Detail Detectives: Using picture book illustrations to develop confidence in writing – part 1

Picture books have always played a significant role in my teaching. From the initial days learning the ropes I began to use them to inspire writing and have never looked back. Even now, almost twenty years later, when I have the regular pleasure of teaching children, I use the power of picture books to inspire reading, writing and discussion. Since becoming active on Twitter in the summer, discussions with @smithsmm, @PaulWat5 and @f33lthesun, along with many of you out there,  have further inspired me to share today’s content.

A number of years ago, when working as a teaching and learning consultant, I began to explore the possibility of looking closely at the illustrations within picture books to help develop writing strategies and increase the practical aspect of writing development and, in particular, find ways of getting children to move away from the security of their table. When working with teachers, they also talked about the difficulty they often experienced: children seemed to be short of strategies to generate words when asked to write about the illustration in front of them when there appeared to be ‘too much to focus on.’  I was lucky enough at the time to work alongside @MrGsEmporium and @chris_litcons who were equally ambitious about the use of picture books in primary classrooms and we were forever looking for new ways of teaching ‘the same thing’.

The series of strategies I subsequently created became known as Detail Detectives because children became detectives to investigate an image in specific detail.  These were a series of ways in which children could develop their reader ‘eye’ by looking very closely at specific areas within an illustration to generate vocabulary, sentence structure and maybe even story structure rather than perhaps being overwhelmed with the whole image.

It is important to note that I am a very firm believer in modelled and shared writing; these are key strategies to use alongside Detail Detectives as well as the explicit teaching and discussion around specific vocabulary and sentence building.

I hope you find the strategies useful and think them worthy of adding to your writing toolkit.

Scientist Search

Using science-linked vocabulary, children look closely at the illustration to find, for example, ‘Solids and liquids’. After listing the solids and liquids in the scene, they may then develop sentences to describe them. This may be followed by another search but with a different focus.

scientist search


Children may work individually, in pairs or a group initially on this strategy but the aim is that a whole class may be involved in the final product. The illustration (in this example, from Levi Pinfold’s The Django) is segmented into a jigsaw and may be displayed on screen to support. Alternatively, and perhaps to have more impact, the children may only see the jigsaw piece they are given. A blank grid structure (without the image) could also be created on the table/classroom or hall floor/playground using masking tape/chalk. Children look closely at their own piece and develop vocabulary to describe what they can see. All of these ideas are then placed on the large grid on the floor. Children may then magpie ideas from other pieces to include in their own piece of writing to describe the whole scene.


Plot, Spot and Jot 

Similar to Jigsaw, for Plot, Spot and Jot children instead are given a co-ordinate for their focus. In the example below, (9,5) is the chosen co-ordinate and children develop vocabulary/sentences that describe that space alone. Again, a grid could be created on the floor space to enable children to get up and move to that area and share/collect ideas using post-its.  Like Jigsaw, certain areas within an illustration may be easier to generate ideas for than others, which could provide its own exciting challenge. What a challenge it would be to describe the grass using personification, for example.

plot, spot and jot.png


Beehive places more emphasis on a specific instruction linked to vocabulary and helps to develop a wider awareness of the tools available for children as writers. Children may be given a blank grid mirroring one which may be displayed on screen, as in this example from Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival. There are endless possibilities for what could be expected in each box depending on the needs of the child at that point.
beehiveSense Buttons

Create sense buttons (like the ones illustrated below) that children can move around the image. They ‘press’ the button wherever they like and then think about what they could see, hear, smell, touch or taste at that point, depending on which button they are in control of. This is always fun in pairs when the other child has control on where the sense button is pressed.

sense buttons


Children start from any given point on the illustration but then have to move in a particular direction. For instance, in the example below, the character’s journey North would be a very different journey to the one East. Children gather vocabulary to describe the journey before generating sentences. Imagine the journey as the character moves North across the field, climbs down the cliff, along the pebbled beach and into a boat across the sea to the lighthouse under the moon…


Part 2 will follow soon. Please do DM me via Twitter if you wish for more guidance or ideas linked to Detail Detectives. Thank you for reading.

MrD:HT (@KarlDuke8)


Discovering Twitter and finding a place on the shelf

Sometimes working in a solitary capacity in school can make you feel like a book without a reader to open the pages and release your words. It can be a lonely place on that shelf.

Towards the end of an extremely busy but fulfilling second year as a TEACHER (who happens to be a head!), I discovered Twitter. I’d flirted a little in the previous few months without really ‘getting it’, as I’d always scoffed at the hashtagging this and @ting that. Then, in those final few weeks of the term I began to spend a little more time learning the ropes. A world I didn’t fully appreciate was hiding behind the hashtag, someone inspiring and like-minded was sharing amazing ideas behind the @.

From the perspective of my career, I’d made a move to take my first headship and to be closer to home. The school, which was in significant need of improvement, provided a challenge I needed and in the next two years we created a more positive culture between all stakeholders. Children were now the focus of everything. Oh, and we also had a successful SIAMs in 2017 and a positive Ofsted earlier this year but to me they will never be the priority.

And, I was missing something. I love my job and I love seeing the progress children make in both their learning and social and emotional journeys. Things were good…

…but I was missing something.

I worked as a consultant for a number of years supporting schools through the school improvement process. Days were spent running courses or (more enjoyably) working with middle leaders and class teachers on the use of film and picture books. We planned units of work which were exciting and incorporated aspects of the curriculum in wonderful ways. We spent hours looking at picture books and children’s literature to make links. I was part of the team that delivered Talk for Writing training to the area, using wonderful books like Tuesday and Where the Wild Things Are. I was one of the first teachers to introduce The Arrival to the county all those years ago and had the stage to do so through consultancy.

I knew what I was missing.

Sharing and discussing. Sharing and discussing books.

Now, as a head, those opportunities to share a love of books appeared restricted with the day to day expectations of the role. It could still be lonely on that shelf.

Until those weeks just before the summer.

When I discovered Twitter.

The summer that followed transformed how I think and how I work. I may not have thousands of followers (actually, I’m not too interested in that aspect though I’d be lying if seeing the numbers rise doesn’t give a little buzz) but the impact has come through those I follow. I am learning everyday through interacting with so many like-minded educationalists who love learning, love books, love sharing and love educating our children. A positive community exists which has transformed the way I think. I could name so many teachers, librarians, teaching assistants, headteachers and, wonderfully, authors who have been a brilliant inspiration to me in the last couple of months. If I follow you, it is likely that you have made me think. A lot. Thank you.

Twitter brings us together, breaks down barriers of leadership, and puts us all on the same bookshelf. I like being on that bookshelf.

I may be a head, but I am a TEACHER, and Twitter has revitalised me.

mrdht (@KarlDuke8)