Kenna Bourke, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, explores the benefits of using discussion posters with young children to aid learning, cognitive skills, and vocabulary development.
Sometime around the age of one to one and a half, I made an incredible discovery: speech! No longer was I just a helpless, gurgling baby making faces at my parents. Oh, no! I could now ask questions. How cool!
And not only could I ask questions, and get answers, but this new found skill gave me one Very Special Power: the ability to drive my parents crazy. I’m reliably informed that many conversations went something like this:
Me: What’s that?
Mum: It’s a table.
Me: Hmm. What’s that?
Dad: It’s a banana, but I think you know that.
Me: (grinning) What’s that?
Mum: You know perfectly well what it is.
Me: WHAT’S THAT?
Dad: It’s an elephant’s foot.
Me: (laughing uncontrollably) No, it’s not! It’s a book!
Sound familiar? I don’t think I can have been the only kid to use the ‘extreme interrogation technique’ for the sole purpose of testing my parents’ patience. It’s in the nature of children to ask questions – lots and lots of questions. That’s how we build basic vocabulary as children: we see something, we wonder what its name is, we point, we ask a question, and BANG! We get an answer. Then we store the image and answer, and the next time we see the object, we know what it is. Excellent.
The curiosity of a child is perhaps the best teaching tool we have. So how do we harness this natural thirst for knowledge?
Well, one way is through the power of the poster. These days we almost take posters for granted. Are they pretty decorative items that make our classrooms look bright and cheery? Yes, but … now it’s the adult’s turn to ask the question, ‘What’s that?’ Here are three things that posters are invaluable for:
Triggering critical thinking
Like me, you may have had an animal alphabet when you were a child. A is for antelope; G is for giraffe; Z is for zebra; X is a problem (!); and that helped you remember the letters of the alphabet. But posters don’t have to be limited to single word associations – they can help students connect concepts.
Think of a colour chart, for example. We can either put splodges of colour on a poster and print the words red, blue, yellow, and so on under the splodges, or we can use posters to go well beyond vocabulary acquisition by presenting a series of interlinked concepts, as in the poster to the right (click to download). In presenting concepts visually, we enable children to think more deeply and meaningfully about a topic. With a poster like this one, you could put students into pairs and ask them to give examples from their own experience and knowledge: where have they seen colours in nature? Have they ever made a colour? Is colour a good thing? What colourful animals can they name? Why might some animals be colourful? They then share their ideas with another pair.
We know that the cognitive process is enhanced by images. Just as with real physical objects, like books, tables, and bananas, images enable learners to recognize and recall, making it easier for them to internalize meaning and store that meaning in their memory banks. To this day, I clearly remember a poster in my history teacher’s classroom. It was a satirical image of a famous politician with a boiled egg instead of a head. And to this day, because of that image, I could tell you all about him.
A striking image stays imprinted on the memory. It acts as the foundation for a pattern of thoughts and memories – a story if you like – in much the same way that a few bars of music can conjure up memories many years later. Using any good poster, try giving students a minute to remember as much as they can. Then hide the poster or ask students to stand with their backs to it. What do they remember? Why do they remember that? What associations did they make with the image?
Posters have the power to make all students equal. Images free up the imagination and give everyone a voice. As a teacher, you can ask students to say what they see in the poster and there’s no wrong answer. Every answer is equally valid and everyone, from the loudest to the quietest, gets a chance to voice an opinion and react to what he or she sees. It’s very hard not to have some sort of reaction to a visual image (you may like what you see, or you may dislike it; it may provoke a thought or remind you of something) and this means that discussion happens naturally and effortlessly. Child A looking at a poster may see a boy and a girl, but Child B, looking at the same image, may see a family or friends.
With any image or poster you like, try asking students to brainstorm thoughts, words, feelings, or memories. One child may see a picture of a cloud, while another may see … an elephant’s foot. And who’s to say a cloud can’t be an elephant’s foot? My parents would say it can be!
Would you like more practical tips on developing communication and other 21st century skills with your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.