on data from the first year of school, where students are only beginning to independently read and decode written text. Citing Paris's work, van den Broek et al. (2005) also point out the importance of developing early years assessment of comprehension using what they term 'non-textual' materials such as wordless texts, pictures, television programs, or the reading aloud of a picture book. In developing appropriate questions, van den Broek et al. argue that 'comprehension questions should span the range of different types of inferences' (van den Broek et al., 2005, p. 126). Questions regarding the interplay of images and written text lend themselves to inference across a number of dimensions of character and plot when exploring the multimodal features of picture books.

There is a variety of research around assessment and multimodal texts with some authors in this area articulating general principles for assessment. Botelho, Kerekes, Jang and Peterson discuss the importance of having a variety of assessment practices that 'offer many snapshots of classroom work' (Botelho et al., 2014 p. 16). Wyatt-Smith and Kimber (2009) as well as Cloonan (2011) argue for the importance of a metalanguage for discussing multimodal texts, as well as a focus on the process of learning, not just on a final student created multimodal text. Each of these principles informed the development of the assessment task designed for this study.

Jacobs (2013) offers a synthesis of a number of approaches concerned with designing assessments in multiliteracies, drawing on work from new literacies and multiliteracies scholars (Callow, 2008; Cope, Kalantzis, McCarthey, Vojak & Kline, 2011; Kalantzis, Cope & Harvey, 2003). Defining multiliteracies as a pedagogical concept, which includes learners engaging with multimodal texts, she presents an assessment framework for working with multimodal texts which includes assessing performative qualities, the discussion and creation of texts, ongoing portfolios of student work, assessment of students as they read and view multimodal texts as well as the need to consider the social purpose, textual features, and the ideological interests that texts engender (Jacobs, 2013). Jacob's framework complements a number of assessment principles already noted in this review and her emphasis on considering textual features (which would include the written and visual modes) as well as the importance of reading and discussing multimodal texts with students are both important qualities influencing the current study.

Quite a number of studies on multimodality and assessment focus on the creation and composition of texts by students, whether as screen-based texts (Burke & Hammett, 2009; Mills & Exley, 2014), storytelling and performance (Wessel-Powell, Kargin & Wohlwend, 2016) or as part of a response to picture books and graphic novels (Pantaleo, 2012, 2015a). Giving students the opportunity to talk about their multimodal texts not only promotes self-reflection and self-assessment (Newfield, Andrew, Stein & Maungedzo, 2003; Wyatt-Smith & Kimber, 2009) but can also provide teachers with insight about how students understand multimodal features (Callow, 2003). At the same time, an analysis of student work samples, informed by multimodal and semiotic theory, can provide further insight into students' multimodal skills and knowledge (Hopperstad, 2010; Mavers, 2009). Since the focus for this study explored how early years students interpreted pictures and words, a drawing activity was considered relevant to explore what visual features they might utilise in their own drawings, as well as the students being asked to talk about their work and the choices they had made. Given that the students were only beginning to develop handwriting, the drawing task involved images only, complemented by their own verbal comments about their work.

The influential work of Arizpe and Styles is significant as it focuses specifically on picture books and assessment. Their text Children Reading Picturebooks (Arizpe & Styles, 2016) presents a number of key points concerning assessment, building on their earlier extensive review of research into children's responses to multimodal texts (Arizpe & Styles, 2008). They draw on the work of Chambers (1994) and his Tell Me framework, which emphasises the use of authentic children's literature, the importance of open-ended questions and time for exploration of stories with children. They also argue for the use of a metalanguage and encourage 'in-depth interpretation and understanding through talk and collaborative discussion' (Arizpe & Styles, 2016 p. 181). The importance of allowing children to draw, both as an expression of their own ideas as well as in response to stories, is also supported by Arizpe and Style's work as well as other researchers (Adoniou, 2014; Mackenzie & Veresov, 2013). Building on this, the assessment task in this study utilised authentic children's literature, integrating the use of a metalanguage as part of the discussion and questions about the story.

Offering potential insight to the way that comprehension of image and text can be achieved, more recent work by Unsworth (Unsworth, 2014; Unsworth & Chan, 2009) Pantaleo (Pantaleo, 2014a, 2014b) and Arizpe and Styles (2016) as well as a number of other researchers (Baird, Laugharne, Maagero & Tonnessen, 2016; Mantei & Kervin, 2015; van der Pol, 2012; Wilson, 2014; Yu, 2012) has highlighted students' ability to comprehend and explore complex ideas across a variety of multimodal texts including authentic children's literature and picture books. While each study is in one sense assessing students' knowledge of multimodal texts, the extended time periods, discussion sessions, and data collection used in most research generally cannot be utilised in classrooms for regular assessment purposes. The need for common frameworks and practices for the classroom is still apparent.

