Picture It: A Drawing-Based Pre-Reading Activity

 2013_Heyer_Sandra Sandra Heyer
In the last newsletter, I shared drawing tips that make it possible for any teacher, even one as inept at drawing as I am, to convey meaning with simple sketches on the board. In this newsletter, I’ll share some ideas for making drawings the centerpiece of a pre-reading activity.
Many textbooks at the lowest levels have pre-reading drawings built right into the book. For example, each unit at the Very Easy and Easy levels in the True Stories reading series begins with comic-strip-style drawings like those below, which are from Unit 11 in All New Easy True Stories. (The story, titled “The Best Doctor,” is about a woman in Alaska whose knee problem was finally resolved after she was chased by a bear.)
Sandra_Heyer_Feb1Appropriately, textbooks beyond the entry levels do not give students the extensive visual support that picture-based readers do; however, I have found that students above the first levels still benefit from seeing just a few drawings before they read. Where do I find these drawings? I sketch them myself on the board, using drawing tips I learned from the late Norma Shapiro and from her resource book Chalk Talks. I’ve seen the positive effects of this picture-based approach so many times that now I always preview a reading selection with drawings.
How does the preview work? I simply tell students the beginning of the story they’re going to read, all the while drawing simple illustrations on the board. (I usually draw about five sketches.) For example, Unit 10 in the Beginning-level reader True Stories in the News, “Love or Baseball,” is about a guy named Joe who fakes a broken leg to get out of taking his girlfriend to a dance; he’s a baseball fan, and his favorite team is playing in the World Series the night of the dance. I set up the reading with sketches like these:
The key to this technique’s success is to tell just enough of the story to set the stage for the reading selection but stop short of giving the story ending away, ideally stopping at a “cliff-hanger” point. In the case of “Love or Baseball,” I don’t tell my students how Joe manages to fake a broken leg or how his scheme works out for him—they read the story to find out.
You might also want to try these variations of the basic technique:
Variation 1
Ask student volunteers to draw the pictures on the board. (Draw a man. Draw a baseball. Draw a calendar. Mark Saturday on the calendar. Draw the man’s girlfriend, etc.) Then point to the students’ drawings as you tell the beginning of the story. Having students draw the pictures really piques their interest—they are curious to see how their drawings are going to fit into the plot.
Variation 2
Instead of telling the actual story, invite students to invent their own version of it before they read by prompting them with speculative questions. (What’s his name? What’s his favorite sport? When is the championship game? Why can’t he watch it? What does he do?) Illustrate the students’ answers with drawings on the board as you go along. Then have students read the actual story to see how it compares with their invented version. In my class, students’ invented version of the story “Love or Baseball” was about a guy named Marco who couldn’t watch World Cup soccer because he had to work; he solves the problem by having his brother record the game for him.
Very recently I began experimenting with yet another version of this technique: pre-reading animated drawings I’ve posted on YouTube. These videos preview stories on my web site, Songs and Activities for English Language Learners. Although the animation makes the drawings a little fancier than those I draw on the board, Norma Shapiro’s influence is evident in the simplicity of their style. Here, for example, is the pre-reading video for the story behind Charlie Puth’s song “See You Again.”
I generally use drawings to preview reading selections in beginning through low-intermediate classes, but I have used drawings even with advanced-level university students to introduce the setting and characters of a novel. (The first time I tried it with students at that level, I found myself inwardly wincing—I feared they might be insulted. They weren’t. In fact, they were appreciative.) And although the technique lends itself best to introducing narrative writing, it can also be used effectively to introduce informative writing. (For examples, check out the popular UPS whiteboard ads of several years ago on YouTube.)
Earlier in this article, when I mentioned that I’d “seen the positive effects” of this technique many times, I meant that literally: I can see a change in my students’ body language and facial expressions after they view the drawings. When they open their books to read the written version of the material, their shoulders seem more relaxed, and there is no visible tension on their faces. They are often smiling or chuckling—or, if the visual introduction was a cliff-hanger, groaning.
Of course, this drawing-based pre-reading activity is not the only one that is effective—it is one of many to have in your toolbox. But if your students are a little apprehensive about reading in English, as mine are, it is a supremely useful tool.
Sandra Heyer is the author of the popular True Stories series. Each of the books in the series uses real-life, human-interest stories to build vocabulary and language skills through a carefully paced, step-by-step process.