Reading picture books as literature (Netherlands)

A structuralist approach to the concept of ‘literary competence’ for four to six-year-old children
Summary of PhD Dissertation by Coosje van der Pol

This research project addresses the question how picture books can support the development of literary competence in young children (four to six-year-olds) in classroom situations. The concept of literary competence (Culler 2002 (1975)) [1] is based on the notion of linguistic competence, developed by Chomsky in the mid 1960s.[2] Chomsky in turn based his distinction between (individual) linguistic competence and linguistic performance on de Saussure’s (1857-1913) distinction between the (more collective) notions of langue and parole. To understand (or produce) a sequence of spoken sounds in a certain language as a sentence one must have implicit knowledge of the system, the structure of the language in which the sentence is spoken. Only then will the utterance have meaning or make sense. This implicit knowledge Chomsky calls ‘linguistic competence’. By analogy, Culler suggests we can also think of structure and meaning as constituting properties of literary works, knowledge of which may be present in the reader’s (or listener’s) head to a greater or lesser extent. It is this knowledge that Culler refers to as literary competence. Thus, to read a text as literature requires knowledge of the system or the structure according to which a literary text is organised.

In Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, linguistics and the study of literature, Culler (2002 (1975)) developed a poetics that puts the emphasis on the structuring abilities of the reader rather than on the structure of literary texts. Structuralist Poetics describes the implicit knowledge, the literary competence of readers who successfully operate within the literary system. The concept of literary competence can therefore be thought of as ‘a theory of the practice of reading’ (Culler 2002:301). Because it deals with the knowledge and skills competent readers have at their disposal, this poetics lends itself to pedagogical applications. In the first two years of primary education (often mixed into one class called group 1/2) teachers frequently read stories to children, but usually little attention is given to how these stories work, or how they are structured. Culler’s concept of literary competence concerns only adult readers; this study investigates how it can be made use of (implicitly) in the reading practices of group 1/2.

Literary competence: Structure and meaning
Chapter 1 discusses the possibilities and limitations of reading picturebooks to children as literature on the basis of scholarly and professional publications. The intended structuralist approach to picturebook reading differs in a number of important aspects from common reading practices in group 1/2. In the first two years of primary education, story reading is often considered as an aid to support language development (particularly vocabulary), to support the development of knowledge of the world and to support children’s socio-emotional development. However, because of the richness of its system, the picturebook genre also happens to have more than enough qualities to support literary reading in a structuralist sense. The central feature of the picturebook system is that text and image are either complementary or in contrast with each other. Other important features of picturebooks are ‘gaps’ and meta-fictive elements. The presence of these structural elements in picturebooks may draw the reader’s attention to the ways in which the literary system works.

Literary competence within the context of educational and cultural policy
Chapter 2 discusses the concept of literary competence from an institutional point of view. In the learning objectives of primary education, literary competence is not mentioned as such, although it could be said to be involved in the ‘intermediate’ objectives (in Dutch ‘tussendoelen’) of ‘book orientation’ and ‘narrative understanding’ for group 1/2. However, through efforts aimed at book reading promotion (in Dutch ‘leesbevorderingsbeleid’), falling within the realm of cultural policy rather than educational policy, the concept of literary competence can be said to play a role within primary education. Within this context, literary competence is usually defined in a much broader sense than that originally covered by Culler’s use of the term. In some cases, the structuralist origin of the concept even appears to be ignored completely. Broader definitions of literary competence, as found in certain policy documents for instance, are the result of a series of pragmatic additions to the original concept (such as the ability to search and find books in libraries, and the ability to participate in discussions about books). In book reading promotion, the concept of literary competence is also often linked to the notion of ‘reading pleasure’ (in Dutch ‘leesplezier’), the underlying assumptions being that when children enjoy reading books, they will become more competent readers of literature, and conversely competent readers will enjoy reading more. In policy documents on book reading promotion, reading pleasure is often described in terms of immersion, identification, and imagination (for instance Van Dormolen et al. 2005)[3]. These views of reading pleasure are firmly established in primary education today but they are quite removed from the more reflective structuralist approach with its primary interest in the workings of the literary system. A structuralist conceptualisation of picture book reading in classroom situations will therefore have to deal with this issue and balance the two approaches in some way.

