Beginning critical literacy – young children’s responses when reading image and text.

Peer reviewed article

Alicia Rankine and Dr. Jon Callow share their research project on critical literacy and picture books.

Portrait photo of Alicia Rankine
Image: Alicia Rankine graduated from the University of Sydney in 2014 with a Bachelor of Education Honors Class I. She is currently teaching kindergarten at Vardys Road Public School.
Portrait photo of Jon Callow
Image: Jon Callow is the director of the Master of Teaching Primary program and a senior lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney


When reading the story ‘Amy and Louis’ (Gleeson & Blackwood, 2006) Darren had plenty to say about the different parts of the narrative. As he retold the orientation he noted that “They was (sic) best friends. And they did stuff together…. (Amy) calls for him and then when he is there, he calls out and then she comes.” When Amy moves away across the world, Darren understood that Louis was sad to lose his friend and Darren recounts what Louis did next - “He spreaded (sic) his arms and screamed really loud and it went over all the world”. On the last page, Amy awakens from a dream in which she has heard him calling her. Darren comments on the use of colour on the final page - “It’s all lighted up, because this is a happy ending.”

As Darren (all names are pseudonyms) listened to the story, discussed the words and pictures and then later created his own drawing, he was demonstrating his understanding of both the visual and written modes of communication, as well as enjoying a quality piece of children’s literature. Picture books, along with other print and screen based texts are part of our evolving literacy contexts. The inclusion of all forms of multimodal texts is essential to ensure curriculum reflects the text demands of society (Jewitt, 2008b; New London Group, 1996). Multimodal texts can be defined as texts which use more than one mode to communicate meaning within any combination of the written, visual, audible or gestural modes (Callow, 2013; Kress, 2010).

A significant body of research suggests that a critical approach towards multimodal texts is vital to ensure students can actively and critically participate in wider social power structures that are reflected and created within text (Comber & Nixon, 2014; Jones- Diaz, Beecher, & Arthur, 2007). While the theoretical framework for a critical and multimodal approach to literacy is strong, research on how to assess these literacies is still ongoing. This paper reports on how early primary students begin to develop critical literacy knowledge as part of a larger project exploring assessment and multimodality.

Living in a multimodal world

A significant body of research on changed literacy practices, initially developed by The New London Group (1996) and furthered by the contributions of Jewitt (2008a) and Walsh (2010), argues for literacy pedagogy which reflects the impact of evolving textual forms on sociocultural practices. This research considers that in the elaborately multimodal contemporary context (Ryan, Scott, & Walsh, 2010 p.477), print based approaches alone for literacy instruction are no longer appropriate. To navigate this changing literacy landscape, children need the ability to navigate images as ‘carriers of meaning’ (Bezemer & Kress 2008 p.166), thereby giving rise to research that requires frameworks for deconstructing how image and text create meaning. The systemic functional semiotics approach provides such a framework to analyse meaning making in the image-language interface, and thus is applicable to the comprehension of multimodal texts (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2006; Unsworth, 2014).

Children’s responses to multimodal texts

Numerous studies have revealed students’ sophisticated and multifaceted responses to multimodal texts such as picture books and graphic novels, including students’ ability to make meaning by:

* interpreting intratextual visual symbols (Farrell, Arizpe, & McAdam, 2010 );

* negotiating the gap between image and text (Styles & Arizpe, 2001);

* utilising colour theory (Pantaleo, 2012 ) and

* integrating life experiences (Ryan & Anstey, 2003).

These studies generally suggest that children are astute readers of visual text, which also connects to critical literacy or text analyst practices.

Critical literacy has a well established history in Australian literacy practices (Jones-Diaz et al., 2007; Luke, 2000). A range of definitions is demonstrated through the literature, where critical literacy is

simply acknowledging the choices or perspectives presented in a text, through to a more thorough critique and analysis around discourses such as power, gender or social issues.

Callow, 2010 p.74.

Luke (2000, p.451) defines critical literacy as the ability to analyse ‘the relations and fields of social, cultural, and economic power’ shaped within and through texts.

