Images can bring words to vivid life

Graphic solution: The University of Pretoria’s Kerstin Tönsing believes the use of pictures to aid reading ­benefits learning-impaired children in particular. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Graphic solution: The University of Pretoria’s Kerstin Tönsing believes the use of pictures to aid reading ­benefits learning-impaired children in particular. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Effective communication in education relies not only on a mastery of language, but also on other forms of communication such as graphics and symbols, all of which help in the context of ­multilingualism.

By using other forms of communication in the classroom one could strengthen language usage, said Lara Ragpot at last week's Teachers Upfront seminar at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which was themed "Beyond Words: Language versus Communicating".

A mix of learning activities, based both on language and kinaesthesis (muscle and movement), allowed for "multiple modes of engagement with learning content and multiple modes of assessment", said Ragpot, an educational psychologist and senior lecturer in UJ's childhood education department. This provided "alternative ways of letting children learn, as well as the chance for learners to use their strengths to support their difficulties".

Ragpot has worked with pupils from diverse language and educational backgrounds and different levels of ability. Finding that they did not have the words to show what they were learning, Ragpot started to experiment with multimodal assessments, including the use of movement, production of collages and staging of plays.

She found that what seemed like the trivialising of learning supported language development.
That is, other means of communication promoted linguistic communication and, in turn, learning.

Kerstin Tönsing of the University of Pretoria's Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication works in the field of severe disability and alternative forms of communication. At last week's seminar, she suggested that the advantage of pictures was that they "are independent of spoken language and they work via visual resemblance".

A communication medium
Describing the use of pictures in the field of disability, she said that "photographs, pictures and graphic symbols can be used as a communication medium for persons with limited speech or who are nonliterate or preliterate". She suggested using the symbols of augmentative and alternative communication in multilingual classrooms where the language of tuition may be different to the child's home language.

She cited a project on aided language stimulation in multilingual preschool and grade one classrooms in which teachers supplement oral language input with graphic symbols during storytelling. "Reading" like this with pictures means words are paired with pictures, preliterate children can experience themselves as "readers", left-to-right progression can be demonstrated, an awareness of words can develop, there can be sight word exposure and sentence-building can happen.

But she cautioned that the interpretation of images was influenced by culture, world knowledge and experience: the amount of exposure a child had had to print and images determined his or her ability to relate to pictures.

Toni Gennrich of the University of the Witwatersrand's languages, literacies and literatures division has a particular interest in digital and media literacy. She spoke about the importance of developing creativity, collaboration and critical thinking in our classrooms.

Pupils were expected to work in a world that was media saturated, technologically dependent and globally connected, she said, and yet "schooling continues to be based on hierarchical access to paper-based literacy instead of practices that allow students to explore and utilise the multimodal, nonlinear literacies available in digital environments".

We needed to develop communicative language skills that prepared students to work interactively, collaboratively and multimodally, she said. "We also need to tap into the skills children bring — their out-of-school literacy practices — and then they will thrive."

Reading is also changing technologically and readers can now enter a text in many possible ways. They can make choices about how to organise a text, read in episodic rather than linear ways, skim and scan as they scroll and move from section to section and be interactive and creative.

Focus on core skills
This suggests the core skills that need to be developed in pupils are very specific and include the ability to find, select, classify, integrate, summarise and store knowledge. As a result, Gennrich urged teachers to "provide learning opportunities that are collaborative, social, multisensory and multimodal and to encourage learners to explore various viewpoints and decide which they want to take, as well as to interrogate and evaluate the material they use".

She highlighted the role of the teacher in "recognising and encouraging diverse thinking, speaking and ways of knowing".

Contributions from the audience at the seminar included the suggestion that the use of icons and drawing as a way of dealing with multilingualism had to be be built into teacher-training courses. The importance of oral communication in teaching and learning was raised, as was the need to use the mode of communication that works best in a specific context.

If that meant SMS language was appropriate, it is foolish to discourage its use, even if it appeared to threaten the way we write and read language, it was argued. As one audience member said: "Language is in a constant state of flux. We can't stop it from evolving and we can't stop new methods of expression from coming along. We need to acknowledge the dynamism of language."

Barbara Dale-Jones is chief ­operations officer in the Bridge ­education network. For debates in the Teachers Upfront series, see bridge.org.za. The M&G's articles on previous seminars may be found at mg.co.za/teachersupfront

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