With an explicit focus on assessment, Callow (2008) outlined a number of key principles and techniques in a review of the literature around visual literacy, with a focus on narratives and children's literature. While ostensibly focused on the visual mode, the principles also integrate reference to assessment of written and multimodal texts. Many of the principles reflect the review thus far, as well as contending that assessment should:

* Provide students with varied means for showing their skills and conceptual knowledge, as well as the processes used in learning (this includes time to look and think deeply about visual and multimodal texts);

* Use authentic texts, such as picture books, information books, electronic texts, and texts that students create;

* Value the interplay between the visual and written elements;

* Involve students using a metalanguage as part of the assessment. (Callow, 2008, p. 619)

The emphasis on the interplay between visual and written elements, linked to using a metalanguage, was deemed a critical factor for the development of the assessment task.

Other researchers support the use of an appropriate metalanguage. Bearne (2003) reasons that teachers will need a 'means of sharing common terminology about text structure and cohesion whilst recognising the different affordances of modes and media.' (p. 102). Informed by the work of Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) and other scholars utilising multimodal theory, a number of education researchers have developed the use of a semiotically framed metalanguage or visual grammar for use in the classroom (Callow, 2006; Jewitt, 2008a; Pantaleo, 2015b; Serafini, 2014; Unsworth & Macken-Horarik, 2015). However, a more detailed focus on classroom assessment practices using this metalanguage is still evolving.

Bringing together the key points from this section, prior research suggests the development of a multimodal assessment task should: utilise an appropriate theoretical base that acknowledges the importance of the interplay between the verbal and visual modes (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2006); complement common reading assessment practices (S.G. Paris & Hoffman, 2004); include elements of viewing and listening comprehension using activities such as picture walks, retelling and prompted questions (van den Broek et al., 2005); develop a task that may used with other assessment practices as part of the learning process (Wyatt-Smith & Kimber, 2009); consider the textual features and the modal interplay to be explored with students (Jacobs, 2013; Callow, 2008); use authentic texts and children's literature (Arizpe & Styles, 2016); integrate the use of a metalinguistic aspect (Callow, 2013) as well as include the use of a drawn or visual response to the text (Arizpe & Styles, 2016; Adoniou, 2014).

Research context and design

The contexts for this multisite case study were two schools in a large city in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. One school was in a higher density suburban area near a city business district with an ICSEA value of 1164, while the other was in a medium density inner city area with an ICSEA value of 1154 (ACARA, 2013). (1) Both schools represented a mostly middle class population. The suburban school draws on a relatively high density housing environment, with 58 different language backgrounds represented. The inner city school draws on a diverse local community with 35% of students having more than one language spoken in the home. Participants were drawn from the four stages of primary schooling categorised by the NSW public system (Early Stage 1, Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3). The researcher had collegial relationships with both schools and each principal then invited teachers who were interested to be part of the study. The selection of students was non-purposive in that teachers could invite 6-7 students to participate, with no criteria being assigned to their selection by the researcher. Apart from students being selected from the same grade and classroom in each school, it was decided not to ask teachers to select students by any particular measure of literacy learning. Given the focus on exploring assessment strategies which may be appropriate for general classroom use, student data would be considered both comparatively as well as in relation to curriculum expectations.

Students who supplied the permissions signed by their parents/caregivers to be part of the study were then chosen. For the purposes of this paper, the focus is on 4 boys and 3 girls aged 5 and 6 years old, who were in Foundation, the first year of formal schooling in Australian schools. Teacher interviews were conducted to provide a contextual understanding of the children's classrooms. Students had been in the class for nearly half the school year when the interviews took place.

The study utilised a qualitative, small scale case study approach, employing methods of interview, discussion, observation of reading and viewing as well as drawn responses to picture books (Merriam & Merriam, 2009). The overarching research question for the study asked How can we assess students' understanding of visual and multimodal texts? As a pilot study, the choice of a small case study was appropriate (Yin, 2009).

The data were collected by the researcher and an undergraduate student completing an honours program (an additional study program for high achieving students as part of their final year in the Bachelor of Education degree). For consistency, 3 interviews with a 5-year-old and six-year-old were completed together, where each researcher observed the other, in order to clarify any issues around question clarity and elaboration. While questions were structured, they were flexible in allowing children to talk about various aspects of the story, as well as comment on their drawings.

The data collection process began with a brief viewing and discussion of each book, often termed a picture walk (Stahl, 2004). This was followed by either reading the story aloud to the five, six, and seven year old students, or independent reading by the older students in Stage 2 and 3. Returning to the book, a structured interview focusing on a specific double page spread was undertaken, and finally a concluding drawing activity based on the story. The average time take for the picture walk and reading of the book was about 7 minutes. The average time for questions and discussion was 6 minutes. Drawing time ranged for each child from 2 minutes to 15 minutes for one keen artist. Disregarding the unusual 15 minute drawing, the average drawing time was 5 minutes.

