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Want to improve your kids’ writing? Let them draw

We might see drawing as a bit of fun, but the contribution to learning is more than we might think Shutterstock

We love our kids’ first drawings. They draw before they write, so their drawings seem somehow miraculous in those early years - their first communication that is permanent and there for all to see.

Preschool is all about drawing and painting. Large canvasses of abstract finger paintings give way to recognisable broad stroke figures, houses, and sunny skies. We celebrate every image and give them pride of place on the fridge door.

The disappearance of children’s drawings

Once school starts, nobody really takes drawing seriously anymore. In the classroom, drawings begin to take second place to writing. Young children quickly learn that success at school is measured by how well you can read and write, not by how good your drawings are. Their drawings are now just decorations that they get to do if they finish their writing.

Too often in classrooms we view drawing as a crutch, or a distraction that we want children to grow out of, so they can focus on the ‘real’ task of writing.

But we seriously misunderstand the function of drawings, and their contribution to learning, if we think they are just what children do when they can’t yet write.

Drawing is not the evolutionary inferior to writing - writing and drawing are two distinct communication systems, and each deserves their place in the communicative repertoire of our children.

Drawing improves writing

Drawing and writing support each other. The poet e.e.cummings was both an artist and a writer, and when asked whether these two pursuits interfered with each other, he replied,

‘On the contrary, they love each other’

And his experience is backed up by the research.

Children who draw before they tackle writing tasks produce better writing - it’s longer, more syntactically sophisticated and has a greater variety of vocabulary. It is likely this is because the act of drawing concentrates the mind on the topic at hand, and provides an avenue for rehearsal before writing - rather like a first draft where they can sort things out before having to commit words to a page.

Drawing a picture can help children arrange their thoughts Shutterstock

If you have ever read a 10 year old’s long and winding story you will know how much a first draft would enhance comprehensibility. And if you’ve ever taught 10 year olds you will also know they are not terribly inclined to do multiple written drafts. They’d rather sum up all their story’s inconsistencies with ‘It was all a dream’ than follow a teacher’s suggestion to go back and make significant changes.

As a first draft, drawings are much easier to erase, to add to, and to rearrange. They provide a common reference point for the teacher and the child to discuss the story before it is written, and this is an important additional oral rehearsal that strengthens the quality of the writing. Ideas are clarified and vocabulary strengthened.

The message to teachers is a simple one - instead of telling children they can draw a picture if they finish their writing, have them draw before writing.

Just for the talented few?

Drawings are not the sole province of the ’talented’. Of course there are children with a natural talent for drawing, but they shouldn’t be the only ones who enjoy drawing, any more than we think only the naturally talented writers should write.

Everybody should have the opportunity to use drawing as a means of expression and communication - just as everyone should learn to write. And for those children with a drawing talent, closing down drawing in the classroom can feel to them like just another brick in the wall.

Everyone can learn to draw

Drawing is a teachable skill, just as writing is. Most of us have a romantic notion of drawing - we see someone who produces life-like images and sigh, knowing we could never do that.

The child who claims to be bad at drawing, furiously erasing parts of their drawing till the paper wears away, has probably learned what ‘good’ drawing is from unthinking comments from adults who have ‘helpfully’ observed that the sky isn’t red, or that their Easter bunny looks like a kangaroo.

Indeed there does come an age, usually around 8 or 9 years, when we begin to see our drawings as others do, and most of us are usually disappointed with what we see - and give up on drawing. But actually, with tuition and encouragement, all of us can learn to draw pretty well, and more importantly, feel the pleasure that comes with this kind of expression.

To promote a classroom where drawing is valued, get rid of colouring in stencils. Let kids freehand draw and paint, and don’t be afraid to teach some drawing skills so they can get what is in their mind’s eye down on paper. You won’t be stifling their creativity, you will be ensuring they never lose it.

Drawing helps in other academic areas

We understand things more deeply when we see them from multiple perspectives. Drawing what you have understood from a reading passage, drawing the science experiment you have just done or drawing the detail of an autumn leaf are all examples of engaging with the same learning from a different angle.

For most children, this helps consolidate the learning but for some children it can be the key they have been waiting for to open the door to the learning. The confidence and self belief this gives them can change their attitude and engagement with other aspects of schooling.

