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Picture the story...

Picture the story…

The term visual literacy has been used in a variety of ways but I like to use the term simply to mean, ‘Reading a picture.’   What do we want children to do with a text when we ask them to read it?  We want them to look at it, comprehend what is going on and then respond to it in a variety of ways.  This can simply be for enjoyment, to influence their thinking and encourage questioning or to inspire some writing.   This is what we want to happen when we show them a picture.

The advantage of using an image is that any child can respond.  Even young children or children who cannot read can respond and react to an image.  The more unusual the image the more powerful the response.  Questioning can be scaffolded and shaped using stems and models provided by Bloom, DeBono and many others, these support layered understanding and can also provide the basis for interesting lesson foci.

This is a photograph of a statue at St Pancras Station sent to me by a wonderful photographer called Jane Hewitt, http://www.janehewittphotography.co.uk/

I love the powerful images in this sculpture.  The first question I ask the children is ‘What is happening in this picture.’  I then let them discuss in mixed ability groups; place an A4 image on a large piece of sugar paper for them to record their ideas on.  Some children will need to have a few leading questions for example, where are they?  Who are the men on the left?

Ask the children to choose one face and highlight it.  What is that person thinking?  What are they saying?  Who are they?  Why are they there?  What will they do next?     Next set up a tableau with the children becoming a ‘character’ from the scene, frozen in place.  Walk between the children ‘waking’ them up one at a time and ask them what they are thinking, what they are doing there.  This provides a memorable concrete experience that they are able to draw on in subsequent writing sessions.

This image is from the Ukraine, I love the mysteriousness of it.  A simple way to inspire a narrative is by asking the following questions;

  • Who are the two children?
  • What is at the end of the tunnel?
  • Where does it lead to?
  • Why are they walking down it?
  • When is it taking place?
  • How was the tunnel created?


It is important to create a ‘safe’ classroom culture where all answers are valid.  Children need to feel as if their answers will be valued.  This image can be used to inspire narratives from almost every genre, a fantasy story where the tunnel leads to another world.  An adventure story where the characters find a ruined castle or cave.  The only limits are those in the imagination of the children.

I sometimes like to start a story off or give an image a caption for the children to build upon for example with this image: I saw her and then she was gone, I heard her whispering for me to follow. It only took me a few seconds for me to decide…

At this point you could take a vote in the classroom.  How did they make their decision? What happened next?


Once again you can ask the key questions:

Who is the mysterious person?

Why is she there?

What is she doing there?

When did she appear?

Where is it set? Describe the scene.


Answering these questions and discussing the responses will lead to varied and exciting narratives.

Imagine you discover this ‘shed’ at the bottom of your garden, What is inside?  I can imagine it’s magical inside, much bigger than it seems on the outside.  Perhaps lit by candles, strange instruments on the tables, cobwebbed and dusty.

Behind you the door closes gently and you espy this man sat in emerald green robes, peering at you over his glasses, the candles flicker and die out.  It is pitch black and he whispers…


Allow the children 10 words only.  No more and no less.  What does the Wizard say to them?  Make it mysterious.  This is the opening scene to a story.  Perhaps something like “Come, follow me.. Don’t make a sound, she is upstairs!”   Using 10 words only ensures the children will choose their vocabulary carefully.


All of these images and many more can be found in The Literacy Shed. www.literacyshed.com

Perhaps you might like to start in The Images Shed, http://www.literacyshed.com/the-images-shed.html


Author: Robert Smith

I'm Robert Smith and I run http://literacyshed.com - The Literacy Shed is home to a wealth of visual resources that I have collected over my 10 year career as a primary school teacher. I trawl youtube, vimeo and other sites looking for suitable resources to use in the sheds. The sheds are broadly thematic but sometimes a resource could go in 2 or more sheds, I slot it in where I think it works best.

1 Comment to “Picture the story…”
  1. Just reading your stimulus ideas is giving me goosebumps Rob! They are fabulous. I love the 10 words by the man in emerald idea and think their responses would ( and will be when I do it!) fascinating. Your ideas will help children understand how we can all interpret pictures differently and the words add a different dimension completely. I like to give children a picture from the newspaper without the heading and let them write their own then show them the original. They then realize that words sometimes make us ‘see’ what the writer wants us to see. Thanks Rob for another great post.

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