Audio recordings of student and teacher interviews were transcribed. Transcripts were read multiples times, combined with reviewing the video and audio recordings to clarify any meanings as well as note gestures made to the pictures in the book, pointing out key features, or flipping of pages to refer to other images. While this broader form of content analysis focussed on 'the concepts and ideas that are being communicated' (Newby, 2010 p. 488) each specific question was then read, tabulated and colour coded for common themes and patterns across the student responses. This was complemented by a similar process with the teacher interviews and as well as student comments about their drawings. Colour coding of transcript segments in table formats further assisted in forming categories and noting specific metalanguage and conceptual qualities discussed by the students.

The current study did not aim to compare the classroom teachers' literacy assessment of each student with the data collected and researchers were not informed about whether teachers assessed the students in the study as independent or emergent readers. While this can be considered a limitation in terms of accessing another assessment source, it allowed the data to be considered in this specific assessment context, as well as comparatively across the case.

Book selection and task development

The assessment process was informed by a number of principles from the literature reviewed. The selected picture book was Amy and Louis, written by award winning author Libby Gleeson and illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Gleeson & Blackwood, 2006). Gleeson and Blackwood's work is well known by Australian teachers and children, with their books regularly being nominated for national awards. Amy and Louis is the moving story of two young children who are best friends. They live next door to each other, playing in each other's yards, calling out to each other with the special word 'Coo-ee!'. One day however, Amy moves to the other side of the world, leaving her best friend Louis with no playmate and feeling quite sad and lonely. After consulting with various family members, he decides to call as loudly as possible to Amy across the seas, with the words 'Coo-ee!'. On the other side of the world, Amy dreams that she has heard her friend Louis calling.

The book was introduced to the Foundation students, a short picture walk conducted and then the story was read aloud. With a focus on comprehension rather than word recognition, it was deemed appropriate to use listening comprehension with the younger students (Duke & Carlisle, 2011). In the spirit of shared reading, children's comments and participation were welcomed during the read aloud. The reading was followed by a short retell of the story by the child without the use of any picture card prompts although the book was available for the child to refer to if they chose. Following this were a series of discussion prompts and focused questions using a selected double page spread (Table 1). After the questions, the students were asked to imagine what the focus page might look like if Amy were coming home after being away. The children were explicitly asked to 'Try and use your colours to help us understand how Louis feels'. Once completed, questions were posed as to how they had tried to shape the emotional response of viewers to their scene, as well as any other features of their work (see final row of Table 1). The choice to read a piece of authentic literature in full acknowledged the importance of engaging with meaningful texts and stories (rather than story extracts or created texts) as well as reflecting engaging classroom practice (Serafini, 2011) and the Australian curriculum focus on literature (ACARA, 2016).

The questions developed for the interviews drew on the functional semiotic model and were designed to provide students with opportunities to interpret both image and text. The focus page (see Figure 1) was selected as it offered a number of features. The page signals a key complication in the narrative as well as utilising a number of visual and written elements. The written text signals the complication with the use of the conjunction 'but' and then reveals that 'one day, Amy and her family moved a long, long way away ...' The visual images present a truck moving down a dull and drab coloured street with a small Louis looking after it from the bottom left hand corner.

Using a functional semiotic framework, Unsworth (Unsworth, 2014) and Painter and Martin (Painter et al., 2012) argue that picture books draw on two semiotic systems (image and word) to create meaning. Thus, the meanings in the images and word can stand alone but they may also elaborate on each other's meanings in similar ways or express the same meanings in different or complementary ways. The elaborated meanings on this page are where the written text, telling of Amy's move, is re-expressed by the truck driving away. The page also shows complementary meanings, where the choice of colour, size of Louis and his gaze down the street are not mentioned in the written text. These visual elements complement the unfolding narrative, presenting further actions (gazing after the truck) and utilising the emotional effect of the colour choice and character size (Unsworth, 2006).

The questions developed for the task moved from a more open-ended one in the first instance to very specific ones that asked students to articulate their understanding of particular features, both textual and visual. The initial retell after the story reading reflects a common element of comprehension assessment (Clay, 2000) used in early years classrooms. Table 1 outlines the process in formulating the questions, as well as linking related curriculum outcomes (content descriptions) for Foundation and Year 1 from the Australian Curriculum: English (ACARA, 2016).


Overview of teacher interviews about classrooms contexts and practices

Each Foundation teacher was interviewed about classroom resources, literacy practices, use of multimodal texts, the knowledge and classroom use of metalanguage with written and visual texts as well as how they assessed their students' knowledge about multimodal texts.

Both teachers reported a range of student abilities and age ranges in their classrooms. Nearing the middle of school year, some students were still 4 years old while others were nearly turning 6. Both teachers described their classes as having students who all enjoyed learning and engaging with visual texts. Classrooms were portrayed as print rich environments, where daily literacy sessions included reading big books together as well as small group instruction. Erica (all names are pseudonyms) spoke about a large variety of children's literature in her room, citing various authors as well as big books and published readers, while Yvette tended to only mention big books, published readers and some online stories.

In terms of visual metalanguage, Erica reported discussing author choice in images, the use of colour and size, and the character emotions shown in pictures as part of her teaching. Yvette focussed mainly on noting how the pictures and words matched in the books she used. While she said she had not included any visual metalanguage in her teaching, she noted her own knowledge of terms such as vectors and salience. In terms of creating multimodal texts, both noted painting and drawing were part of their classroom learning but no specific focus on teaching or assessing multimodal knowledge was revealed in the interviews.

The data suggest reasonably similar classrooms and literacy practices, where students were familiar with reading children's literature, however no explicit instruction in using a visual metalanguage or teaching multimodal concepts was reported.

Retelling and comparison of pages

All the students attended as the story was read to them, following the pictures and listening to the story. Many pointed to features on the page and commented about various aspects of the story. Each child offered a simple recount of the main story ideas. Most just noted the main characters and events, with two noting the characters felt sad. One student, Darren, provided a very detailed recount of the story events.

One of the most obvious differences between the focus page and the previous pages in Amy and Louis was the use of muted brown and faded grey colours. The page also signals the sad complication in the narrative. While two students commented about the different events or objects across the pages (Amy leaving, the moving truck, a small cat), three students mentioned the limited colour on the focus page as a difference. For example:

* There's no colour, except red and white.

* That page doesn't have colour

* This one's brown and the others are not

Two, however, gave extended explanations with commentary about the use of colour. Darren contrasted the lack of colour with the more colourful later pages, which he suggested were this way because of the happy ending:
   Well, all the houses are white, and the car, but not the
   arrows or his shirt or his hair or his mouth and his ears,
   that's how red he is, but, I'm going to look at another
   one. I'm going to do this one, (flicks to bird's eye view
   page of the suburb at the end of the story) and, it's all
   lighted up, because this is a happy ending.

Anna had a much longer explanation about the use of colour when asked how the page was different. She explained:

Anna: Because it's all grey.

Researcher: Ah, ok.

Anna: That's why. And all the others are all grey, and only the people are not grey (student turns to show previous pages with colour) And then this one--all the others--so half is all colour (turning to first pages) and then because now he's sad and then he's being ... because it's a sad picture now, and then it has all grey because he's sad.

Researcher: Mmhm.

Anna: And there she's sad so it's all grey and here he's still sad but it has no colour and here it has colour (turning to page where Louis calls out) because he's happy, and then ... he's a little bit happy (turns to page where Louis is looking up after shouting to Amy across the world) and then here he is happy and then here he's happy and then she's still happy.

In terms of assessment, the retelling showed all students had understood the basic story sequence. The data showed that some students noticed visual objects that were different, such as the moving truck or the cat, as well as the fact of Amy leaving, the key aspect of the complication. The three students who noted limited colour use did not offer any reasoning from the story. Anna and Darren's answers seem to show they are developing an understanding that the choice of colours can reflect feelings, and that the focus page colours are used to represent sadness in contrast to others in the book. Drawing on this complementary meaning between the visual and written mode, their responses also provide evidence of working towards the Australian curriculum's content description, by discussing how images contribute to meaning.

Making meaning using the verbal and visual modes

Nowhere in the story does the written text state that Louis or Amy were sad--readers need to interpret the images as well as infer from statements such as 'He thought about Amy every day and every night' that both characters were sad. In the initial retell and comparison question, five students made comments about the children being sad or not having fun. When asked at this point in the interviews if they thought Louis would be sad, each student said they thought so and provided evidence from the story such as Louis not being able to call out to Amy anymore, having no friend to play with or missing his best friend because she has moved away. Their responses would have been informed by the focus page as well as having read the entire story. Each response showed a logical answer to the question.

When asked whether the words or pictures tell us about his sadness, six students stated that the pictures did, while one said that it was the words. Maddie used the pictures that elaborated on the written text by pointing to Louis looking out and saying 'He's going out the gate and she's not there'. Anna and Darren, building on their previous commentary about colour, suggested the pictures revealed sadness with Anna stating 'it's all grey' while Darren pointed to the focus page and stated 'A blank page is not a happy ending'. Here he seems to describe the limited colour palette as blank. Annabel also argued that the pictures showed he was sad 'because they're all grey, and he's the only one with colour'.

While six students cited pictures as showing sadness, their comments were also interwoven with information from the written text, such as Amy going a long, long way away. However, most did cite specific examples from the pictures to support their answer. In terms of assessment of the two modes, the question appears to provide specific details about what mode the children drew on when giving their answers.

Assessing specific visual features and metalanguage

When asked to tell about the colours on the page, the students all described the focus pages as having black, white, brown or grey colours with two describing the pages as having 'no colours'. Five of the seven explicitly linked the colour choice to Louis's sadness, which echoed their earlier comments when comparing pages. Two students argued more pragmatically that the colours were due to the sunset ('because the sun's going down') or the street lights. While just describing colours offers limited insight into meaning making, making a link back to a character's feelings connects to the understanding of how authors create characters and represent their emotions, which is the curriculum content descriptor ACELT1581.

