Understanding Image-Making as Composition

Understanding Image Making as Composition via Wonder Teacher

Photo Credit: Mosieur J. via Flickr, CCL 2012

Today I enjoyed a rare fine-dining lunch experience with my friend Beth, a wonderful teacher and arts integration expert. It was so nice to:

1) Each lunch in a restaurant like a real grown-up (as opposed to in a school cafeteria or standing at my counter wolfing down fistfuls of Wheat Thins while I check my Facebook page between loads of laundry.)

2) Talk “shop” with a kindred teaching spirit.  Like me, Beth is passionate about effective teaching and loves to support teachers as they strive to integrate the arts into the curriculum. She is incredibly knowledgable and I got some great tips on doing meaningful work in schools with faculties who are pursuing an arts focus.

As we parted ways, she asked me for my best professional book recommendation of the moment. Without hesitation, I replied, “In Pictures and In Words by Katie Wood Ray.” For someone who is interested in the art + writing connection, this book is a must.

Driving home, I realized that sharing the book here was a natural “next post” for Wonder Teacher in light of my previous posts on the dual nature of arts integrated lessons and empowering children’s writing by having them illustrate first.

After I devoured Beth Olshansky’s book The Power of Pictures (discussed yesterday), I blasted through her sample lessons based on the books ,Owl Moon, The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, Grandfather Twilight, and Wild Horse Winter.

In Pictures and In Words by Katie Wood Ray Then I stalled. Even with my background in integrating the visual arts, I struggled to know how to proceed. What other picture books would be best to use? What lessons should I pull out of the images and words? I wasn’t sure of my next step.

Enter Katie Wood Ray. If you are a writing teacher, it is likely that you have heard of Katie Wood Ray- she is one of the leading national experts on effective writing instruction. She is known as a literacy leader- not an arts integration guru. So, I was a little surprised to find that her book, In Pictures and In Words, was heavily focused on visual art. (Pleasantly surprised of course!)

Just as Olshansky framed her work with a simple question- “What happens if children create images before they write?” Ray framed her work around a similar question, “What if children were introduced to key qualities of good writing in the context of illustrations?” The resulting research and teaching led to In Pictures and In Words.

Again, there is a great deal of solid substance to the book and you really need to read it for yourself. However, here are some of my favorite points:

  • Ray states that writing and image-making are both powerful ways to communicate ideas/ information and make meaning. One “sign system” can inform and strengthen the other. (She also notes that 21st century children will need to be fluent in both sign systems to communicate effectively in the future.)
  • Illustrators and authors go through the same mental process when creating their work. It is the composition process. Both must think and gather ideas, plan, try things out, make changes, fix mistakes, and ultimately manipulate their selected tool (words or images) to effectively communicate meaning.
  • “Forward-thinking teachers” (I love that descriptor!) “can support children’s growth as writers by simultaneously nurturing the process of illustration.” In other words- quit rushing them away from drawing and into words! Both systems are powerful meaning-making systems. Struggling writers can often communicate their ideas through images better than they can through words, and in the meantime they will learn about the composition process, eventually applying that understanding to their writing.
  • Building stamina for creative work is a critical goal. In order for a child to become proficient in anything (writing, reading, sports, a foreign language, etc.) they must develop stamina to work over a period of time, day after day, returning to the work again and again to add, enhance, and refine. This is an essential part of the learning process. When we frequently give children assignments that can be completed in a 40 minute class period, we are not helping them learn stamina.
  • One of my favorite parts of the book comes in Chapter 4 when Ray talks about an essential habit of mind; learning to “read like writers.” She quotes one of my favorite columnists, Leonard Pitts Jr., who learned a phrase from his teenage sons: “game knows game.” In other words, people in pursuit of a goal always recognize its fulfillment in others. Good teachers always notice the powerful teaching practices of their peers. Writers notice a well-crafted sentence. Basketball players appreciate a good play differently than a casual observer. Game knows game. We need to teach our young writers to recognize “good game” as they read books.

There is much more Ray has to say on this subject, and she’s a great writer herself. Her book is easy and pleasurable to read.

The bottom line is that Ray recommends teaching children to “notice” and understand the elements of good composition in picture books -both in the images and the words- in order to empower their own composition work. She then advocates that we give children the freedom and opportunity to create their own books (valuing both picture and words) in order to develop their work as writers.

Ray devotes the second half of the book to sharing 50 illustration techniques commonly used by children’s book illustrators. She titled the section, “Fifty Illustration Techniques and the Qualities of Good Writing they Suggest.” For example, Technique #6 is “Using Scenes to Capture the Passage of Time.” Sometimes an illustrator will show a series of smaller scenes on one page to show the passing of time. She shares examples of this technique in children’s book art and then connects it to writing. An author might write a series of sentences to cover a large expanse of time quickly. This is found in Mary Ann Hoberman’s The Seven Silly Eaters. Children are born and grow up quickly over several pages. Here is an excerpt from the text that demonstrates this technique, “Now Lucy grew and Peter grew- Til he was three and she was two. And who was one? Why, little Jack- With eyes so brown and hair so black- A happy baby, never cross, But all he’d eat was applesauce…”

In Pictures and In Words was exactly what I needed to fuel my “illustrations first” Writing/Artist’s Workshop. I now have the ability to pick up any children’s picture book and immediately notice the techniques employed by both the author and illustrator to create meaning. I can then teach those techniques to my students and invite them to try them out using Olshansky’s process of “pictures first.” It’s a powerful combination!

I will be sharing these kinds of lessons frequently here on Wonder Teacher. Stay tuned!




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  1. I love this post – definitely something to remember when transitioning my kids from art only to writing their stories as well. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  2. Carol Cook says:

    How did I miss this one?? So glad I noticed it this evening. I love this book, too! Our young writers truly seem to be “reading like writers” …or listening to read alouds like writers. THANKS, Susan!

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