Fiona Maine will speak about her literacy education research on wordless books and films at this year's Hay Festival.

Making meanings together, through questioning, imagining and offering alternative perspectives helps children to think together and understand each other.

Fiona Maine

We live in an increasingly visual age - a world of instagram, 24-hour news, mindmaps and infographics, with images often being more powerful than words. It is a world where stories happen in many forms, visual, moving image and digital, something which educationalists say offers an exciting opportunity to develop children’s literacy skills.

For Fiona Maine, senior lecturer in literacy education at the University of Cambridge, complex, ambiguous, picturebooks and short films have the potential to act as springboards for children’s critical and creative discussions about the world and our relationship with those around us. She will be talking about her research into children’ responses to different visual narratives as part of the Cambridge Series at this year’s Hay Festival in June.

Maine says visual texts can allow people to create their own stories, filling in the gaps in meaning as they create their own verbal narratives. As many of these texts are open to interpretation, children’s creativity and imagination are stimulated as they construct and sometimes co-construct meanings together.

As part of her talk at Hay, entitled ‘Beyond words: exploring the magic of visual texts’, Maine will show video footage of young children, drawing attention to  the language they use to make meaning from a famous painting. Their language is filled with ‘could bes’ and ‘maybes’. “It is the language of creative thinking, a language that affords possibility”, says Maine. “It’s where the magic happens as we imagine what is possible and what could be.”  

Maine says visual texts can allow children to grapple with complicated ideas and multiple meanings. “Children have a rich understanding of narrative often through their engagement with film and other popular forms of text. The ambiguity of wordless books and films appeals to children’s curiosity. They are motivating to engage with. They can deliver very precise messages and also be deliberately ambiguous.” Importantly, the worlds they represent can be highly immersive and Maine’s research has also investigated the ways that children entangle themselves in visual story worlds, not just films and picturebooks, but also in narrative video games.

Tolerance and empathy through visual texts

Currently Maine is principal investigator and leader of the EC Horizon 2020 project Dialogue and Argumentation for cultural Literary Learning in Schools [DIALLS]. The project, which runs from May 2018 until April 2021, explores what educational research, policy-making and practice can do to support young people “to develop a deep awareness and understanding of European multiculturalism and diversity of heritages, to integrate this in a pluralistic view of European identity and to help them enact this awareness in their own dispositions and behaviours.”

It is a large-scale initiative involving nine universities from across Europe and one in Israel which have close networks of partnership schools (pre-primary, primary and secondary) in a range of urban and rural contexts. The aim is to set up educational face-to-face and online environments as spaces of tolerance, inclusion and empathy where students can share their perspectives and creative responses to different wordless picturebooks and short films as they make sense of Europe and its different cultures.  

Wordless texts offer a unique potential for these discussions as they can be accessed in their original form by children and teachers across Europe without translation. The project has uncovered a varied and rich selection of films and books produced from different European countries which act as valuable cultural resources. Maine will share some of these resources in her Hay talk and demonstrate how they have been developed to support classroom discussions around themes such as social responsibility, sustainable development and living together.

Maine’s research  highlights that people draw different meanings from texts as they read them, depending on their individual socio-cultural contexts. She particularly examines the value of engaging with texts together. She argues: “Literacy is a social practice which enables us to interact with each other. Making meanings together, through questioning, imagining and offering alternative perspectives helps children to think together and understand each other.”

She adds: “The aim of my talk at the Hay Festival is to demonstrate the potential of rich and challenging visual texts to promote creativity, sensitivity and inter-subjective understanding for living together in our image-laden world.”


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