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Visual Storytelling with Helbling Young Readers

December 03, 2019 by s.nagele

Recently I had an interesting discussion about choosing teaching materials for young learners. We were browsing materials for primary school learners, and what struck us was that the most useful and successful language resources contained very little written verbal language. I consciously avoid using the word 'text' here as I would like to focus on the definition of the readable and multimodal text that can be verbal or visual. The books we looked at contained very little 'text' in the classic sense that is they contained only words, short sentences and passages. Of course it is normal for a primary coursebook to have more images than words, but we often forget about the treasures these images hide.

The Hare and the Tortoise pp. 12-13
Illustration by Estella Guerrera in the Helbling young reader The Hare and the Tortoise. © Helbling Languages

Images and illustrations have very practical language teaching resource qualities so that they are widely used for teaching vocabulary and picture description. I believe that they have a lot more benefits. Illustrations have their own complex visual grammar, where lines, forms, dimensions and colours gain special significance and they shake up your memories, create connections and activate your imagination more than texts can do, especially in the primary classroom. For this reason, illustrated readers and picture books have invaluable teaching benefits which reach far beyond the pure pleasure of reading and sharing stories. This leads us to the question of visual literacy in the language classroom, and activities that can activate your students' visual thinking skills. In their paper on visual literacy, Avegerinou and Pettersson define five constituent parts of Visual Language (ViL). It is holistic, it often needs verbal support, it must be learned, it may improve learning, it is not universal. It means that its integration into our classroom practice is not only essential but will also support our students in reading and understanding stories and texts.

Just remember a picture discussion you have recently heard, or experiment with one in your classroom. You do not need to ask complex interpretative questions, it is enough to apply the three questions of the Visual Thinking Strategies method (Yenawine, 2013):

  • What's going on in this picture? 
  • What do you say that makes you say that?
  • What else can we find?

You will see how often your students have different ideas about the same image, and how often they do not provide evidence to support their statements about the image. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the nature of perception when we are looking at picture books. This quote from Nathan Knobler sums it up effectively:

"Perception, our awareness of the world around us, based on the information that comes through the senses is too often considered a natural, matter-of-fact attribute of the human being. The assumption is made that everyone sees the same things and that the world, as we know it through our sight, hearing, touch, and ability to smell is the same for all. This is not so."

Focussing on the visual will assist you in your objectives in the language class. Images have multiple functions from the representational through to organizational and interpretative levels which all support you with different aspects of your English course. When reading illustrated stories, we find ourselves in a multimodal learning and reading experience, but we should note that the relations of image and text are not definite, and they can change within the same book. In her paper about visual and verbal meaning, Eveline Chan explains (page 146) that 'in looking at how words and pictures combine to create meaning in hybrid texts such as comics, McCloud (1994) identifies a range of image-text relations in terms of their equal/unequal contributions to meaning:

  1. word  specific,  where  pictures  illustrate  but  do  not  significantly  add  to  a largely complete text;
  2. picture specific, where the picture dominates and words do not add significantly to the meaning of the image;
  3. duo specific, where words and pictures send essentially the same message;
  4. additive – words amplify or elaborate on an image or vice versa;
  5. parallel – words/image follow different courses without intersecting;
  6. montage – words are treated as integral parts of the picture;
  7. interdependent – image/words together convey an idea that neither could convey alone.'

How can these image and text relations help us in the classroom?

1 When you are preparing for your story lesson, pay attention to these relations of images and the text. On some pages you will notice word specific relations, and images will dominate on other pages, making the relation picture specific.

2 When you are reading illustrated readers, give your students enough time to explore the images without telling them the story.

3 When you initially approach the story, first browse through the visual text, without looking at the text, just letting your students'  inner speech work for them.

  • Focus on the colours and the atmosphere they create.
  • Find the biggest and the smallest characters on the pages.
  • Ask your students to tell you how they feel when they are looking at the illustrations.
  • Ask them to tell you how the characters might feel in the illustrations.
  • You do not need to interpret the images, only focus on lines, colours, forms, dimensions, perspective and points of view. You do not need to attach interpretative statements to these observations. It is enough to point them out and let your students respond to them.
  • A secondary approach may be to create a narrative from the visual sequence.

4 When you are reading the text of the story, do it slowly, and point at the relevant parts of the illustrations. This will help your students develop visual awareness and make image-text connections.

