Early Drawing Gives Children an Advantage in Gaining Literacy

Written by Bob Steele
Bob Steele was an associate professor (emeritus) at the University of British Columbia and was with the Drawing Network.  This article first appeared in the Vancouver Sun on March 3, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Some 20 years ago a group of parents, teachers and academics got together to foster mental development and literacy in preschool children and beyond. They called themselves the Drawing Network. Language in the broadest sense would be the key and spontaneous drawing the special emphasis. Children begin to draw about the same time they first use spoken words, typically in the second year of life. Nature apparently meant this to be used as a language medium. A fairly consistent unfolding takes place, but only when parents and teachers nurture it in a daily routine. Drawing begins with random scribbling, becomes crude representations and, by age four and with daily practice, emerges as a medium of expression so rich and detailed, so useful in expressing a subtle and complex content, that the definition of language is richly satisfied.

The Drawing Network defines language as articulating, expressing and communicating perceptions, thoughts and feelings. Drawing not only fulfils this definition but has one enormous advantage for the child who must use language to face the world intelligently and with feeling: unlike literacy, drawing has no code and children use it with complete spontaneity.

To end the relative neglect of drawing as a language medium, the Drawing Network suggests the “daily draw” in homes with children. Here is how it works:

  • Simple materials are provided – recycled computer paper, cheap drawing pads, ballpoints pens and safe-to-use fine-tipped felts. The literacy connection begins with a conversation between parent and child about theme. Ideas are exchanged. Shut-eye visualization and guided imagery may be helpful. A story is told, a poem read, a notable event recalled, a household routine highlighted. The adult has no further responsibility, only motivation; no “showing how”, no “ how-to-draw” formulas.
  • Words also come into play during the drawing performance in the form of a silent monologue. Vocabulary is stimulated by drawing “things” in detail; the natural laws of syntax are exercised by echoing the events of the drawing with a silent running commentary. When words seem appropriate they are added to the drawing thus making the transition to writing and reading.
  • The parent returns when the drawing is finished and the literacy connection reconvenes with a post- drawing discussion.

The child who is encouraged to draw has a tremendous advantage over the one who either draws fitfully or not at all. There are developmental gains that include increased perceptual acuity, intellectual growth, emotional, health, a happier learning environment, bonding with parents and other adults, learning to face the natural and human environment with empathy. The unexpected advantage, however, is the easier acquisition of all forms of literacy.

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