Picture Books: Integral to Children’s Learning
by Rita Goldner
As an illustrator and a former teacher, I’ve always felt that visual art is a crucial part of public education. However, when school budget committees debate its merits, especially during times of recession, they often decide that art programs are extra, not integral like science, math, literacy, and social studies. Recent educational research and student achievement testing has discovered that the opposite is true, and that approaching these other subjects through art drastically improves performance, and long-term retention of what’s being learned.
I’ve come across some interesting art/science collaborations in my research. One example is Quatama Elementary School, in Oregon. Their curriculum includes a unit for fourth graders that covers soil erosion, earthworms, and clay that they use for pottery projects. In Annapolis, Maryland, eighth graders at Wiley H. Bates Middle School have an art/math partnership in a unit that studies traditional Mexican turquoise mosaics and math at the same time. The students create their own versions with bits of paper, then use critical thinking and geometry to estimate the number of tiles used in the artwork. Their teacher, Laura Brino, commented that studying and observing the art first, and then going into the math, seemed to erase the fear of the math part, encouraging confidence and risk-taking in the classroom.
The study groups have noticed that trial and error, divergent thinking skills, dynamic problem solving, and perseverance are all developed through making art, the same skills used in math and science. Rhode Island School of Design is enthusiastically endorsing this new philosophy. Their faculty and administration state that art and design will be as important to our economy in the 21st century as science and technology were in the last century. They feel that our schools need to turn out a future workforce who thinks both creatively and critically. To ensure this, RISD is working closely with a caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. The caucus has been operating for a year, and its agenda is to further the concept, through webinars and workshops, that art and design are partners, not competitors, for science, math, and literacy.
I’m concerned, since my audience is young, that there is a tendency lately among parents to push their kids past picture books and graduate to more text-heavy chapter books. Big publishers believe it’s because of society’s pressure to get children to read and succeed early. The publishers have responded to the trend by reducing their number of picture books. A recent article in The New York Times, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children,” reports, “The picture book, a mainstay of children’s literature with its lavish illustrations, cheerful colors and large print wrapped in a glossy jacket, has been fading.” The classic award winners still sell, but new titles are diminishing. The article says that the tight economic situation is one reason, and that parents see more value in books with more text and fewer pictures.
Parents who accelerate their young children past pictures onto words are missing a significant point: the pictures are a crucial part of reading comprehension development. They don’t see that fast-tracking early readers can be counterproductive. Also, chapter books don’t always have more complex stories than picture books. Some are actually simpler in sentence structure and vocabulary, because they don’t have the illustrations as a support. A picture book, read by an adult to a child, provides the opportunity for more plot nuances and allows the child to ask questions and explore the “what ifs”. This leads to a deeper comprehension than learning words by rote.
Pictures in a book not only help children analyze the story, but also serve as a bridge over difficult words that would otherwise be frustrating. This is especially helpful for those learning a second language. A picture book experience for a child sitting on a reader’s lap is multisensory. Simultaneously listening and seeing the illustrations helps in brain development.
Since pictures facilitate the flow of the tale, over the stumbling blocks of difficult words, young readers develop a sense of the beginning, middle and end of a story that is vital to comprehension. Art is an ideal hook to get kids started on a lifelong love of reading, just as it is a portal to science, math, and cultural studies.
I’m celebrating Picture Book Day, April 2, by diving right into writing/illustrating a new one. (More on that in later blogs!) .
Thanks, Rita. Comments welcome.
Research sites for this post:
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Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series. For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. Or by the Kindle version here. Rita’s newest book, Making Marks on the World: A Storybook for Left- and Right-Handed Coloring, is available for purchase here. To view additional illustrations and other books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook.