Tag Archives: Sky and Water I

Sky and water: visual literacy with very young learners

This post reflects on a series of lessons I recently had with a group of 8 year-old 3rd graders. The lessons aimed at enriching alphabet and word learning with a visual literacy component.  

In the Greek state school, 3rd grade is when the formal EFL programme starts. It is formal in the sense that it aims at the development of students’ language proficiency. In the first two years of primary school, students are attending a curriculum which introduces them to the oral mode of foreign language and tries to develop their social literacies.


It all started when we encountered letter F. In the coursebook, letters are presented as initials of particular words (e.g. F for fish and fishbowl) and there are rhymes that contain repetitions of the particular letter/sound relation in a meaningful or funny context. There is also visual input designed for each rhyme to facilitate comprehension and memorization. In the coursebook, letter F is dealt as follows:

coursebook excerpt

It was at that point when one of the students pointed enthusiastically to the classroom door saying: “A family of fish, like that!”. He had noticed an artwork on the classroom door. Then, another student noticed the birds while a third one thought the changing pattern in the fish as we move downwards was a sign of their aging. These interesting reactions gave me the idea of this lesson which was completed in three teaching sessions.

The artwork on the classroom door

Sky and water I

The artwork on the classroom door is Sky and Water I a woodcut print, by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, first printed in 1938. Birds and fish fit into each other like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each element is alternately foreground or background, depending on whether the eye concentrates on light or dark elements.

The aims of the first session were to

  • encourage visual literacy micro-skills (careful viewing, analyzing)
  • encourage early word identification and recognition (birds, water, sky, in the)
  • practise saying a short rhyme related to the artwork
  • watch an animated version of the artwork
  • encourage body gesture to facilitate comprehension and memorization
  • have students exposed to and observe carefully a series of other multimodal resources (word clouds, letter tessellations, logos)
  • recognize previously taught words and letters in the word clouds and tessellations
  • practise uncovering the hidden message in the logos
  • complete a worksheet with relevant activities

I first projected the artwork on the classroom board. They were happy to see it in a bigger size.

Sky and Water I, M.C.Escher 1938

I pointed at the different elements in the artwork and elicited the words ‘fish’ and ‘birds’. I wrote these on the board. We then added before each word ‘a family of’. Next, after each phrase (a family of fish/birds) was heard in the classroom, I asked ‘Where?’ and we came up with the words ‘water’ and ‘sky’. I also jotted these down as well as ‘in the’. We tried this four or five times alternating among whole class response, individual response, and then whole class response again.

I reminded them of the little rhyme we had encountered in the coursebook during our previous class. I prompted them to adjust it to the artwork. Our new rhyme went like this:

A family of fish, of fish

in the water.

A family of birds, of birds

in the sky.

We added some rhythmic clapping. By now they were all very excited.

I then showed them a very nice short animation of the artwork.

M.C. Escher: Sky and Water 1 – Animation

I divided the class into two groups: fish and birds. I turned the sound off. When each element appeared in the video, the relevant group chanted their part. The students enjoyed themselves enormously. I then asked them to chant it in a whispering mode. I also encouraged them to gesture accordingly, i.e. fish group pretended they were swimming, bird group pretended they were flying. Water was mimed by placing hands under our desks, sky by lifting them up. I gestured with them along the way. At the end of the animation we said ‘Goodbye birds, fly! Goodbye fish, swim!’ Students improvised gestures for ‘fly’ and ‘swim’. We had a great time. Students asked if they could watch the animation for a second time and repeat the activity. I turned sound on and we repeated the activity. Enthusiasm led us to a third time, too.

Tessellations, word clouds and logos with a hidden message

I then projected the artwork again and asked students to carefully observe its details. They noticed that there was no space between the fish and bird shapes. Escher’s work consists of geometric shapes that fill the plane with congruent forms in rhythmic repetition without leaving any void. These formations are called tessellations. Escher liked to play with positive and negative shapes. In Sky and Water I the birds at the top appear as positive space (a main subject), yet its shape is echoed in the dark negative shapes between the fish.  Likewise, the positive shape of the fish at the bottom has its shape repeated in the white spaces between the birds. I invited a couple of students to the board and had them outline the fish or bird shape hiding in the negative spaces.

I also showed them some letter tessellations. They identified the letters, we talked about the colours, how the letters appeared face downwards and face upwards covering all the surface.

We then had a look at two word clouds. I invited individual students to the board to trace the words in them. In every slide we repeated the relevant part of our rhyme.

To end the first session we had a look at a selection of logos with a hidden message. Apart from the last logo, these were of products found in the Greek market.

Toblerone logo

In the Toblerone logo some students saw a fish and a bird. I initially thought they were influenced by the previous activity so I invited these students to the board to trace the shape they had seen. Then, the first student traced the left leg of the bear and it did look like a fish swimming upwards while the second student traced the little shape right next to it which again did look like a bird flying. I told them they were right about the shapes and prompted them to look again carefully in case they could see something bigger. It was then that some of the students saw the bear hiding in Toblerone’s logo. I told them the story behind this logo.

