Before you say how can you read something that has no words, hear me out. Paintings can offer a wealth of possibilities for children to develop some of the skills that they need for reading by in less threatening way, especially for those reluctant readers. Now, don’t get me wrong I am not about to say stop reading texts and just use paintings instead, that would be stupid. But I am saying change it up a bit, find a balance. Using paintings in a guided reading session, an English or History lesson could give children the opportunity to develop and use skills in a different context.
So how do I go about reading a painting?
- Look at it.
Children all need a copy of the painting. This doesn’t have to be very big as a larger version could be shared on the board for the children to see also. Ask the children to identify what they can see in the painting. What is it a painting of basically – this is an easy way of developing summarising skills.
- Express an opinion
Ask the children to make a comment on their feelings towards the painting. What they like and don’t like. This can be very simple for younger children – ‘I don’t like the colours.’ Where as you would push older or more able children to extend their answers explaining why – ‘I don’t like the use of colour because it creates an intense atmosphere, as though something bad is going to happen or has happened.’ The children here are developing their ability to go beyond a simple answer and express their opinions using inference or evidence from the painting.
- Identify the themes
This requires the children to understand what the painting is about. What the artist was trying to communicate. It also requires the children to explain their reasoning using evidence from the painting itself, much like the children are required to do with a text. I approach this by giving the children a bank of around 20 words. Some of the words will be linked to the paintings, others won’t be as specific or obvious. The level of vocabulary could also be differentiated with some more adventurous words for more able children and simpler vocabulary for others. The children are to choose 5 words which they think represent the themes, messages and ideas in the painting the best. They are to then write an explanation for each with reference to the painting.
Ford Madox Brown – Work
4. Give it a title.
I like to look at paintings as without telling them what they are called. A great way of seeing how well the children have understood the messages in a painting is by asking them to give it a title. So if they had painted it, what could they have called it? For this I ask them to use no more than 10 words. The range of responses from this have been phenomenal and it is so interesting to hear what the children come up with.
- Making simple inferences.
By now the children should be very familiar with the painting and have had chance to really look at it. The next step is to use the things they can see to read between the lines. To begin to make simple inferences about the painting.
Norman Rockwell – The Shiner
Observation – A girl is sat on a bench with a black eye and a cut knee outside an office which says Principal on the door. The door is open with two people inside who are looking outside at her.
The Girl has been in a fight with someone.
The people in the office are talking about her. It’s the Principal and the girl’s mother.
The girl is not sorry for what she has done as she is smiling.
Her mother is angry with her from the expression on her face.
The man sat behind the desk is the Principal
The open filing cabinet contains a file about the girl’s previous behaviours.
- Inside outside.
The children can also begin to explore the idea of the internal dialogue that we have inside us and how we don’t always say what we think for whatever reason. For this the children can imagine that they are the people within the paintings (if there is a number of people I would focus on a couple of key figures)and begin to write sentences which explore what the person is thinking or feeling about the situation and what they might actually say, either to another person in the painting or to someone else.
- Build a dialogue
This is more of a writing activity than a reading one, however it does require that the children have a level of understanding between the people in the painting and what is going on. They need to have been able to identify any themes, have made inferences and understand any body language that would give them clues as to what the people would say to each other.
These are a range of activities I have used with children in my class to support reading skills. I know there is a lot to go on here and I have spread these tasks over a number of sessions. An integral part of these sessions are the discussions had in order to unpick and support children’s thinking further.
There are a number of paintings that could be used for any work along these lines. Picasso’s blue period is great for exploring relationships; paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and William Powell Frith are all good starting points too, especially for looking at life during the Victorian era. Gassed by John Singer Sargent and Over the Top by John Nash offer great insights into exploring the First World War. Norman Rockwell is appealing as some of his paintings have an interesting twist and are more of a documentary on society. As long as the painting tells some sort of story you are good to go.