When asked how the illustrator, Freya Blackwood, wanted us to feel with her choice of colours, there were a variety of responses. Romeo and Annabel thought that Blackwood wanted us to feel sad, while Edith suggested that she chose the colours 'because it's sad', a more general interpretation perhaps. After discussing the brown colours on the page, Nathan was asked about the choice:

Researcher: Why do you think she chose to use a lot of brown kind of colours?

Nathan: Because he was sad.

Researcher: Oh, so she wants us to feel something?

Nathan: Mmhm.

Researcher: What do you think she wants us to feel?

Nathan: That Louis is sad.

Interestingly, Darren, who had strongly argued the colours showed an unhappy ending, when asked whether Blackwood wanted us to feel an emotion simply answered 'No'. Leo could not give a response to the question, while Anna, who had provided a long commentary about sad feel colours earlier in the interview, explained that Blackwood wanted us to feel happy, because 'because I like white and grey, that's my favourite'. Personal preference rather than a reflection on the illustrator's possible intention takes priority here.

The mix of responses here suggests that the concept of authorial choice was not very familiar to the students or perhaps too sophisticated in such a short discussion. The move from talking about the character's feelings to the concept that the illustrator may have chosen to use a colour which influences how we respond to an image is a reasonably complex question, foreshadowing what Luke and Freebody call a text analyst role (Luke & Freebody, 1999) or a critical literacy orientation, where we may understand and even question the choices an author or illustrator makes (Janks, 2002; Serafini, 2012; Vasquez, 2003).

When asked to identify strong lines on the page, students found a range of examples, from the red arrows on the truck to quite small strokes along poles and rooftops. The students' ability to identify the direction of the truck and interpret where it was going was consistent across all seven students, where they traced the strong vector of the truck from left to right, then continued down the street, with most following the street as it turned to the left. Noting lines on a page may be akin to simply finding words in text, however interpreting their use as conveying some type of meaning or movement is perhaps more important, in terms of being able to 'read' the visual elaboration of the written text about moving away. In terms of assessment, the students' ability to identify various lines could then be developed to probe their understanding of the different ways that lines are used to shape pictures or show actions and events.

As with the movement of the truck, every student could trace Louis's gaze as he looked down the street. There is scope here to extend the question in terms of why he was looking and what he may have been thinking. In terms of using any metalinguistic terms, none volunteered the term 'gaze', although once mentioned, Annabel explained that it meant 'that we are staring at something'. From a teacher's point of view, data from a question like this may inform the introduction of the terms line, vector and gaze. If the terms had already been introduced in the classroom, then the need to revisit and develop the concepts would be apparent.

All the students identified Louis's small size on the page but the question about how it makes viewers feel about Louis confused some students who were unable to respond. The distinction between how a character is feeling and how viewers may be positioned to respond is important not only in terms of introducing the two ideas as ways of talking about pictures but of assessing how students' may understand each concept.

Drawn responses

Each of the students were asked to draw a response to the story, creating a picture that showed Louis's response to Amy if she were to return to see him. They were asked to try and use colours to help the reader understand how Louis would feel on her return.

The drawings were analysed using some of the semiotically framed concepts developed in Kress and van Leeuwen's work (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2006), which has been applied in a number of studies to children's drawings (Hopperstad, 2010; Mavers, 2009). The analysis included representation of events, movement, objects and people as well as the use of affective resources such as colour and shot distance. Student comments about their work were also analysed in relation to their work samples. Table 2 outlines the findings.

While some of the students appeared to be developing the concept that colours can both show an emotional aspect as well as shape a reader's emotions, others were yet to articulate or show they understood this aspect of illustration in their own work. This was consistent with some of the previous comments around illustrator choices. While the focus was on the use of colour in this task, the drawings also provided insight into other aspects of their story knowledge. Hopperstad reminds us that a child's interest in portraying an idea or action 'may be more complex than the child is able to render visually' (Hopperstad, 2010, p. 448). In this case, all the drawings represented characters, but ranged from simple faces and stick figures to more detailed faces, limbs and clothing. Common representations of happiness included the sun, flowers, grass as well as the use of colour and facial expressions. While Nathan used a large arrow to show movement of a truck, all the other drawings tended to show more static scenes of the two characters standing. While the task direction did include Amy returning home, students seemed to have focussed less on movement and action and more on representing emotions or feelings in their drawing. Each of the features of their drawings links to the curriculum content descriptor around using images to retell stories ACELT1580.


The findings from the data provide a number of aspects to consider and critique in terms of the assessment process itself and possible guidance for classroom practices. Informed by the research literature, the use of authentic children's literature, allowing some time to listen to a story, retell and comment, and then explore particular features of the text were all useful for providing information about aspects of children's meaning making with the picture book. Limitations for the study included restricted time for more in-depth discussion, the need to focus on a limited number of multimodal features and the decision not to use existing reading assessment data from the classroom context.

