Extending Children's Vocabulary and Comprehension through Oral and Visual Literacy

By Cochrane, Victoria | Practical Literacy, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Extending Children's Vocabulary and Comprehension through Oral and Visual Literacy


Cochrane, Victoria, Practical Literacy


Questions

What impact does a child's existing vocabulary have on their comprehension of text without pictures? How do pictures help children to construct meaning?

The children who drew the first picture said: 'I know dragons breathe fire, so sea-dragons must breathe water.'

The activity

The following activity was originally conducted with a Grade 2 and a Grade 3 class. Pairs of children were given a sheet of paper with a piece of text from Jeannie Baker's (2000) book The Hidden Forest. Without reading the book, and without any assistance to understand unknown words, the students worked together to interpret the text and draw a picture to represent what they thought passage meant. The class was then read the story twice, and they discussed their pictures in comparison with the text. The vocabulary of their piece of the text was clarified through looking at the detail in the pictures and through looking at the dictionary if they saw that this was necessary. The same partners then re-drew the same picture, this time using the book as reference if they saw that this was needed. I later used another of Jeannie Baker's (1997) books, Where the Forest Meets the Sea with Grade One and Two students in the same way.

The activity was conducted over two, sometimes three sessions, so it was time consuming. Finishing off the activity on different days meant there was sometimes a problem with children maintaining the same partners. I chose to do this as a co-operative activity because it was unfamiliar, both in procedure and in some of the language content, so working with a partner was a scaffolding technique. Where possible I partnered a more capable child with a child who was currently at a lower ability level. I also tried to partner a boy with a girl, in such ways creating a learning intention of teaching and expecting children to work collaboratively outside their friendship group; there are some children who find this social skill difficult, even when it is a simple activity. However, the activity could easily be done as an individual exercise, and/or with older children using picture books with more sophisticated concepts.

Originally, this activity was conducted as a visual literacy exercise, but the understandings that emerged through the children's work went a lot deeper than that. I realised that it was an exercise in comprehension involving oral language as well as visual literacy, and that it highlighted, very strongly, how readers make meaning. Without prior knowledge of the pictures supporting the text, the specific context of the text and, for some learners, comprehension of the topic vocabulary, the children had to draw upon their existing knowledge. They had to use what they knew, which is what all learners do when they come across an unfamiliar word, sound or concept.

Definitions

Visual literacy can be defined as 'the ability to construct meaning from visual images' (Giorgis, Johnson, Bonomo, Colbort et al., 1999, in Bamford, 2003, p. 146). It is knowing which text to use to create meaningful learning (and communication). Think of all the different ways we can communicate: by writing, speaking, drawing, or gesture; by using words, numbers, images, symbols, or colours. Each one is a different tool in the literacy toolbox and part of a semiotic system (Anstey & Bull, 2006). If we use only one set of tools (words, sentences, paragraphs) our literacy is limited to those things best expressed with those tools.

Oral language is the foundation to literacy and of learning in the classroom. An appropriate level of oral language knowledge helps facilitate academic growth in both language and the ability to communicate effectively in all learning areas (Munro et al., 2008). A deficit in a child's spoken or receptive language, then, will have implications for their language and literacy development.

The definition of a text is anything with which we make meaning. …

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