Closing doors and building walls

If our only measure of success at school is performance in standardised literacy and numeracy tests, schools will be tempted to narrow their curriculum and to sideline the Arts. It is already happening

This is disastrous, not just for the Arts and all their intrinsic worth - but for the reading and writing skills we are so focussed on improving.

Drawing improves children’s writing, and can enhance learning in other areas - so let kids draw.

Join the conversation

24 Comments sorted by

  1. Benjamin Ratcliff

    Nurse

    I wish I didn't relate so well to to some of these insights.
    but I'll now go draw with my 3 y.o.with similar vigor as we do reading.

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  2. Laurie McGinness

    High School Science Teacher

    I absolutely agree with this and wish I had worked it out a long time ago. I have found in recent years that encouraging drawing and model making not only increases the effectiveness of the learning in that session but, in time, can make a profound difference to the attitude of students to the subject. At a time when the buzz word is differentiation this is a simple highly effective way of varying the lesson to suit the individual.

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  3. Craig Somerton

    IT Professional

    It's not just children who benefit from discovering drawing, adults can gain significantly from re-discovering drawing, sketches, painting and the more creative endeavours.

    I for one always loved to draw as a child, but the nature of education soon supplanted drawing with the written word. Alas, I never really enjoyed writing, which I found slow, laborious, cumbersome and a chore. I often found myself lurching between insufficient dot-points and trying to take way too many detailed notes. I…

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    1. Misty Adoniou

      Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL at University of Canberra

      In reply to Craig Somerton

      Thanks for adding your story from an adult perspective, Craig. For those who are very word oriented it can be so insightful to hear how others make sense of the world. This is particularly true for teachers who must always strive to step outside their own skin and provide learning environments that encourage all learners.

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  4. Ric Lowe

    Professor, School of Education at Curtin University

    Drawing is indeed important - but in the 21st century not as the mere servant of writing. Rather, it is vitally important in its own right. We are in an age when graphic information and facilities on smart phones and tablets is changing the historical dominance of words as our main means of communication.

    Unfortunately, those who make education policy continue to worship at the shrine of literacy while essentially neglecting graphicacy. In the real world, the days of graphics being subservient to words are well and truly gone.

    It is high time we stopped treating the interpretation of graphics or their generation by learners solely as a stepping stone to 'real ( i.e. text-based) learning'. Further, there needs to be a clear distinction made between (i) the use of drawing for the purposes of decoration, aesthetics, or self-fulfillment, and (ii) drawing's utility as a powerful tool for thinking, understanding and learning.

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  5. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    Thanks for this overview, Misty.

    Both writing and drawing are about displaying ideas outside of ourselves. I imagine, in the class or while parenting, linking the two back to the original idea would benefit both sets of skills, as well as signal the kid that communication with others is also what happens when you write or draw.

    Later, comics serve as a great combined form to tell stories, a form beloved by kids as part of their consumption of story, and one adults allow themselves through…

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  6. Noella Mackenzie

    Senior Lecturer in Literacy Studies

    Thanks for this Misty. I have been researching the relationship between drawing and early writing development for a number of years. I have published a number of research articles on this topic so if anyone is interested let me know and I can forward the details. I have wonderful examples of young children's drawings that display amazing complexity and creativity.

    I have also created resources for the parents of young children which explain the importance of drawing as a meaning making process.

    In my articles I argue for writing to be introduced to children as a parallel form of meaning making, rather than as a replacement for their existing modes of meaning making - drawing (and talking).

    I agree with Ric - Drawing is more important than ever in a world of multimodal texts.

    I am thrilled to read your response Ben - your 3 year old is one of the lucky ones!

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  7. Evelyn Haskins

    retired

    What a sudden light this has thrown on my experience!

    I never really thought about it at the time, but of my kids, these that drew prolificately did have both better language and written skills that their siblins who never drew much at all.

    Though there is also the consideration that those that drew prolificately might have had a better affinity for talking and writing?

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    1. Misty Adoniou

      Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL at University of Canberra

      In reply to Benjamin Ratcliff

      I guess we know that not all 'natural' drawers are great writers - as Craig's story shows, along with countless others, including many children I have taught.