Using all or some of the components of this assessment process could complement the other forms of reading assessment common across many classrooms. The responses provided a range of data in terms of each child's ability to: retell a story sequence; compare and comment about colour differences used to create meaning in the story; interpret a character's feelings using written and visual evidence as well as comment on their own understanding of how the illustrator may have used different visual elements. Each of these aspects would support evidence for the content descriptor Explore the different contribution of words and images to meaning in stories and informative texts (ACELA1786), as well as complement reading assessment data from other sources such as observation checklists, running records and comprehension tasks for written texts.

Knowledge of students and classroom contexts

Assessment is often used by teachers to gain an initial understanding about students' knowledge and skills. In this study, lack of familiarity with the students' interests and background no doubt limited some of the students' interactions with the researchers (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2011). This would likely not be an issue for a teacher working with his or her own class but even at the beginning of a school year, the process of listening to a story, retelling it and answering some specific questions exploring the visual and written modes would provide useful formative assessment data to plan for future lessons.

The time taken to read a complete story with each child is one limitation in terms of classroom time allocations. The average time to read this book aloud to each student was 5 minutes. While reading an entire text is preferred to provide a rich and full understanding of the story, alternatives could be the selection of shorter texts or re-reading a section of a book which has recently been read and discussed in the classroom, where assessment then focuses on skills and concepts that have been taught.

Comparing images

The comparison of the less colourful focus page with the previous pages did appear to prompt students to notice this visual element, with some giving more detailed commentary about its affect. It may be that comparison of pages is a more direct or focused starting point for assessment, where one or two key features are compared or contrasted. While other studies utilise Chambers's (1994) Tell Me questions to draw out children's observations, such conversations appear to take a much longer time to develop (Arizpe, 2001; Mantei & Kervin, 2015). This is a tension for teaching literature and reading generally, where time is always at a premium in order to cover curriculum content.

Commenting on the visual and verbal modes

The analysis of the selected double page, with its focus on the narrative complication and associated character reactions directed the multimodal focus towards more interpersonal meanings. This, of course, would vary if different books or pages were used. Integrating questions that explicitly address the interplay of the verbal and visual modes is a critical part of multimodal assessment (Arizpe & Styles, 2016). The attention to Louis's emotions in this task, where sadness is inferred from the written text and shown in different ways through the visual images, provided a clear example. Revision of the initial question to read 'How do you think Louis's might be feeling when Amy leaves?' would provide another way into this discussion, without leading directly with the concept of sadness. The students' responses showed they did understand that Louis was sad, and were drawing on the written text, as well as specific visual features such as colour to support their answer.

Another refinement of this question could be to avoid offering the binary of whether or not the pictures or words show some aspect of sadness but instead asking how the words might tell us and how the pictures might show us.

While the questions regarding colour showed a range of understanding by students about its use, the inclusion of illustrator choices and their influence appeared to challenge most students. This is not to say that young learners are not able to engage with critical literacy concepts (Janks, 2002; Vasquez, 2003), but more knowledge and background about the classroom would be needed to shape questions that were more appropriate for this area.

Identifying visual features such as lines, gaze and the relatively small size of Louis showed students were able to recognise such features. However, it would seem more important to develop an understanding of how and why these visual features have been used, in order to assess more substantial commentary about the story as students work towards exploring the different contribution of words and images to meaning.

In order to focus on both the visual and verbal modes, teachers would need to have a thorough understanding of the texts and books they choose to teach with and use for assessment. This would support the development of questions and comments that lead students to consider and then articulate how the words and pictures might work together to make meaning.

Drawings not only provide another medium for students to respond to and engage with literature, but they can also provide assessment data around the meanings conveyed using the visual and verbal mode. While students were not asked to include any written text in their drawing, the visual focus around colour showed a range of understandings, consistent with data from the discussion questions. Assessment linked to classroom learning where specific multimodal features have been studied (such as colour, line, size, placement of characters or shot distance) would provide a clearer benchmark to assess a task such as this.


There are a number of findings from this study that may contribute to the larger question of how we assess students' understanding of multimodal texts. Given that the data here only reports on a small group from the larger research study, some tentative suggestions are proposed.

Familiarity and regular use of authentic literature should be a foundation in classrooms, where teaching and learning activities already involve discussion and thoughtful exploration of the many levels of meaning that picture books offer. Assessment strategies, including observations, questioning, running records as well as tasks with a multimodal focus all work to build up a profile of a student's skills and knowledge.

Consistent with the literature (Arizpe & Styles, 2016), well-planned questions help students see the connection between image and text, allowing them to demonstrate their own interpretation of possible meanings. This should include explicitly considering how both modes work separately as well as together. When assessing any visual metalinguistic concepts and visual grammar, such as vectors, colour or size, assessment questions should help students see how the feature is used to create or enhance the meanings in the story, rather than as an isolated term or concept. Providing students with the opportunity to draw also gives them another mode to demonstrate their knowledge and skills but post-drawing questions or discussion would need to be used to support the work sample (Arizpe & Styles, 2008; Heath & Wolfe, 2004). Future directions for further research may include use of persuasive or factual texts, varied features in picture books (such as metafictive devices), different multimodal features (for example movement, angles, layout), the development of a continuum of multimodal concepts across ages or grades, as well as how technology may be used to facilitate discussion about and creation of multimodal texts, particularly with the use of screen based technologies.

