Emergent literacy, graphic novels and picture books (oh my!)

I’m planning to do a series of posts in the near future on Graphic Novels. This will include a couple of reviews and also some more theoretical posts such as the following on Emergent Literacy.

I first fell into graphic novels after the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I longed for a way to carry on the story which had defined so much of my life beforehand. I couldn’t let these characters go. Graphic novels allowed me to continue to experience the Buffiverse, and then, when I exhausted these stories, I was able to discover some of the most astounding pieces of literature I’d ever experienced in the wider canon of comic book literature.

This series of posts will pay tribute to my journey from bemused onlooker to active advocate and I’ve decided to start with a discussion on emergent literacy for a reason. When I worked in a public library, I noticed that graphic novels were often derided by parents / guardians and / or tucked away in the darkest depths of the adult section.

I thought this was wrong.

Graphic novels and comic strips allow an individual to become acquainted with the art and act of reading without being intimidated or alienated through difficulties in language, syntax, context or any other reason which hinders the reading process. And, as we all know, we’ve built an entire industry around the concept of providing picture books to children in order to engage and develop their reading skills. As far as I’m concerned, graphic novels build on that process begun at such a young age – the stage where a child is pre-literate and can be defined as an “emerging literate”.

Emergent literacy came to wide notice through the work of Teale and Sulzby (1986). It believes that the acquisition of literacy is an evolutionary process which happens from birth. Sulzby and Teale emphasise that they utilise the term emergent in several different senses: “emergent connotes development rather than stasis; it signifies something in the process of becoming” (1986:xix) . Later they state “it is not reasonable to point to a time in a child’s life when literacy begins. Rather, at whatever point we look, we see children in the process of becoming literate.” (xix). The child does not begin to learn to read or write at school as the ‘process’ has, in fact, begun many years beforehand.

Goodman highlights several key characteristic stages of the emerging literate and notes that 2-year olds “typically believe that when adults read … a story, they read the pictures in the book, not its text. They … have little or no understanding of letters, words and sentences. And they think that each page of a book tells one story, independent of the rest of the pages. Yet even these 2-year-olds understand what a story is, and that somehow the adult gets the story from the page.” (Wells,1988:20/21)

The emergent literate therefore has a unique point of view when “beholding” (Doonan, 1993) a picture book and this view is contrary to that of a more literate reader. Sipe (1998) refers to a “synergy” between text and picture, the combined effect proving greater than the individual. Graham refers to illustrations as “cobwebs to catch flies” (1990:8), suggesting that they act as individual enticements to a reader. Nodelmann reinforces this concept of referring to word and picture as individual elements being mainly concerned with the learning that the elements incite in the reader. None of these critics acknowledge the unique position of an emergent reader – that is, the inability or unwillingness to distinguish or designate a difference between word and image. Very young children judge text and image fluidly giving first dominance to one element and then the next. This is supported by Goodman who notes that “children learn between the ages of 3 and 5 that print carries the message. Younger children believe that pictures carry the message in the book.” (1986:9). Within a relatively short period of time there has been a seismic shift in the interpretative strategy used. This also emphasises that when the child learns to read – becomes literate – this development in their ability directly affects their processing of a picture book. They have learnt the “contract of literacy” (Snow and Ninio, 1986: 116)

Picture books have a unique role in this learning process. Until the child becomes confident / competent in interacting with a book alone, there will be the presence of a mediating other who supports the child in a joint meaning-making of the text. This dual readership can produce striking results and have a direct impact on the literacy process. Snow and Ninio comment that “children have to learn that books are for reading ,not for eating, throwing, chewing, or for building towers” (1986:122) and note that this lesson is taught primarily through the adult mediator. Their transcribed interviews reveal that the lesson is enacted as part of the reading: “don’t eat it … don’t be so rough… let’s start at the beginning …” (123)

 It is clear that to develop literacy the child must learn what he can do and also what he can’t. Pierroutsoukas and Deloache comment: “one of the earliest steps in coming to understand what pictures are is learning what they are not,” (2003:154)

Bruner believed that children go through several ages of cognitive development, proposing that there are three different modes of thinking – enactive, iconic and symbolic. The enactive stage takes place approximately between the ages of 0-1 and involves storing information through physical movements. (Tassoni, Beith, Eldridge, Gough, 2002:198). Children try to understand through physicality and they expect the picture to react as the ‘real’ object would. Pierroutsoukas and Deloache reference a previous study of theirs where children attempted to lick images of apples, being unaware of the difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ image, and comment that: “infants can perceive the two-dimensional nature of pictures, they do not understand its significance; that is, they do not understand the crucial difference between depiction and reality.” (142). Snow and Ninio (1986) witnessed children trying to hear a clock ticking or licking the image of a banana. It is only the picture does not taste or sound as the real object, that the difference between depiction and reality becomes explicit. Bruner’s concept of physical learning also reinforces that at this stage of development through physically interacting with a book the child explores, develops and store information around the object and catalyses their personal learning process.

This forms a key necessity for board books to have elements which incite physical interaction from the reader. Inviting the child to touch and pull and question the very status of a book forces the reader to develop knowledge of the medium and come to understand it through this interaction. Age and social norms diminish this interaction, as Pierroutsakos and Deloache note, “they had … learned … important lessons: the futility of trying to manipulate pictured objects and the culturally appropriate behavior towards pictures.” (2003:142).

Works cited and others of interest :-

Ganea, Patricia; Pickard, Megan Bloom; DeLoache, Judy S (2008) Transfer between picture books and the real world by very young children.” Journal of Cognition and Development 9:46

Goodman, Yetta (1988) ‘Children coming to know literacy’ in William H Teale & Elizabeth Sulzby (eds) Emergent Literacy: writing and reading. Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood


Graham, Judith (1990) Pictures on the page NATE:Sheffield

Graham, Judith (2005) Reading Contemporary Picturebooks in ed. Reynolds, Kimberley. Modern Children’s Literature: An introduction Palgrave MacMillan:Basingstoke

Nodelman, Perry (1988) Words about pictures University of Georgia Press: Athens

Pierroutsakos, Sophia ; Deloache, Judy S (2003) Infants’ manual exploration of pictorial objects varying in realism Infancy 4:1

Snow, Catherine; Ninio, Anat (1988) The contracts of literacy : what children learn from learning to read books in William H Teale & Elizabeth Sulzby (eds) Emergent Literacy: writing and reading. Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood

Sipe, Lawrence (1998) How picture books work : a semiotically framed theory of text-picture relationships. Children’s Literature in Education 29:2

Tassoni, Penny; Beith, Kate; Eldridge, Harriet; Gough, Alan; (2002) Diploma in child care and education Heinemann: London

Teale, William, Sulzby, Elizabeth (1986) Emergent literacy: writing and reading Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood

Wells, Melanie (1988) The roots of literacy Psychology Today 22:6

Whalen-Levitt, Peggy (1981) Making picturebooks real: reflections on a child’s-eye view Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 6:4

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One thought on “Emergent literacy, graphic novels and picture books (oh my!)

  1. Pingback: hello baby : a high contrast mirror book « Did you ever stop to think & forget to start again?

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