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Portraits of Picture Power: American and Chinese children explore literacy through the visual arts.

"Can we read now?" pleaded a child, eager to have the class focus return to the pages of a picture book.

When they hear beautiful language and see superb images, little ones are drawn into read-aloud sessions. Lyrical writing styles and sophisticated artwork combine in an intricate weaving of verbal and visual text, creating a natural lure for a young child predisposed for "meaning making." The benefits that can be gained from viewing picture books stem from the child's natural capacity for understanding both literary and artistic elements, and from the imaginative skills that interact to produce a superior kind of mental activity.

In a project titled "Picture Power," we worked with kindergartners in explorations of the dual systems of imagery and language. The children became the audience during picture book reading, experienced the characters' thoughts and feelings, and moved themselves closer to the transforming effects of literary experiences. By engaging in a spirited interplay between drawing and talking, our young participants conveyed the fullness of their voice and vision with the ease and confidence of highly experienced learners. Figure 1 illustrates how Ni, a child from China, intricately interwove words and visuals to make her meaning both clear and heartfelt.


What strikes the viewer of this selected artwork is not only the red house perched on top of the largest of her three mountains, but also the young artist's gentle, free-spirited language. She adds aesthetic properties to the landscape by enlarging the contour lines in each mountain and varying the shape of the tree foliage. The colors are lively and expressive, creating "a stop and smell the roses" effect for the person walking down the mountainside. Emotion is heightened through Ni's choice of details, especially the heart symbols to signify warmth, love, and security--qualities a young child values in a home setting. Much of what can be seen in Ni's pictorial response does not need to be supported with words; the message is clear, and the mix of image and symbol serves as an intriguing, playful point of departure for imaginative minds.

As researchers in the field of early literacy, we distinctly see the beginnings of Ni's cognitive understanding in her visual art. We wonder if she has just created her own unique version of the motto "Home is where the heart is." But the more difficult interpretation of what this child actually sees and intends through the composition she creates is best resolved through her own spontaneous comments. As we listen to her response to, "Tell me about your drawing," we are able to view the extent of Ni's developing language and literary skills:

"This is a brick house built on the high mountain. It is warm and suitable for children to live. It is built on the top of the mountain to avoid the big grey wolf. Five trees are planted here. The tree had a dream that he married a bride and they had a child who loves his father and mother and has a good heart. The inside of the house is also very pretty but it is difficult to draw it on paper.--This is a house made of wood and stone. It is also built on the top of the mountain. It is a house full of love.--This is a house made of wood and is built on the top of the mountain too. It is surrounded by a lot of green grass and trees.--What I drew is the child playing outside at noon without asking permission. The sky is blue and the sun is outside the page, there is no space to put it in. And, I wanted to draw a frame, so I drew blue flowery fringe because I like it."

At first, Ni's commentary seems disjointed, but the content is actually rich in descriptive language; these thoughts will eventually find organization in her future written expressions. When you consider that she is taking the adult listener on an impromptu tour of her visual landscape, logical sequence is less of a factor. Ni is verbally highlighting the objects in the scene and reflecting on production techniques that make her work and picture meaningful. She is also expressing areas of concern as she acknowledges her difficulty in drawing the interior of a home or placing the sun in a space already occupied by the blue border. What a beautiful example of self-assessment in action, one far more relevant to a child than the material on standardized tests!

Further examination of Ni's oral response hints at elements that easily could be incorporated into an imaginative story. If the follow-up question had been structured as, "Tell me what is happening in your picture," we no doubt would have learned about Ni's understandings of story structure, and we certainly would have enjoyed hearing more about the tree's dream of being married and the impending danger of wolves. As it stands, we have insight into her developing language and literary skills, and we recognize the potential of picture books for stimulating children's auditory memory, visual acuity, and imagination.

What Does Research Tell Us About Picture Books and Visual Literacy?

Picture books provide opportunities for developing multi-sensory and aesthetic understandings (Kiefer, 1995). In an extensive review of the research on successful reading instruction, Kamil, Manning, and Walberg (2002) include storybook reading as an effective focused intervention strategy. Such positive findings support story time as an important part of the early years curriculum in the United States and China--indeed, in those classrooms the world over where funding exists for early literacy materials and there is access to high-quality picture books.