      Drawing and speaking are what we call first order symbol systems - capacities we are born with, and the brain is readymade for this kind of communication. Writing is a second order symbol system - a social construction that has come along much later in the story of humans, and is something that each and every one of us must learn to do…

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    2. Benjamin Ratcliff

      Nurse

      In reply to Misty Adoniou

      yes, yes and/but to prove this, beyond correlation, we'll need to see it on mass.... (freakanomics).

      some very similar schools with drawing being the main differrence..... ie schools A type have lots of drawing classes but schools B type don't ...with other things being similar enough.

      Then we should see more advanced writing etc. in the schools where the drawing stuff is.

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  8. Kathryn Cole

    Humanager

    Yes yes yes! One fantastic teacher alerted me to her observation that my 6 yr old son would find the temerity to commit words to paper only after drawing the objective first. This led me to remember my Year 11 and 12 essays which always had highly decorated titles and margins - the first step in my thinking process.

    I will continue to encourage this practice with both of my children.

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  9. Rosemary Boulter Vickers

    Retired early childhood teacher

    I can identify with this. Whenever I visit an early childhood centre or school I leave in despair. Despite decades of research identifying best practice in early education and care, young children are still being presented with colouring in stencils. This ‘busy work’ teaches a child that their ideas, as represented by their art work, are irrelevant.
    My message to adults is that the next time a young child presents you with a drawing, please don’t say, ‘What’s that?’ rather ask the child, ‘Can you tell me about your drawing?’ Be a scribe for the child who does not yet have the ability to write. Even the youngest child will have a good story to tell and through this process will begin to understand that thoughts and ideas can be spoken, written down and read back – now that’s a motivation for learning to write!

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  10. Fiona Moore

    Speech Pathologist at Looking for Work

    I love to see kids draw what's in their heads, then use their verbal language to try to put it into words... and then the writing can come in.

    Otherwise you end up with "On the weekend I played Xbox with my brother" every monday morning.

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  11. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Timeline of human development....cave drawings and dense oral story banks consisting of great reams of memorized twisting tales symbolized for recall/ re-citation by graphic, pictorial triggers in landscape features, rock carvings and drawings. Dreams primarily pictorial journeys through the psychic labyrinths of brain synapse connections and though can contain written expression and spoken word, these are harder to recall than the moving pictures.

    Children's story books are primarily graphic…

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    1. Benjamin Ratcliff

      Nurse

      In reply to Pat Moore

      writing is not drawing, unless 'everything' is drawing, as in I'll take my car for a draw around the block.

      if "writing 'by hand' is drawing too", then presumably dictating isn't drawing.

      Apart from personal hand (writing) styles, writing isn't drawing, as surely as singing isn't writing.... lyrics and music can be written but that's a different branch.

      All art is probably linked... and many mediums can be mixed.

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    2. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Benjamin Ratcliff

      But we should draw on all our avilable resources. But don't let the tea draw too long or it will go astringent.

      Or is writing in English isn't drawing, what about Chinese?

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    3. Benjamin Ratcliff

      Nurse

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      Yeah, like Pat said with .. "hieroglyphs combine the two systems of symbolizing"...

      but Ric Lowe's point about symbols now being more important than ever is such a bloody good point.

      so a point is get the kids and everyone (like Craig Somerton and me) drawing without delay and latter add written words where necesarry.

      because....

      sure hand writing is great too but now we also have voice command, cut and paste, spell check and probably translator apps. right?

      can you read chinese?

      I can't but I can recongnise a symbol of tea pot!...

      the picture is better because the picture makes me want/see tea in every language and more than the written words in any language.. adn less typos.

      written words are mostly good for this kind of communication (arguing tee hee) .. but better would be live communicating ...with some pictionary supplies to make points faster.

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  12. Shoo Rayner

    logged in via Twitter

    What a fabulous article, Misty. I've just reposted it on my website www.shoorayner.com I've just written a book called Everyone Can Draw which espouses just these sentiments. Indeed, I begin by likening the act of writing to drawing. Both require the making of marks which represent something held in the imagination of the marker and the interpreter.

    I also have two drawing channels on YouTube - shooraynerdrawing and drawstuffrealeasy - which have hundreds of videos showing how to draw things. with over 20 million views, someone want to know how to draw!

    best wishes

    now to go a read more of your insights!
    Shoo Rayner

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