LG logo

Most of the students ‘saw’ the face hiding in LG’s logo. One of them said ‘it’s Pacman’ while another said ‘Life is good’. Many students said that had LG products at home. Another student wanted to draw the full face so I invited him to the board. He added the other eye and two little dots under L to indicate the nostrils.

Hope for African Children Initiative logo

Almost all the students saw the child looking up to an adult hiding behind the ‘Hope for African Children Initiative’ logo. I was initially taken by surprise since when I first looked at it I focussed on the map of Africa. But then I thought that my young learners were not familiar with world maps so they immediately focussed on the shapes of the people. Some students recognized the word Africa(n) in the logo and one said children are hungry and suffer there. We talked a bit about the need to protect children in that place and the message of the logo.

At the end of the first session students were given a worksheet to complete as homework activity (see downloadable material below).

My hidden message or image

In the second session, I asked students to reflect on the previous class, work in groups and: create an image with a hidden message, or form a word cloud using words we had already encountered.

In the third session groups presented their images to their classmates who tried to guess the hidden image or message. They described and explained what they had created. L1 was used by the students for the descriptions. L2 was used for single items in their images that the students knew the English word for. For every image, I offered and asked them to repeat new key words while we revisited words we already knew.

My aims during these two sessions were to

  • encourage students’ visual literacy micro-skills (visual thinking, and visual representing) through selecting and creating an image to convey meaning
  • encourage their creative non verbal expression
  • recycle previously taught vocabulary
  • encourage oral vocabulary acquisition through students’ work
  • practise repeating single words spoken slowly and clearly

The students worked in groups. When ready, the groups showed their images to their classmates who tried to guess the hidden image or message. They described and explained what it was and why they had made it. For every image, I offered and asked them to repeat new key words while we revisited words we already knew. 

Free fish

The group who had made this wanted to convey the message that fish should not be kept in fishbowls. They had asked me for the word ‘free’ as they were working on their image. (new key word: free – known words: fish, fishbowl)

Sad mountain

This is a sad mountain, students said. It’s sad because the water at its foot is dirty. Their answer to why this is so was that people throw rubbish in it. (new key words: mountain, sad, brown, rubbish – known word: water)

A snake-cow hat

This is a hat, but if you look carefully it’s also a snake that has swallowed a cow, students said. They had asked for the word hat while working. (new key words: snake, cow, hat, green)

The shark who has eaten too much

This is a shark who has eaten fish, grass, birds, rabbits, grandpa, a family. A very big shark with many things in his belly, students explained. (new key words: shark, grandpa, rabbit, grass – known words: bird, fish, family)

Mrs Nature

Mrs Nature is happy when there are flowers and trees and sad when there is nothing. Students said that people make Mrs Nature sad when they destroy trees and flowers. (new key words: happy, flowers, trees)

A word cloud for letter C

Students in this group created their own impression of a word cloud based on one of the previous letters we had learned (C) and a relevant short rhyme about a cat on a computer.

Wrapping it up

This series of lessons is a step beyond my comfort zone, a departure from my work with older primary school students which dominates the posts on this site. It signals an attempt to expand my experimentation, insight and knowledge of themes that are very close to my heart, i.e art, visual literacy, making meaning, and creativity in the English language classroom. Language input, activity design, appropriacy and variation all had to be viewed under a new light taking into consideration a group of very young learners whose needs are very different from my usual older students. I feel really happy to have tried it and to share my insight here because it has been a new learning experience for me, as well.  

During these sessions I was struck by the children’s enthusiasm and engagement upon their exposure to a variety of multimodal ensembles (the artwork, the animated video, the letter tessellations, the word clouds, the logos, the written text) and activities. This echoes relevant literature that variation is a sine qua non when working with very young learners. I was also fascinated to observe how 8 year olds hone their viewing, analyzing and decoding skills as the visual, the verbal, and the gestural interweave and how all these are in a direct conversation with memorization and comprehension. 

I was finally struck by their readiness to embark on a creative process. As their visual thinking and visual representation were put into force, they further built an understanding of the meaning behind their images through perception and imagination. It was interesting that in half of the groups a social awareness thread could be identified (free fish, sad mountain, Mrs Nature) and how they chose to relate their images to the social environment. It was also a surprise to see humour in their work (the shark who has eaten too much). 

The experience has certainly whetted my appetite for further exploration of this approach. 

How about you? Have you ever tried anything similar with your very young learners? I would love to hear about it. 

Downloadable material

Escher worksheet

Tessellations, word clouds, logos ppt


Avgerinou, M.D. (2002) A Review of the Concept of Visual Literacy. British Journal of Educational Technology, 28(4):280-291.

Dendrinos, B. (ed) (2013) The ‘PEAP’ Programme: English for Young Learners in the Greek Primary School”

Escher, Sky and Water I

13 famous logos with hidden messages