The art of expression

Then power of the written word is immense. This collection of poetry in local languages provides inspiration for young learners at Primiti school in Bangalore

The power of the written word is immense. This collection of poetry in local languages provides inspiration for young learners at Primiti school in Bangalore


This collage communicates the characteristics of a peepal tree every bit as well as I could do in words

This collage communicates the characteristics of a peepal tree every bit as well as I could do in words

I love words. This has undoubtedly come about in part as the result of the inspiration of at least two outstanding teachers. I say at least two, because I am sure that others made a significant contribution to my enthusiasm for the spoken and written word. Mrs Evans (I never knew her first name, though we referred to her with an irreverent affection as Faggy Maggie because of her habit of chain smoking) and John Passey instilled in me a love of literature and books in general that has served me well over the years. The great authors and poets have been constant companions as have the writers of history, philosophy and assorted essays. The gift of reading given to me by my earliest teachers was reinforced by those who came later and tried to provide me with a more critical and discerning approach to books. This was a gift indeed, through reading Tolstoy I have been transported to nineteenth century Russia, by Mahfouz to the grimy back alleys of Cairo, Kenzaburo Oe has given me insights into the Japanese psyche and of course Narayan, Desai and Anand painted pictures of Indian village life in my imagination long before I visited India. I remember a time when occasionally I would see stickers in the rear windows of cars that stated “if you can read this, thank a teacher”. I certainly thank mine for the opportunities and pleasure that the written word has given to me.

It is a fact that many children struggle with words. Some find reading and writing to be a major challenge and often as a result of this they struggle to gain access to other learning. Every culture values the written word and an acquired competence in reading has become the key to gaining knowledge and information in our education systems. This is as true today in an age of digital technology as it ever has been through the era of the printed text and it remains the case that those children who struggle with reading are likely to be classified as poor learners. Many authoritative texts advocating approaches to the teaching of reading have been produced over the years. Early in my teaching career books, some of which like Tansley’s Reading and Remedial Reading became educational classics, were a source of inspiration and support as I attempted to address the needs of seemingly reluctant readers. But it remains a fact that despite my best endeavours some of my pupils gained nothing more than a basic understanding of the written word. Some could certainly be moved by words and demonstrated a love of stories or poetry when they were read to them. But their ability to progress to that desired state of competent independent reader appeared sadly limited. As a teacher I was often frustrated, but I hope, equally sympathetic.

Whilst we live in a literate world where the word continues to dominate, it is important that we recognise that there are other important means of expression that can, in some instances, convey meaning with equal if not greater power than words. Why is it that some educators are reluctant to accept that for some children who struggle with the written word alternative modes of communication may be just as valid? For some the expression available through music or dance is every bit as empowering as the written page. Indeed in some instances the presentation of a drawn image may be in every way equal to the well-constructed paragraph, and a collage may depict more emotion than most writers can manage in a page of text. My colleague Jean Edwards demonstrates this admirably by producing a blog based around a daily drawing. I would urge you to visit her work at . An example from her collection of sketches is provided at the foot of this blog entry. Jean is an articulate, thoughtful, well read and effective communicator and teacher but on this site she demonstrates why as teachers we would do well to pay attention to a range of means of expression.

The London born artist Stephen Wiltshire is a fine exponent of the art of cityscapes. As a child he was described as non-communicative because he never used spoken language. Diagnosed as autistic he was labelled with the classical characteristics of this condition that include poor communication, an inability to empathise and a lack of sociability. By the age of seven, teachers had recognised that he had a talent for drawing and at the age of eight he was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath to make a drawing of Salisbury cathedral. In recent years Wiltshire has been acknowledge as one of the most talented artists of his generation with collections of his works such as Floating Cities and American Dream gaining significant acclaim from some of the world’s leading art critics. You can find more detail about Stephen Wiltshire and his art at

Had teachers not recognised and publicised Stephen Wiltshire’s talent as an artist and especially his ability to communicate through drawing, he may well have been known more for his label of autism than for his significant contribution to the interpretation of buildings and cities. So, when we talk about children and young people with communication difficulties, perhaps we might reflect upon the fact that it may not be their difficulty to express themselves that is at fault. It is equally possible that it could be our lack of ability to understand.