Luke and Freebody’s (1999) reader roles framework embeds critical response in the text analyst role as one of the four reading resources. Despite the prominence of the reader roles framework in the Australian literacy context, this text analyst role is not reflected in the English Curriculum until Year 6 (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2016). However, theoretical support for critical literacy in the younger years suggests children come to school with strong notions of fair and unfair and can use the discourse of social interaction and text in play (Comber, 2001). Young children also have strong cultural capital that can be utilised for the development of critical literacy (Janks, 2002; Jones-Diaz et al., 2007). Emerging research suggests critical literacy praxis in the younger years can involve working towards the analytical deconstruction of texts through learning experiences such as manipulating characters and structural features in texts to create new meanings (Comber & Nixon, 2014; Exley, Woods, & Dooley, 2014).

Having set the focus on the area of the multimodal texts and critical literacy in the early years, this article reports findings taken from a larger pilot study in an urban setting of a large Australian city, engaging with 40 students across 4 stages from Foundation to Year 6. The larger study investigated assessment strategies in the comprehension of picture books, addressing the research question:

How can we assess students’ understanding of visual and multimodal texts?

It also explored the type of metalanguage students used when discussing their understanding of visual and written texts as well as assessing aspects of the text analyst role when engaging with picture books. Related articles reporting on the project include assessment strategies for foundation/ kindergarten (Callow, 2018 - forthcoming) and the role of picture books for Year 1 in critical and global literacy contexts (Callow, 2017). The specific research question informing this article was:

How do children in early primary critically respond to multimodal texts?


The context for this multisite case study were two schools in a large city in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Participants were drawn from two Foundation classes, a Year 1 and a Year 2 class. Teachers in each class invited 6 - 7 students to participate, with no criteria being assigned to their selection by the researchers. In the foundation group there were seven students, aged 5 and 6 years, while in the Year 1 and 2 groups there were eleven students aged 6 and 7. The study utilised a qualitative, small scale case study approach, employing methods of interview, discussion, observation of reading and viewing as well as drawn responses to picture books.

Two picture books were selected for the study. The foundation students were read ‘Amy and Louis’, written by Libby Gleeson and illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Gleeson & Blackwood, 2006), a story dealing with loss and friendship when Louis’ friend Amy moves to the other side of the world.

Louis looking down the street

The Year 1 and Year 2 students explored ‘My Two Blankets’, written by Irena Kobald and also illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Kobald & Blackwood, 2014). In this story, a young girl named Cartwheel finds herself as a refugee in a new country, where she doesn’t know the language. She wraps herself in the blanket of her first language, but with the help of a friend, soon weaves a second blanket in her new additional language.

Cartwheel at the back of the crowd

The data collection included a picture walk  and discussion of each book with each child, followed by the story being read aloud. After this a structured interview focusing on a specific double page spread was undertaken, with a concluding drawing activity based on the story. The methodological design is informed by a systemic functional semiotics approach (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2006; Unsworth, 2014), providing a theoretical framework for the analysis of interview data and the children’s drawings. The questions developed for the interviews drew on this approach and were devised to provide students with opportunities to interpret both image and text, including the use of a visual metalanguage as well as being aligned with Luke & Freebody’s (1999) reader role orientation, embedding opportunities for critical response.

For each book, a focus double page spread was selected for extended discussion. The pages from ‘Amy and Louis’ show a very small Louis peeking out from his front garden towards a large truck that is driving away, taking his friend Amy to the other side of the world. The written text signals the complication in the narrative –

But one day, Amy and her family moved a long, long way away …

The depicted departure scene is painted with pale, washed out colours, reflecting a sombre mood, which strongly contrasts the previously brightly coloured scenes of the children playing .

The pages from ‘My Two Blankets’ show a tiny main character, Cartwheel, placed at the back of a large crowd of people, who appear to be yelling as lines appear from their mouth, accompanied by the objects they are talking about. The resulting scene is quite overwhelming and rather daunting, being described in the written text as

like standing under a waterfall of strange sounds,

given that Cartwheel does not yet speak the language. Compared to the very positive first page of the story, where Cartwheel’s bright image fills the page as she does hand springs in her first home country, this page stands in strong contrast.

Selected interview questions with a focus on the text analyst role

For ‘Amy and Louis’, Gleeson & Blackwood (2006).

How is this page different to previous pages?

Tell me about the colour on this page.

Why do you think Freya Blackwood chose these colours?

How does she want us to feel?

Is Louis drawn very big or small here?

Why did Freya Blackwood do this?

How might it make us feel about Louis?