Fortunately, many American and Chinese educators believe in the power of literature to change the lives of children, and they are working to forge strong links between stories and children's lives. For years, practitioners at the preschool level have used art, music, movement, and drama as a means to help children communicate real-life and imaginative ideas. School-based literacy programs, however, have focused more on the skills needed to read print. Visual literacy is not even included in frameworks that identify the essentials of early literacy instruction (Roskos, Christie, & Richgels, 2003). Many reading programs in the United States emphasize systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (Pinnell, 2002). Numerous factors in China also contribute to determining and limiting pedagogy. Teaching instruction tends to be uniform, because of the national curriculum guide, national textbooks series, and common traditions of schooling. The curriculum and the competitive examination system leave little time for child-initiated questions, or for the development of their ideas, imagination, and creative thought (Hu, 2004). As a result, kindergarten teachers in both countries give very little time to visual thinking and learning.

The awareness of visual literacy as an important part of literacy in general is a relatively new field of inquiry in early education (Nikolajeva, 2003). Recent research is beginning to investigate how children read images in picture books (Arizpe & Styles, 2003), but future studies need to examine how young readers from culturally different pedagogies engage with image and writing in their literacy practices. And more information is needed about how children link literacy and artistic elements from the world of picture books with their own experiences, feelings, and imaginations.

Project Goal and Description

The authors designed a study to explore what children's own drawings reveal about their viewing skills and to examine the interplay between visual and verbal literacies. Specifically, we wanted to determine how two communication systems--visual and verbal literacies--contribute to children's abilities to extract meaning from picture books. We were especially interested in the transformation of these images and verbal inputs into their own productions, and in what the process suggests for how children enter into new literacy understandings. The interpretations provided in this article are intended to prepare teachers and parents to understand children's art so that they may extend communication and advance literary learnings.

Two groups of kindergarten children participated in Picture Power, a thematically based read-aloud project that featured a variety of picture books about houses. The group from the United States included 22 children from Philadelphia and the Chinese group included 30 children from Fuzhou. The majority of youngsters were from well-educated, two-parent families that lived in large metropolitan areas. Both groups of participants had been exposed to Montessori teaching practices and curriculum. The data was collected during the final month of the academic year.

Getting Started

The first step is to select a thematic area of interest and create a conceptual organizer by drawing a circle and putting the name of the theme inside. For the purposes of this study, we placed the word house and its definition--a building in which people live--in the center circle of a web design. Then we wrote the four book titles that we had identified and one major topic or concept, unique to each book, in the separate outer circles, as follows: 1) The House Book--a room-by-room tour of a home; 2) A House for Hermit Crab--ways to decorate our homes; 3) Houses and Homes--all over the world, people live in houses; and 4) The Biggest House in the World--a suitable home is important; big is not necessarily better.

On the first day of implementation, we began by introducing the theme of houses during whole-group time through a visual mode of presentation. While we showed a photograph of a house taken in the children's community, a three-dimensional model constructed from readily available materials, such as clay or wooden craft sticks, would work as well. Next, we presented a few questions about the houses that were derived from the concepts listed on the web. Afterwards, children were asked to open their journals and draw a picture of their house or apartment building.

The second through the fifth days included read-aloud and follow-up drawing activities. We presented one of the picture storybooks from the thematic collection to the children on each subsequent day. After a straight-through read-aloud, we provided a verbal prompt to guide the children in their drawing activity. It was necessary to allow up to 20 minutes for children to complete their work, and to warn them a few minutes before the allotted time had elapsed. Some extra time was provided for children to speak about their drawing.

Organizing the Materials

Four high-quality picture books, all conceptually related to the topic of houses, were used. Two of the fiction books, A House for Hermit Crab (Carle, 1987) and The Biggest House in the World (Lionni, 1968), were storybooks with a narrative text structure. Both selections encouraged children to enter an imaginary world created by the author and artist. The other two books, The House Book (DuQuette, 1999) and Houses and Homes (Morris, 1992), were nonfiction, informational books with an expository text structure. All books were fully illustrated in color.

Each student was provided with a "Draw and Write" journal and a box of 12 colored pencils. The spiral-bound notebook featured an open drawing space, measuring 5 x 7 inches, at the top and lined writing space at the bottom. Young children enjoy drawing on a small scale, and the pencils provided them with more finely tuned control than crayons or markers.