As Pantaleo (2015a) reminds us 'assessment practices at all grade levels need to reflect the importance of valuing, and of teaching with and about visual and multimodal texts' (p. 25). Whether reading picture books or other forms of multimodal texts, educators need to continue to develop forms of assessment that complement engaged and meaningful classroom learning. Based on a number of principles from the literature, the strategies and tasks suggested here may go some way in supporting teachers to consider this increasingly important area of literacy assessment.


(1) Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA) is a scale of socio-educational advantage. ICSEA values are calculated on a scale which has a median of 1000 and a standard deviation of 100. Values typically range from approximately 500 (representing extremely educationally disadvantaged backgrounds) to about 1300 (representing schools with students with very educationally advantaged backgrounds) (ACARA, 2013).


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Jon Callow is a Senior Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. Jon's areas of research include visual and multimodal literacies, digital media, children's literature, pedagogy, creativity and engagement. His current projects include an international research project in the area of knowledgeable and engaging literacy teaching, as well as research into children's engagement with and understanding of images in picture books and other multimodal texts. Email:

Jon Callow

University of Sydney

Caption: Figure 1. Focus pages from Amy and Louis

Caption: Figure 2. Amy coming home
Table 1--Developing question content

Semiotic features                Questions for Amy and Louis

Comparing different meanings     How is this different to previous
and  features                    pages? (The researcher shows the first
                                 four double pages in order to compare
Foundation                       them to the focus page). The previous
                                 pages in the story tended to have
Explore the different            image and text that elaborated each
contribution of words and        other-that is the narrative meanings
images to meaning in stories     for the page were similar or
and informative texts            equivalent across image and written
(ACELA1786)                      text. The focus page used both
                                 elaborated and complementary meanings
Year 1                           (Unsworth, 2006), providing more scope
                                 for exploring possible interpretation.
Compare different kinds of       Comparison of pages was chosen as
images in narrative and           'identifying similarities and
informative texts and discuss    differences is a common instructional
how they contribute to           activity that appears to pay dividends
meaning, ACELA1453               in terms of knowledge development'
                                 (Marzano, 2007 p. 64), as well as
                                 reflecting a curriculum content
                                 description for Year 1.

Affective reading of character   Read the text on the page to the
feelings                         student again. Do you think Louis
                                 would be sad? Why? Do the words or
                                 pictures tell us he is sad?

Foundation                       The design of the question was
                                 intended to focus quite specifically
Explore the different            on how the image and text worked
contribution of words and        together in a complementary fashion,
images to meaning in stories     prompting students to comment on each
and informative texts            mode. While the written text describes
(ACELA1786)                      Amy moving away, the visual resources
                                 signalling affective meanings can
                                 include social distance (close, medium
                                 or long shots), the relative size of a
                                 character, the gaze of the character
                                 to the viewer (offer or demand) as
                                 well as the use of colour (Callow,
                                 2013). Given that the story had
                                 already been read in full, where both
                                 Amy and Louis's sadness at their
                                 separation is a central idea in the
                                 narrative, it was decided to directly
                                 discuss Louis's reaction on this page,
                                 rather than include an initial
                                 question about his feelings. It is
                                 acknowledged that while this guided
                                 the children's response and is in some
                                 ways a limitation, the initial story
                                 retell and the first question gave
                                 children the opportunity to comment on
                                 Amy and Louis's feelings in the story.

Colour                           Tell me about the colour. Why do you
                                 think Freya Blackwood chose these
                                 colours? How does she want us to feel?

Year 1

Discuss how authors create       Colour can not only represent people,
characters using language and    places or objects but also convey
images (ACELT1581)               attitudes, cultural meanings,
                                 emotional qualities and create
                                 affective engagement in an image
                                 (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2002). The
                                 question provided opportunities for
                                 the students to show their knowledge
                                 about colours and associated meanings.
                                 This question has an element of the
                                 text analyst role (Luke & Freebody,
                                 1999), where students were prompted to
                                 consider author/illustrator choice.

Action and vectors:              Can you trace any strong lines on the
                                 page? Can you trace the direction of
Foundation                       where the truck is going? Where will
                                 it end up? Can you trace where Louis
Explore the different            is looking? Do you know what the word
contribution of words and        is for when we can follow where
images to meaning in stories     someone is looking?
and informative texts
                                 Lines can represent people and objects
                                 as well as convey height, movement,
                                 tension and drama. This question
                                 focussed on the role of lines as
                                 vectors, which can be understood as 'a
                                 predicted line of movement, where the
                                 viewer infers motion, however small or
                                 large' (Callow, 2013 p. 25). It also
                                 probed for any metalinguistic
                                 vocabulary such as vector or gaze.

