Monday, July 26, 2010

IN PICTURES AND IN WORDS: An Interview with Katie Wood Ray

If you have not had a chance to read Katie Wood Ray's new book, IN PICTURES AND IN WORDS: TEACHING THE QUALITIES OF ILLUSTRATION THROUGH ILLUSTRATION STUDY, it is a must read. As always, Katie has given us new things to think about when it comes to our writing classrooms. Her message is always about student ownership, teaching with intention and giving students the tools they need to be decision-makers in their writing.

I have been thinking a lot about what writing is today. There are so many ways to communicate messages. I worry that when we talk about 21st Century Literacy, we think that the inclusion of technology tools is the goal. Really, I think it is bigger than that. I think it is about expanding our definitions of writing to composing, but in a way that includes what we know about the process of creating. Two people who have helped me think through this are Bud the Teacher and Kevin at Kevin's Meandering Mind. I think we are just beginning to think about what this all means for young children. How can we expand the possibilities for our students while using what we know about early literacy? I think what Katie has done in this book is brilliant. When I think of the talk around visual literacy and composing, Katie has nailed this idea for young children. As always, Katie's work is about helping kids be intentional about their work, and sharing possibilities with children so that they can make wise decisions about whatever it is they are writing/drawing/creating. I was struck as I read this because I see the transfer of conversations with our youngest writers being very powerful. What they can learn through illustration study will help them create meaningful pieces no matter what the tools or format. To me, that's the key.

I had a chance to interview Katie about her new work. Her insights are brilliant, as always!

Franki: Your focus in all of your writing on helping students be intentional is one of my favorite things about your work. Students as decision-makers is key and I love the focus on illustrations for this one. Do you see illustration study as a separate unit of study or something that would be part of every piece throughout the school year?

Katie: Both. It certainly can stand alone as its own unit of study - we've studied it in Lisa Cleaveland's classes for years as its own study. But what happens is, after that initial study, talking about the illustrator's decision making becomes just a natural part of how books are studied in writing workshop, and it becomes a part of every future study as well.

Franki: How did you get interested in illustration study?

Katie: These last few years, spending so much time conferring with kindergarten and first grade writers, I just realized how much thinking there is that goes into the composition of a picture - especially for some children. I would marvel at it, really. And then more and more I began to think about what it would mean to get behind that thinking, name it and support it, and help them engage in it even more deeply. The desire to do that led me to study illustrations much more carefully, much as I did when I was first learning about the written craft of language. The more I studied illustrations, the better able I was to help children imagine new possibilities in their composition work around pictures.

Franki: How do you see illustration study supporting all students as writers?

Katie: When teachers teach into the composition aspect of children's illustration work, children are gaining valuable experience with all the processes of composing - planning, drafting, revising, editing. To experience this kind of compositional thinking in a parallel context no doubt supports the same kind of thinking in a different context - with written text. Also, as I try to make the case in the second half of the book, children can be introduced to many key qualities of good writing in the context of illustration study.

Franki: What have you found about students that struggle with writing? How does illustration study support them?

Katie: For many of them, it gives them a way to more fully express their meaning (as it does with all writers), and this can be very liberating for them. There is this idea that language is something you can either get right or wrong, and most children and adults don't have this same idea about illustrating, so this is what is so freeing about it. Of course, some children don't feel very confident as illustrators either, and in this case, they have to be supported to celebrate and understand the role of approximation in learning both illustrating and writing.

Franki: You brilliantly mention 21st Century literacies early in the book. Explain how you see illustration study as fitting into the bigger goals of 21st Century Literacy.

Katie: I believe that if the teaching focus is on composing - making meaning with whatever tools you have at your disposal (written text being just one of those tools) - we do a much better job of preparing children to make meaning in a world where tools and means for communication will likely be changing throughout their lives, as they have throughout ours. It's all about composing, really, and illustration study is just another avenue for teaching into this valuable thinking process.

Franki: How do you think a study like this is different for young children (K/1) than it is for older children (2nd/3rd)?

Katie: I just think it would get more and more sophisticated as children move along in their development, much as a writing study grows and gets more sophisticated with children over time. For example, Kindergartners and 3rd graders might both be studying how to write engaging informational text, but the study of it and the products students produce will be more sophisticated the further along in their development children progress. I also believe that as children develop and move through school, illustration study can eventually move out of picture books and into other kinds of texts in the world that are a mix of the visual and the verbal - magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.

Franki: You include 40+ Techniques Worth Teaching in the book. Can you talk about these - why you think they are important, how you think teachers might use them, etc.?

Katie: They're important because in naming them, they will help people see so much more in illustrations than they might currently see, because once you start noticing, you can't help but notice more and more. And of course, every illustration decision you can name and articulate its use becomes a meaning-making possibility you might offer a child. In teaching, I'm a strong believer that knowledge is power, and this section was written to empower teachers. By naming all these techniques, I hope I created a valuable resource for teachers to grow their own knowledge base about the decisions illustrators make when they compose with pictures. I also tried to show how these decisions have very direct parallels to the decisions writers make when they compose.

Franki: I love the section on design and layout. Often we are quick about that piece of writing when working with kids. Why do you think that is an important part of the whole process - one worthy of time and intention?

Katie: Design is everything in the world of texts these days. We know that readers respond not just to the meaning of texts, but also to the look of them. Just think about how many have so totally designed what their email messages will look like - something as simple as that. Unfortunately I'm not one of those people (mine are kind of blah), but I love when I get a message that has nice color and a pleasant font, and a little meaningful symbol or saying tagged to it. Layout and design are just so critical.

To read more about Katie's book,

Katie will be presenting on her new work at NCTE's Annual Convention in Orlando in November.


  1. Thanks for the book review shout out and appreciate reading more insight from Katie directly. Our youngest students do put so much thought into illustrations, we have to listen.

  2. I've added Katie's book to my "must read before school starts" list. I so agree with everything she says. Spending time in first grade has broadened my thinking so much. I've always been amazed at the detail in young writers' illustrations and the thought that goes into them. Many of my ELL students rely on illustration as they gain English skills. Thanks for the great post.

  3. Thanks Franki for another lens through which to see and hear about Katie's work... I did an interview with her a few weeks ago on my blog as well. I think it would behoove all of us that are sincerely interesting in the work we do with young writers to pay close attention to her work... grounded in such rich mentorship, learning from and with the writers we admire. Here's to Katie and the amazing way she stretches our thinking. Here's to the rich field of learning in which she has couched her own look at the writing lives of children. Thanks for sharing more of her thinking with us!

  4. Wonderful Interview Franki! Love it, and loving this book as well! @ Julie: I agree with you, ELLs rely heavily on illustrations as they acquire more language to express themselves, that's why pictures are so powerful!!


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