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Reading, writing and ‘children’s culture’

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By Michael JonesEarly Years trainer and writer, and Early Language Consultant

Finding a subject that inspires children to want to talk, write and draw more might seem like a fantasy! However, there is a secret, as we discover…

Cartoon of boy reading comic

In this article:

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Staff in Foundation Units in Luton have discovered that one particular interest has got all their four-year-old children talking, drawing and writing more: children’s comics. We find out how they can be used in a setting to encourage young children’s mark making.

Exciting milestones

While writing their name is an exciting milestone in any child’s development, it is only one step on a very long journey to becoming a confident and creative writer. During that journey, children learn how letters are formed in their family’s culture and how these relate to sounds in their language. Their very first steps involve making random marks that, through experimentation and lots of practise, become recognisable drawings. These will merge into simple shapes that we might start to identify as writing.

Some children need more support and encouragement than others to make marks, and some may be particularly worried by activities that require marks to be made on sheets of paper. Generally, most of these children are boys, but from my experience there will be several girls in any setting who lack confidence with early writing, too. Often these children lack confidence in other areas of development – particularly with speech and language. Real anxiety can be created if children start formal writing activities too early and particularly if they have yet to develop the physical dexterity needed. So, how can we help them find mark making and writing fun, and to become engaged and involved enough for them to explore and practise?

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New mark-making approaches

Cartoon of children reading a comic

Whitefield Infants and Sacred Heart Primary are two Luton schools that took part in an experimental ten week project, which we called ‘On Your Marks!’ Each setting explored new approaches to develop all children’s confidence in mark-making. We know that children learn the most from activities based on their own interests and staff at Sacred Heart observed that children like to talk about TV programmes and films. This inspired teacher Katie Monastero to buy some comics featuring cartoon characters:

‘We wanted to make sure that we had a range of comics that appealed to both boys and girls, so we chose those that featured ‘Ben 10’, ‘Fifi and the Flowertots’ and ‘Disney Princess’. We were thrilled by the children’s responses. I was amazed at how much chat these comics could generate. The children spontaneously made drawings based on the pictures in the comics and copied the print. It was exciting to see the boys in particular become very deeply absorbed in drawing and writing, while talking about what they were doing.’

Staff in the Foundation Unit at Whitefield Infants were very concerned that some children, including girls, were not becoming involved in mark-making activities. Emily, for example, was very quiet, did not settle on any activity for long, and seemed to want to avoid engaging with adults or other children. Sarah, on the other hand, was more verbal, but lacked confidence in her fine motor skills. Our aim was to try and involve them in activities that would improve their confidence.

Favourite characters

Cartoon of children drawing

We put two tables together and asked both girls to help us cover them with white lining paper, and stick it down with masking tape. As can be imagined, several other children were intrigued, and wanted to join in.

Once we had finished covering the table, we chose six children (including Emily and Sarah), to look at the comics. These included characters from BBC CBeebies channel; Thomas the Tank Engine, Fifi and the Flowertots, Dora the Explorer, Ben 10, Power Rangers, SpongeBob SquarePants and In the Night Garden. As at Sacred Heart, the level of discussion was tremendous, with children talking about their favourite characters, describing episodes of recent programmes and talking with each other about the contents of the comics.

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Comic inspiration

After a lengthy discussion we introduced felt pens, and children spontaneously drew pictures of their favourite characters, as well as making their own representations. Soon they were copying script from the comics, and particularly the names of characters.

It was exciting to note that Emily became deeply involved in making a detailed drawing of Fifi. Another girl, who is also quite shy, began copying Emily and between them they worked out how to copy the Fifi logo. Meanwhile, Sarah was reluctant to start drawing. However, when I moved with her across the table to see what Emily and her friend were doing, Sarah began to join in too, and wrote ‘Fifi’, in the same style as Emily. While Sarah needed adult support to become more involved, she was nevertheless very pleased with her achievement.

By this time our paper was quickly becoming filled with drawings and marks. These included random marks, experimental squiggles, repeated patterns and children’s names. In fact these represented all the stages that children go through on the way to becoming confident writers. What was most noticeable was the children’s deep level of involvement. Foundation teacher Sue Tomes-Rolt summed up why this activity had been so successful.

‘This was an activity that naturally fascinated the children. It represented their culture and, for once, they knew more about a subject than the adults! The communal nature of sitting round a table and writing on a large sheet of paper is very important. There is no end to it, unlike on a piece of paper that you have been given just for yourself. You can choose to work together, or watch what other children are doing and make marks in your own time.’

Children reading comics

Boosted confidence

This activity has had a very big impact on the children and staff. The table is regularly covered with paper, with an adult supporting mark-making based on a theme, such as a story or a topic, like ‘All about me’. Emily and Sarah are regular participants at the table, and this has boosted their confidence to interact with adults and other children, and make marks.

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Illustrations © Phil Littler; Photo © Michael Jones