This is one of Jean Edwards' many fine drawings that can be seen on her blog. Contact details given above in the text

This is one of Jean Edwards’ many fine drawings, “Winter Tree at Sunset” (2014) that can be seen on her blog. Contact details given above in the text

Thanks to Jean Edwards for permission to use this picture here.

8 thoughts on “The art of expression

  1. Hi Richard,

    I enjoyed this beautifully written and insightful post and your homage to words. Thank you also for Jean Edward’s wonderful resource.

    I am also a lover of words. The rewards are immeasurable when teaching and words can be combined. Even more when the joy of teaching can be conveyed and illustrated by succinctly crafted expression and research.

    Stephen Wiltshire’s work is a mining of such gold but in a visual form. His work among others is part of my introduction to lectures on Autism. His interpretation of cityscapes and sky lines are thought provoking and magnificent. His work is also helpful as part of my effort to teach to the senses, where the emphasis may be on the visual sense as a dominant mode of learning. I ask students “What does he see?”

    What is sometimes challenging is assessing learning where there is an overdependence on one sense.

    I am trying to look at other forms of learning and assessment for children who struggle with communication and who are challenged by the written word. While I wish I could share a love of the written word with them, I have gained a huge appreciation of how they make sense of and learn about their world through drama, art, music and movement.

    Reaching children with communicative, behavioural and social difficulties through these media can provide a sense that they are real, validated and attached. That the world is a safe place to be and that they are connected in space and time. They may experience less empty moments and become more engaged and open to learning…

  2. Miriam,
    This reply as others you have posted on this blog, is well thought through and perceptive. Your comments are very valuable as we continue to create a dialogue for the greater understanding of children. Thanks for posting
    Best wishes


    • I happened to attend a public lecture of Arthur Eisenkraft recently – ” Teaching Science through Physics, Art and literature”. Eisenkraft showcased works concepts in Physics have been depicted through Art and Literature. So there was this cartoon that depicted the principle of pendulum so efficiently.
      Using words….
      Mirror facing facing mirror
      Doubles – exquisite effect
      Between them in the shadow stands a
      Crystal cube which will reflect
      – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
      Simple, yet profound!

      • Hello Miriam, I have tried to work with children who have difficulties with words by using puppets and it has really worked. Most times, it is much more effective to get through to them with respect to any concept or even rules to be followed for the smooth functioning of the community through stories/ excerpts enacted by puppets.

      • Hi Savitha, I love this post and thank you for responding to mine! – I think about ways of engaging with children who are challenged as a need to keep Winnicot’s (1960) holding environment intact for longer.

        If we could simulate the caregiver’s ability to develop empathy and engagement through mirroring processes, then we might learn when to loosen or release this hold.

        I also found puppets to have incredible potential to sustain this nurturing environment, but also in its application of a therapeutic relationship to teach non-verbal or pre-verbal children and invite their response… without words.

  3. Indeed, words are a very powerful mode of expression and as said by Kipling
    “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
    Beautiful and very true.
    Don’t you agree?

  4. Hi Adithya. Yes indeed words are potentially most powerful. Though we need to be aware that they can be used to create beauty or to invoke hatred. As educators we need to ensure that the words we use convey the right messages to our learners. As Miriam said in the earlier post “The rewards are immeasurable when teaching and words can be combined”. However, for some learners words are insufficient in themselves and this is when the use of alternative images, such as those on Jean Edwards’ blog can be particularly helpful.

  5. words words words- What would we do if there were no words? draw and sketch?! I think what we have seen in this discussion should surely prompt us to look at alternative modes of expression!!

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