Managing the Project

A brief topical introduction set the tone for story time. Prior to reading The House Book, for example, the teacher identified several different rooms in a modern home and their main function. During the read-aloud session, children sat on the floor in a semicircle. The researcher read from a low chair, holding the book so it faced the group and making certain the illustrations were visible to all. The book was a straight read; children did not have an opportunity to express and share their feelings and ideas, nor the chance to interact with a knowledgeable adult at the end of the reading. The picture book was not available during the drawing activity, since the subsequent tasks were planned to explore children's comprehension of visual-verbal stimuli.

Children were connected to follow-up activities through scripted prompts that were designed to initiate and focus the drawing sessions. They were asked to draw and then communicate orally about the pictorial contents. The following drawing prompts were used in this study: 1) The House Book: Choose a favorite room in your home and draw a picture. You may include an activity you like to do while in this room. 2) A House for Hermit Crab: Think about ways to decorate Hermit Crab's plain home. Please draw a picture of Hermit Crab's beautiful home and write something to describe it. 3) Houses and Homes: Draw a picture of another child's home, one located in a far-away place. 4) The Biggest House in the World: Think about the artistic designs that made the snail's home bright and colorful. Draw a picture of how your home might look if you could make it bigger and more beautiful.

While the activity was in progress, students could see each other's pictures and talk freely among themselves. After the drawing was complete, the researcher provided each child with an opportunity to expand his or her thinking by asking, "Is there anything else you would like to tell me?" Any child who was unwilling to progress beyond the drawing tasks (e.g., to share an oral comment) was permitted to turn in his drawing journal and return to his respective classroom work.

Enjoying the Scenes From Children's Journals

The results of a qualitative, interpretative analysis show that kindergartners employ a variety of schematic images that are already part of their visual drawing repertoire. These schematized images are then combined with new features they extract from visual-verbal components of picture books. The remaining four entries from Ni's journal set are displayed in Figures 2-5 on page 73. (The picture from day 4 appears in Figure 1.) This example, one of 52 sets completed during the data collection procedures, displays the day-by-day progression of one child's responses to the prompts.


The communicative power of this young artist comes not only from the objects drawn, but also from the organization, balance, and repetition in her work. The pictures resonate in emotion and imagination. The drawings demonstrate the increasing complexity in art elements that often occur between a child's initial efforts and the final day of the project. Ni, like most children in our study, produced a more detailed house and more elaborate setting than she did the first time around. The overall composition, especially the arrangement of color, lines, and shapes revealed in the final drawing, combined with her verbalizations, provided important insights into how she internalized information she saw and heard in the themed collection of books about houses.

Picture Power provided children opportunities for communicating in a direct and succinct manner. For example, when asked to draw a picture of their home, Carl and Zheng, children in different countries, produced highly similar images that captured the essential (not the photographic) features of a house. These two kindergartners used several conventional signs in their respective drawings to render a schematic and simplified version of a house. The sun, drawn with rays around a common center, shines down from the corner of the page. Still another use of convention is the placement of trees and grass on the baseline; clouds and blue sky are positioned in the space above. Their houses, in particular, are very basic representations, featuring simple front doors and square-shaped windows. Few, if any, apartments and multiple dwelling complexes in large metropolitan areas, such as Philadelphia or Fuzhou, where these two children live, resemble what the children drew: detached, single family units with peaked roofs and rectangular chimneys. The result is an instantly recognizable image, one uncomplicated in form, yet effective in communicating the most salient characteristics of a home (see Figure 6: Carl; see Figure 7: Zheng).


The drawings in Figures 8 (Carl) and 9 (Zheng) were produced on the fifth day by the same young artists, following daily read-alouds from a thematic set of picture books about homes. After listening to The Biggest House in the World (Lionni, 1968), a story depicting the transformation of a snail's home into a bigger, more beautiful dwelling, students were presented with this prompt: "Draw a picture of how your home might look if you could make it bigger and more beautiful." Carl's and Zheng's creations were vibrant in color and composition and exhibited intriguing parallels between Leo Lionni's style of artwork and their own inventive organization of thoughts and emotions. These selections are among many examples in this study in which a "telling" resemblance exists between the child's pictorial representation and some aspect of the artwork displayed by the adult illustrators in the set of children's books. Together, these exploratory findings hint at the potential for picture books for developing visual learning strategies in children.


An informal review shows that while the final drawings still incorporate the essential features of a house, Carl and Zheng had intensified the elements of color, line, and shape, thereby inadvertently producing a more pleasing and complex result. The image is visually strong and covers the entire picture plane. The children applied color not simply as a means to fill space, but rather in response to an inner sense about enhancing the aesthetic appearance of a home. The result is an intriguing, personally stylized composition that gives emotional satisfaction to the creator.