5 Use the power of your voice to attach feelings and qualities to the story.

6 Use the power of retelling. We love stories because they can be retold several times. When you are rereading the story to your class, pause at easier words and expressions they might remember or you would like to teach. Pause and point to the visual reference.

7 Use the same illustration to retell the story with your own words, asking the students to help you.

8 When you are reading the illustrations, point out details your students might not notice. Your students will often miss out on the visual subtext in illustrations which provide entry points to the text that can be fun for your students. It is fascinating to see that very conscious visual design can result in entertaining elements in the storytelling structure. These visual details can illustrate word puns, play on words thus extending or reflecting on their meaning. They can also become visual aids to contextualise verbal metaphors thereby facilitating representational function of language.

9 Visual details can add another level to the story, one which is not represented in the verbal text. Sometimes they achieve this by containing elements which are not present in the written text, and sometimes they provide a new point of view by adding a new character or an unexpected colour scheme (for example one which implies a positive environment when the text talks about something negative).

10 Visual elements in illustrations are also capable of creating a system of affective mental imagery.

Experiment with the stories, and let the images speak for themselves. Your students will learn and remember new words and phrases more easily. They will also become familiar with the act of storytelling, plot development, characters and scenes, and they will be able to place the meaning of the new words in both visual and verbal contexts at the same time.

Examples from Helbling Young Readers

Examples of the visual subtext

In both books listed below you will find visual elements which function as subtexts. On every double spread in The Hare and the Tortoise a little mouse appears, facing the reader as if he were a narrator or a little friend present in the scene. Follow this mouse, and find him on every page, describing what he is doing and reading what he is telling us. In Henry Harris Hates Haitches you can see the letter H represented in different shapes and contexts. Sometimes it is in the wallpaper, sometimes it takes the form of the chairs and tables at school. Always look for the letter and try to pronounce it out loud. What does it represent on each page?

The Hare and the Tortoise level a Young Reader retold by Richard Northcott and illustrated by Estella Guerrera

Illustration from The Hare and the Tortoise. © Helbling Languages

Henry Harris Hates Haitches level d Young Reader written by Maria Cleary and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini

Illustration from Henry Harris Hates Haitches. © Helbling Languages

Focus on words

The images and texts in these two readers below illustrate how verbal plays can be expressed and reinforced through images. In Can I Play? the illustrations provide material for vocabulary building as opposites are an underlying theme throughout the story: sad - happy, alone - together, play - don't play. In The Thirsty Tree the representation of the personified tree and the name of the bird Cloudbreak will help your students become familiar with personification and metaphors.

Can I Play? level a Young Reader written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Valentina Mai

Illustration from Can I Play? © Helbling Languages

The Thirsty Tree level c Young Reader written by Adrián N. Bravi and illustrated by Valentina Russello

Illustration from The Thirsty Tree. © Helbling Languages


Creating affective mental imagery

In Lost on the Coast and Food for the Winter a strong colour dominates evoking certain personal responses, emotions and mental images in the reader. The visual weight of these colours creates affective mental imagery which constitutes a significant part of the storytelling experience. Observe the colour blocks in these illustrations: what do they make you feel? Subtle changes in colour and application change the atmosphere from one of harmony and community to one of fear and disorientation. How do you feel when you look at the different colour schemes of the seasons? We go from the warm colours of autumn through the cold wintry sensations of white and icy cold colours.

Lost on the Coast level e Young Reader written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni

Illustration from Lost on the Coast. © Helbling Languages

Food for the Winter level e Young Reader written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Estella Guerrera

Illustration from Food for the Winter. © Helbling Languages


  • Avgerinou, Maria D. and Rune Petterson. “Toward a Cohesive Theory of Visual Literacy.” Journal of Visual Literacy. 30.2 (2011): 1-19.
  • Chan, Eveline. "Integrating Visual and Verbal Meaning in Multimodal Text Comprehension: Towards a Model of Intermodal Relations.  Semiotic Margins. Meaning in Multimodalities. Ed. Shoshana Dreyfus et al. London: Continuum, 2011. 125-143.
  • Knobler, Nathan. The Visual Dialogue: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Art. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1967.
  • Yenawine, Philip. Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines. Harvard Education Press, 2013.