Using high quality pictures to support writing for effect

By Jane Andrews (Teaching and Learning Adviser – English)

The Arrival handsUsing a picture as a stimulus for writing is a well-known approach, particularly exemplified in The National Gallery’s ‘Take One Picture’. Let’s explore how one picture can spark children’s imagination, develop their reading skills and refine their understanding of writing for effect. You can capture and develop their creative thoughts and support them to turn these into innovative writing. The loveliness will not be marred by the grammar; rather the children will understand how these tools, in their ever-growing toolkit, can be used to craft a treasure for their reader to enjoy.

Whilst success criteria are useful, and sometimes necessary, scaffolds to support writing and assessment, there is always the danger that children will try to please the teacher by shoe-horning every aspect of the criteria into their writing and sit back congratulating themselves (after triumphantly ticking the list) on a quality piece of writing. Unfortunately, this can lead to what I have often described to children as ‘wading through treacle’. The writing may be teeming with ‘wow-words’, adverbial phrases, semi-colons and, if they’re feeling really clever, the subjunctive. Is it a pleasure to read? Not always. The skill the children have sometimes forgotten to put at the top of their list is to interest and hook the reader by considering their needs. Audience and purpose are terms that are often used, and ensuring children have experienced ‘being the reader’ is the first step to effective writing. Are children being encouraged, at the beginning of a writing journey, to consider how they have been influenced/affected by an author and what feelings/thoughts they had whilst reading? Or do they skip this part and begin at the ‘unpicking the authorial techniques’ stage? Identifying how they respond to a text will certainly give them some idea beyond the technical aspects as to what they would like the reader to feel and respond. Once these have been identified, the authorial ‘tricks of the trade’ can be plundered and attached firmly to our children’s toolkits. On their journey through the primary years, this toolkit will grow, and their understanding of how to select the right tool for the right purpose will be continually refined; they will see grammar as a way of refining and controlling their writing.

Although the printed word is our main focus when teaching the Reading Comprehension Programme of Study, every aspect, aside from decoding, can be taught and assessed using pictures and film. It wouldn’t take you five minutes to produce a list of a variety of ways to teach ‘inferring, retrieving, predicting, analysing, authorial intent, comparing, summarising and vocabulary’ with the aid of a good visual stimulus.

The Arrival
The Arrival, Shaun Tan (reproduced by kind permission of Hodder Children’s Books: ISBN 978 -0-7344-1586-8)


This picture is taken from ‘The Arrival’ by the award winning author Shaun Tan (published by Hodder Children’s Books: ISBN 978-0-7344-1586-8). It is a multi-layered book which tells a powerful story of immigration without a single printed word. This picture is from the beginning of the book as the husband/father in the book prepares to leave. Like Anthony Browne, Shaun Tan offers us a rich understanding of the story, beyond the printed word, with a plethora of detail and symbolism within each individual picture.


The first prompt we provide is the Aiden Chambers, ‘Tell Me’ approach:

‘Tell me about this picture’.

The use of an open question ensures there are no incorrect responses and values a broad spectrum of replies. The children will not be fishing for the answers in the teacher’s head. In fact, they often make observations that may not have occurred to the teacher. This can be carried out as small group or whole class discussions. As the children contribute, the teacher promotes the freedom to make any relevant statement, by not commenting on the quality of the answer e.g. ‘lovely’, ‘good’, ‘that’s right’. Instead the teacher responds by asking for more contributions ‘keep going’, ‘and another idea?’ Remind children that they mustn’t forget to state the obvious which they sometimes do in an effort to say something ‘clever’. To develop the quality of the contributions, the children are taught to justify their comments e.g. ‘I think …. because ….’. This of course is modelled by the teacher throughout the curriculum, not just in reading lessons.

Possible responses could range from, ‘They might be poor because the teapot is cracked and you would probably have bought another one if you had enough money’ to ‘She is trying to make him feel better because her hand is on top of his and this is how people show they care.’ Once children have had an opportunity to make a range of statements, they should then be given a key question. This question is devised to focus their thoughts in one particular direction. For example ‘Why do you think the author/illustrator chose to place the suitcase on the kitchen table?’ or ‘Why do you think the author/illustrator chose to set this scene in the kitchen?’ In the 2015 KS2 Reading SATs paper, only 51% of children nationally responded correctly when the question was focused on AF6 (Identify and comment on writers’ purposes and viewpoints and the overall effect of the text on the reader).

Drama is a key component in the teaching of inference. To support the children’s understanding of this picture you might ask them to create a freeze frame. They could either recreate the positions of the two people in the picture or they might recreate what happens just before/after or what happens when their daughter walks in? Once the freeze frame is in place, another child places their hand near one of the characters and becomes the ‘thought bubble’. They say what they believe the character is thinking right this second. Once these ideas of the character’s thoughts have been generated in the many groups around the classroom, these thoughts are then explored to see how they differed and what similarities there were. You might take the mother, father or daughter and hot-seat them. The teacher acts as one of the characters and the children have the opportunity to devise questions to ask them. The Reading Comprehension Programme of Study requires that children ‘Ask questions’ but it is the quality of these questions that we will be developing. Which questions will really allow us to know what the characters are thinking and feeling and what they might do next? – freeze frames may leading into role play.

Once the drama has transported the children into the world of the narrative, it is important to transfer those captured thoughts and feelings into writing. By now, we have probably built up a picture of despair, fear and pain through this picture. We need to ensure that vocabulary is broadened to express exactly how the characters are feeling and to describe the setting (see our previous vocabulary newsletter for great ideas). The children will be constantly reminded that all vocabulary and structural choices will be focused on how to give the reader this feeling/impression. This is where the grammar comes into its own. It allows the children to consciously control their writing.


For example, year 3 may be focusing on adverbs and can be considering:

how’ the characters are acting/feeling: Anna gently placed her hand on top of Joe’s.

where’ the people/objects are: The suitcase sat in the middle of the kitchen table reminding them of their painful goodbye in the morning.

when’ events take place: After packing his small amount of belongings, he stood in silence by the kitchen table.


Year 4 could be learning to use determiners to subtly add detail:

There had been a few tears earlier in the day but with each minute that ticked by, the family grew stronger.


Year 5 – relative clauses non-restrictive (with parenthesis) and restrictive (without parenthesis)

The table, which had seen much sharing and laughter, was now the centre of sadness.

The person who he loved more than any other stood silently by his side.


Year 6 – passive: focuses us on the suitcase rather than who was packing it.

The suitcase was packed and the finality of the clasp clicking into the lock sent them into a spiral of despair.


You might also find an old suitcase in the loft or a charity shop and fill it with items such as boat tickets, maps, foreign language dictionary, photos of the family and keepsakes. The children could focus on individual objects. Again, the process would begin with discussion prompted by key questions, supporting an understanding of the characters involved, and in turn the discussion is used to inform and make subtle writing choices.


Once you have used this technique you will be looking for pictures and film to support a pathway to writing for many other genres and text types. You might also be interested in attending the year 5 and 6 Take One Book training which will use ‘The Arrival’ as a focus text, giving you many more ideas.