• The Drawing Network: Bob Steele

  • I am a retired associate Professor of art education at the University of British Columbia and I have devoted much of my retirement to a grassroots organisation I founded, The Drawing Network.

    The purpose was to proselytize the notion that children:

    Use drawing as a language medium
    That drawing for children and young people is a strong aid to gaining literacy.

    Drawing as language: A bare bones rationale.

    A definition of language: “Any symbol through which perceptions, thoughts, and feelings can be articulated, expressed and communicated.” These functions are fulfilled through spontaneous drawing but not through colouring books, formula art, or “directed drawing”. Language is the hallmark of authentic child art.

    The benefits of language: Intellectual development, learning, mental health, communication, and social integration. Drawing fulfills each abundantly. There are limitations to drawings effective use:

      1) practical exchanges at home, school and on the playground;
      2) discursive language in the realm of abstract ideas.

    The disadvantage of words, the advantage of drawing: literacy requires mastering codes: drawing is without code. Writing requires years of formal and informal teaching and learning: drawing is the universal language of childhood. Spontaneity in the use of words is prevented by the need to learn vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and correct usage and yet mental development, learning, emotional health, and social integration require it. (“Spontaneity” refers to the integrated forces of the preconscious: all language is a balanced interaction of conscious and preconscious mental activities.) In the early years when the foundations of intellectual and emotional development are at their most critical stage, words alone are not up to the task. Drawing is.

    Children use drawing to articulate, express, and communicate their subtlest, most intellectually complex, and most emotional cathartic perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

    Drawing and literacy: Drawing is a boon to literacy because it leads children into new and unexplored areas of subject matter, thus enlarging the arena of verbal expression. Conversation and writing are greatly stimulated. Used generously, drawing is the advance guard of vocabulary and syntax.

    The responsibility of caring adults: drawing requires their active involvement, but because there is no code, the adult role is to motivate, not to “teach”. Drawing-as-language should be a daily experience in preschool, kindergarten, primary, and middle school. It contributes to learning in language arts, science, and social studies, and provides a foundation for authentic expression in other art media. As well, time should be given for free drawing for its contribution to mental health.

    How Daily Drawing Helps Children Achieve Literacy: A Common Sense View

    Children are born with a potential for two languages, not one, as is commonly thought. The spoken word is a first step towards verbal literacy (oral expression, writing, and reading); the “named” scribble begins a journey towards graphic literacy.

    Drawing, a spontaneous uncoded language, provides a medium for articulation and expression. While the verbal codes of literacy are being internalized, drawing is the primary medium for all language values except practical communication, in other words for expressing subtle and complex perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

    In recent years a growing number of researchers, early childhood specialists, teachers, and parents have observed that literacy and drawings are intimately connected, mutually supportive. And yet while literacy is a major focus of educational reform, drawing and its relationship to literacy is still more or less ignored.

    The first example of word/image symbiosis comes with the recognition of a familiar object in random mark-making: pointing to a circle she had noticed in her scribbled drawing, two-year-old Mary said to her mother, “Grandpa’s peach!”

    With the deliberate representation of things, persons, events, natural phenomena and so on (about age two), and words are never absent. Orally they are linked to drawing in the following ways:

      1) in predrawing conversation with parents, siblings, friends and teachers;
      2) as interior monologue while drawing, inaudible or half-heard;
      3) as post drawing conversations.

    The relationship of drawing to writing begins with the child’s early interest in alphabet letters and how they combine to make words and relate to graphic representations. At every stage of printing and writing, drawing is prime motivator. Either on the child’s own volition or stimulated by adults, words, sentences, and paragraphs share space with drawings or they may occupy another sheet. Drawing motivates writing; writing motivates drawing.

    “Grandpa’s peach” illustrates how drawing builds vocabulary. When it moves beyond simple representation and becomes complex story telling, syntactical thinking occurs in the process and in discussions about the drawing. This is the precursor of syntax!

    The following Pamphlets are currently available from The Drawing Network: No charge but a donation to cover printing and mailing would be welcome. (Cheque to University of British Columbia)

    • Daily Drawing at Home and School
    • Drawing as Language
    • What we can learn from children’s drawing
    • Madge writes a letter about teaching line drawing to post-naives
    • Hand shaped angels versus the real thing
    • Madge on drawing, speaking and writing in Social Studies
    • How daily drawing helps children gain literacy
    • A stand on colouring books and formula art
    • Intellect and feeling as children integrate them in their drawings
    • Drawing from observation: A worksheet.
top ^
    Bob Steele
    Associate Professor (Emeritus)
    University of British Columbia

    Correspondence to:
    Bob Steele
    3853 West 15th Ave.
    Vancouver, B.C.
    V6R 3AL