Power and                        Is Louis drawn very big or small here?
importance--relative size        Why did Freya do this? How might it
                                 make us feel about Louis?

Year 1                           The size of characters can suggest
                                 both a sense of power or weakness in
Discuss how authors create       an image, as well as a level of
characters using language and    salience or importance (Callow, 2013
images (ACELT1581)               p. 75). This question draws on the
                                 significance of a visual feature as
                                 well as the influence of an author's
                                 or illustrator's choices.

Creating texts--focus on         6. What would this picture look like
colour                           if Amy was coming back? Draw a picture
                                 that shows Amy coming home. Try and
                                 use your colours to help us understand
                                 how Louis feels.


Retell familiar literary texts   A drawing task was designed to explore
through performance, use of      how children used and understood
illustrations and images         colours in representing emotional
(ACELT1580)                      meanings, given colour was used in
                                 this way on the focus page. As noted
                                 in the discussion questions, colour
                                 may play a powerful role in creating
                                 affective responses and attitudes in
                                 visual images (Kress & Van Leeuwen,
                                 2002). The children were also free to
                                 use any other visual features
                                 (actions, size, facial expressions
                                 etc.) as part of the drawing task.

                                 The children were given blank paper
                                 and coloured markers and pencils. Once
                                 completed, the following discussion
                                 questions were posed:

                                 * How did you want the viewer to feel
                                 when they look at your drawing?

                                 * What things did you do to try and
                                 make them feel this way about the

                                 * Discuss any other features that are
                                 present in their drawing.

Table 2. Drawing analysis

            Representation of events,             Affective
                    movement,                features--including
                                         character expression, size,
                                         colour and/or shot distance

Leo        * detailed picture of street  Showing the full street from
           with fence and houses like    a frontal angle, the houses
           those on the focus page       are very colourful and
                                         detailed, while Louis is
                                         dominant because of his

           * blue sky and yellow sun

           * Louis is pictured as being
           as tall as the houses.

Nathan     * simple drawing of a         Louis's smile and the use of
           smiling Louis with a small    pink suggest a positive
           truck and pink flower.        mood.

           * large area of pink
           coloured in the background
           with an arrow pointing
           towards Louis, which was
           explained as showing the
           truck going back to Louis.

Anna       * two faces of Louis, the     Symbolic use of cross and
           first sad and the second      tick in blue boxes to
           happy.                        complement the facial
                                         expressions. Colours don't
           * a cross is next to the sad  seem to suggest specific
           face while a tick is next to  emotions.
           the happy one.

           * explained as symbolising
           his before and after

Annabel    * Amy and Louis, dressed in   Smiling faces and varied use
           colourful striped clothes,    of colour on clothing and in
           are smiling, standing in      the setting suggest a
           long grass with pink          positive mood.

           * bright orange sun in the

Darren     * Amy and Louis drawn as two  Smiling faces convey
           stick figures smiling and     positive emotion as well as
           holding hands, are standing   the yellow sun.
           in the grass with a bright
           yellow sun overhead.

Romeo      * Amy and Louis, smiling,     The smiling faces and
(see       are standing on the footpath  colourful sun suggest a
Figure 2)  next to a very wide black     positive feel, however the
           and grey street.              large area of black road
                                         dominates the page.
           * a large yellow and orange
           sun, partially obscured by
           the lines of a blue sky.

Edith      * Amy and Louis in bright     Use of bright clothing,
           clothes, stand smiling next   smiles and large sun and
           to each other under a large   moon suggest a mood of
           yellow sun and crescent       happiness.

                            Student comments

Leo        Leo describes Louis as happy because he will see
           Amy coming from the car but he doesn't explain his
           use of colour as representing feelings or
           emotions. He was unable to articulate how his
           choices might make the viewer feel.

Nathan     Nathan explained that pink is 'a happy colour'
           while flowers 'make people happy'.

Anna       Anna said that Louis would be happy when Amy moved
           back: 'I'll do a face because, and then I'll do
           this so it shows him be happy'. She commented that
           blue is 'so nice' but did not explicitly say it
           was meant to show Louis's feelings.

Annabel    Annabel explained that the choice of flowers and
           colours were to make 'everything look pretty', and
           make the viewer feel happy.

Darren     Darren says that the smiling faces, the sun and
           the grass are meant to make the viewer feel happy.
           He also notes that 'The sun is really good to gaze
           at, I really love it. Yellow is a happy colour'.

Romeo      Romeo begins by drawing the sky, saying 'I love
(see       blue!'. He also draws a 'boiling hot sun'. He
Figure 2)  explains that his choice of colours is meant to
           make the viewer feel happy but his explanation for
           using blue and black is because 'they are sort of
           matching'. The logic for his colour choices in
           influencing the reader was somewhat confused.

Edith      Edith says her colours are happy, pointing to
           Amy's pink shirt as an example.
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Author:Callow, Jon
Publication:Australian Journal of Language and Literacy
Date:Jan 25, 2018
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