Drawing task:

What would this picture look like if Amy was coming back? Draw a picture that shows Amy coming home. Try and use your colours to help us understand how Louis feels.

For ‘My Two Blankets’, Kobald & Blackwood (2014).

How is this different to the first page in the story?

Tell me something about how close or far we are from the people in this picture.

Why do you think Freya Blackwood did this?

Do you know any special words that describe how close or far away we are from a person in a picture?

Who is feeling the least powerful in this picture?

How do you know?

Do the words tell us who is powerful?

Drawing Task:

At the end of the book, Cartwheel has changed. Imagine she goes back to the street shown in the focus page. What would be different?

Draw a picture that shows how you think Cartwheel might be feeling.

Once the data was collated and transcribed, each specific question was read, tabulated and colour coded for common themes and patterns across the student responses. This was complemented by a similar process with the student comments about their drawings. Themes relevant to the text analyst role were identified and are discussed in the following section, in relation to the research question regarding how early primary children critically respond to multimodal texts.

Findings and discussion

All the students made comments showing affective responses and understanding of the characters in each story. When discussing the differences between the opening pages and the focus page, both groups of children noted a number of features. Those reading ‘Amy and Louis’ generally commented on the colour differences, interpreting those on the focus pages as portraying sadness, which suggests an emerging awareness of the emotional impact of colour choices (Callow, 2018 forthcoming). The Year 1 students, when comparing the opening pages in ‘My Two Blankets’, noted differences in colour, as well as the different objects on each page and the waterfall imagery and flying objects. Eight of the eleven then commented that the focus page made them feel sad for Cartwheel. Callow (2008) argues for the importance of enjoyment and aesthetic responses to images while Lewis (2000) contends that reading should combine the dimension of pleasure as part of personal and critical responses to literature. While most students found it difficult to engage in explicit discussion about authorial intent, they showed an awareness of how words and pictures make meaning that provides the groundwork for text analyst behaviours.

Exploring social distance and authorial choice

How close or far we stand from someone can signal our social relationship with them. In visual texts, shot distances may create a suggested or imagined relationship between the viewer and the person represented (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2006). For example, in figure 1, the close shot suggests a closer relationship with the girl, compared to the long shot of a small child standing on a beach (figure 2).

Figure 1 – close shot
Image: Figure 1 – close shot (Photo by ANDRIK | LANGFIELD | PETRIDES on Unsplash)
Figure 2 – long shot
Image: Figure 2 – long shot (Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash)

In the focus pages for both books, the main characters are both drawn in long shot, creating a distance between the viewer and the character, making them appear small and more vulnerable on each page.

In ‘Amy and Louis’, Louis, is shown as being very small, in the bottom left hand corner of the larger streetscape, peering out at the truck as it pulls away, suggesting vulnerability and sadness. All of the seven foundation students noted that Louis was drawn very small, and when asked why Freya Blackwood drew him like that, they all said it was because he was sad, offering a range of reasons.

Researcher: Is Louis drawn very big or very small in this picture?

Anna: Very small.

Researcher: Why do you think Freya Blackwood drew him like that?

Anna: Um, because he’s sad, and it’s far away, but here (points to previous page with large drawing of Louis) he’s happier and he’s close to his friends.

Darren used more common sense reasoning when asked about Louis size in the picture:

Researcher: Why do you think Freya Blackwood drew him like that?

Darren: Because he’s a little kid.

For the foundation students, the question of how the viewer feels towards the character, as opposed to how the character may be feeling was challenging. When asked about how we as readers felt about Louis, most children were a little unsure or said they didn’t know. However, one student, Nathan, showed a developing sense that illustrators may make use of size to show some emotional aspect, referring to illustrators as ‘they’ in the quote below.

Nathan: He’s drawn small.

Researcher: Hmm, I wonder why? I wonder why Freya Blackwood did that?

Nathan: Because he’s sad.

Researcher: So how do we know he’s sad because he’s small? That’s good thinking.

Nathan: Because sometimes they draw people, when they’re sad, small.