It seems highly unlikely that these additional artistic components are the result of conscious intent. To some degree, these two works are chance events, coincidental outcomes of playful explorations of picture books that advance students' understandings. The manifestations of these absorbed learnings are recorded in the finished products and become literary keepsakes, valued primarily for their clear transformations of meaning. Both students convincingly demonstrate that they are able to make those conversions, in part due to some degree of technical competence and an active imagination. The drawings are not only clever; they have an aesthetic appeal stemming directly from the children's inventiveness.

The creators' artistic signatures are readily apparent in the final illustrations. Carl's vision manifests as a house in the sky. A rainbow-colored stairway leads to the front door of a multicolored home. Interestingly, the orange house on the left is similar to the house drawn by this child on the first day of the study, with the exception of the two-toned door. Carl did the unexpected and showed a before-and-after version, or a real and imaginary house. Zheng's style is buoyant, fresh, free, and modern. Her pictorial representation demonstrates a poignant example of a child's natural ability to combine visual, verbal, and even auditory skills. The musical notes beckon the viewer to pause and listen to the melody of the bird's song. For many children, an internal dialogue is often going on in relation to the image-making process. For Zheng, a musically inclined child, intermittent singing was a means of communicating happiness.

Transforming Teaching and Learning

Many children readily acquire their own point of identification with a picture book, and soon seek to express themselves through meaning-making activities. Children often are busy sending messages about thoughts and feelings in their artwork, but just as often their communication is stymied because their teachers are not prepared to receive or interpret the message. Through involvement in projects like Picture Power, teachers can see how children negotiate their understanding of images and their knowledge of the world. They then can find ways to help young learners develop and use descriptive words that enable them to evaluate and communicate their discoveries.

Whenever possible, teachers should coordinate drawing activities with thematically related sets of picture books. Drawing houses and habitants is much more meaningful, and the thinking process behind it is more complex, when children are working on a planned unit of study. Also, the variety of artistic and narrative styles within the thematic parameter increases the opportunities for children to find some point for emotional contact with the subject.

Participants learn to integrate knowledge as they combine conventional depictions of images with ideas gleaned from the art found in illustrations. We believe that the thematically related picture books used in this study opened a visual path for Ni, Carl, Zheng, and others not only to secure a set of technical skills, but also to imagine, to think outside the box of conventions, and to move into the powerful zone where true meaning and aesthetic creation reside. Perhaps in some small way, the illustrators of the four picture books used in the study, through their masterful use of the visual art form, helped these children find their own voice and vision to communicate their feelings and ideas. Future research can prepare teachers and parents to understand what they see when they look at children's drawings, and how to respond so that they may extend communication and advance early literary learnings.


Arizpe, E., & Styles, M. (2003). Children reading pictures: Interpreting visual texts. London: Routledge Falmer.

Hu, Y. (2004). The cultural significance of reading instruction in China. The Reading Teacher, 57, 632-639.

Kamil, M. L., Manning, J. B., & Walberg, H.J. (Eds.). (2002). Successful reading instruction. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Kiefer, B. Z. (1995). The potential of picturebooks: From visual literacy to aesthetic understanding. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Nikolajeva, M. (2003). Verbal and visual literacy: The role of picturebooks in the reading experience of young children.

In N. Hall, J. Larson, & J. Marsh (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood literacy (pp. 235-248). London: Sage Publications.

Pinnell, G. S. (2002). Good first teaching: Making the critical difference for all students. In M. L. Kamil, J. B. Manning, & H. J. Walberg (Eds.), Successful reading instruction (pp. 155-181). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Roskos, K. A., Christie, J. F., & Richgels, D. J. (2003). The essentials of early literacy instruction. Young Children, 58, 52-60.

Children's Books

Carle, E. (1987). A house for hermit crab. Saxonville, MA: Picture Book Studio.

DuQuette, K. (1999). The house book. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Lionni, L. (1968). The biggest house in the world. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Morris, A. (1992). Houses and homes. China: HarperCollins.

Cathleen S. Soundy is Associate Professor, College of Education, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Yun Qiu is Associate Professor, Fujian Normal University, College of Education, Science, and Technology, Fuzhou, China.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Association for Childhood Education International
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Author:Qiu, Yun
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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