In the double page spread from My Two Blankets, Cartwheel and her Auntie are in long shot, shown as tiny figures in the background, while the unknown crowd are much closer to us as viewers. The use of the long shot here distances us from Cartwheel, making her appear small in relation to the crowd, thereby gaining our empathy as Cartwheel is portrayed as being alienated from the group. When discussing 'My Two Blankets' and how near or far the characters on the page are positioned, ten of the eleven children were able to comment on shot distance in the image, and six students then showed insightful ideas on how the long shot influenced their interpretation of the character, such as the following:

Researcher: So why do you think they drew it so we were quite far away from Cartwheel, how does it make us feel about her?

Rufus: Sad.

Researcher: Why does it make you feel sad about her when she’s far away?

Rufus: Because I want to get to her because she doesn’t have any friends.

Interestingly, one child linked the choice of shot with the character’s former country of origin.

Researcher: Ok. So why do you think Freya Blackwood drew it like that?

Ellie: Maybe because they’re from somewhere far away

When discussing the illustrator’s choice in terms of how far the characters were drawn a number of responses from the children in both grades suggested they had begun to consider how the visual choices in each story were purposeful. Evidence of the text analyst role could be argued as an evolving understanding that somebody makes a choice (White, 1999), where readers begin to understand that a text is created by an author, who make choices about what is seen and read.

Pictorial responses to the story

When the Foundation students were asked to draw a new version of the page to represent how Louis would feel if Amy was returning, the majority of children created an image of Amy and Louis standing near each other or holding hands, employing signifiers to convey their happiness including smiling faces, green grass, a bright sun, or flowers (see Fig. 3). When asked why he drew a flower in his picture, Nathan explained it was Because they make people happy, showing he was deliberately thinking about the impact of his drawing on the viewer.

Figure 3 – Amy and Louis reunite by Darren
Image: Figure 3 – Amy and Louis reunite by Darren

Year 1 students were asked to create a representation of Cartwheel returning to the where the crowd had been, after she had woven the ‘new blanket’ of her second language, and to depict how she would feel after she had changed. Interestingly, even though students could identify before they started drawing that Cartwheel had changed and was happier by the end of the story, six students drew Cartwheel as sad, confused or unsure. Year 1 students showed a stronger tendency to manipulate the images of the original story, with three students integrating the visual metaphor of the waterfall of words, represented as small symbols (Fig. 4).

Figure 4 – Cartwheel returns to the street
Image: Figure 4 – Cartwheel returns to the street by Azalea

The drawing task attempted to elicit text analyst behaviours. Arguably, the way students made some beginning efforts to use visual language to create a particular meaning may suggest emerging text analyst behaviours. Foundation students were able to explain that they used happy colours because they wanted the viewer to feel happy. Year 1 students commonly focused on the facial expression of their participant as the main way they created meaning. Yvonne (Year 1) showed some evidence of emergent text analyst behaviours in her discussion of her image:

Researcher: Ok, so how do you want the viewer, or the person looking at it like me, to feel about Cartwheel when they look at your drawing?

Yvonne: Um, (she) feels happy and (she) feels like she’s in a nice place.

Researcher: Ok, so what did you try and do in your drawing to make me feel like that when I look at that picture?

Yvonne: I tried to make them look really happy instead of just drooping their arms down and stuff.

Interestingly, when pictorial responses were triangulated with students’ interviews, students like Yvonne who showed more developed text analyst behaviours in their interview were similarly able to show more text analyst behaviours in the discussion of their picture. This seemingly echoes Comber’s (2001) suggestion that teachers must develop “a meta- awareness and meta-language” to enable students to access critical literacy behaviours.


The findings from the data across the Foundation and Year 1 students suggests

* the beginning of early critical literacy behaviours in terms of how they discussed the visual and linguistic features in relation to their own personal responses,

* their emerging sense of possible authorial choices and

* the developing evidence of this in some of their drawings.

The findings reflect Comber and Nixon’s (2014) commentary about the ongoing importance of all forms of critical literacy practices in the early years, from viewing to drawing, screens to physical spaces.

Picture books continue to play a key role in our evolving literacy landscape, providing opportunities to introduce critical reading practices which may then be applied to other multimodal texts. Considering the changing literacy demands of new forms of texts and evolving social structures, literacy pedagogy and assessment which embraces multimodal texts and equips students to actively and critically navigate these texts is essential.


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How to cite this article: Rankine, A. & Callow, J. 2017 ‘“It’s all lighted up, because this is a happy ending.” Beginning critical literacy – young children’s responses when reading image and text.’, Scan, 36(4), pp. 46-54

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