Conceptualisation of literary competence for young children and the role of picture books
Chapter 3 reports on a Delphi-procedure[4]. In this procedure, eleven experts in the field of children’s literature and primary education discussed the possibilities of the concept of literary competence in the first two years of primary education and how picture books can support literary development. These expert opinions have been used to set up a model that describes the knowledge and skills of a four to six-year-old (a theoretical construct) who reads picture books in a way that could be called ‘competent’. Lying at the centre of this model is the child’s awareness that stories are fictional and that within this awareness children develop a basic knowledge of story structures and of the conventions and strategies of storytelling. Apart from their input being used to set up a model for the children’s literary competence, the experts also analysed (the same) two picture books and proposed ideas for a read-aloud session of one of these books. This resulted in a series of useful questions and points of interest for drawing up instructions for literary reading.

Theoretical backgrounds to the topics of story characters, tension and suspense, and ironic humour
Chapter 4 contains theoretical discussions of each of the three topics selected from the conceptual model of literary competence (see Chapter 3). Each topic is discussed in terms of how it ‘works’ in picture books and what specific knowledge and skills are required by readers to be able to deal with issues related to the topic. In theory, ‘story characters’ appear to be a relatively easy and accessible category for young children. Being able to distinguish between the main character and additional characters and to pay attention to (possible) character development are important insights in the development of literary competence. Tension/suspense, the second topic is already slightly more complex because it involves the distribution of information. As a story develops, relevant information may be withheld from the reader or from a story character. As a result, the reader or the character is kept in a state of suspense. Ironic humour is the most complex of the three topics discussed here. Grasping it requires meta-linguistic skills (for example the awareness that someone might (intentionally) say something and in fact mean the opposite) and meta-representational skills (knowing what is supposed to happen in order to realise that something is not going according to plan). On the basis of these three topics, a corpus of twenty-four picture books was assembled. Each book came with reading instructions to make it possible for teachers to read the book to their pupils as literature. By asking thought-provoking (implicit) questions on story structure and storytelling conventions, each reading instruction (see attachment 3) addresses a literary phenomenon that is prominently present in the book in question.

Educational design research: a small-scale empirical study on reading picture books as literature
Chapter 5 describes how the reading instructions were tested and optimised in two groups 1/2 of one primary school using the method of educational design research.[5] Transcriptions of these read-aloud sessions resulted in paradigmatic excerpts that show how the reading of picture books as literature takes place in the classroom. From this small-scale try-out it can be concluded that children are able to respond to picture book stories in a way that can be called ‘literary competent’. The educational design research also showed that literary reading (in accordance with Culler 2002) affords its own kind of ‘reading pleasure’. Children clearly enjoyed reflecting on questions like ‘Can we visit that story character [a rabbit] in his castle?’ (which indirectly addresses the fictional nature of stories). Also the awareness that a reader might know more than a story character, or finding out that there are intentional and humorous contrasts between words and images, or between intention and realisation (irony), proved to be a source of enjoyment. In order to measure the level of literary competence of children participating in the subsequent experiment a ‘measuring instrument’ was developed.

Measuring instruments: Watje Wimpie-taak and VLES-K
Chapter 6 describes how an individual task containing questions similar to those in the reading instructions was designed around an authentic picture book entitled Watje Wimpie. [6] The format of the Watje Wimpie-task is based on the ‘Narrative Comprehension Task’.[7]  VLES-K[8] is an instrument to measure individual children’s familiarity with picture books.

Experimental research into the reading of picture books as literature
Chapter 7 describes an experiment (randomised controlled trial with pre-test and post-test) in which eighteen randomly selected groups 1/2 participated. Nine of these groups, again randomly allocated, took part in an intervention programme that involved the reading of the picture book corpus using the reading instructions. The other nine groups did not take part in this intervention (and did not get the books) but were read to in the usual ways. Randomly selected children from all eighteen groups did the Watje Wimpie-task (before and after the intervention period) and the VLES-K (only pre-test). The data were analysed using descriptive and inferential (logistic regression) statistics. The results of the experiment show that reading picture books using the reading instructions had a considerable effect (odds ratio of >14 after adjustment for a range of prognostic variables for literary competence) on the dependent variable of literary competence. In the post-test, children in the experimental groups (i.e., the groups that took part in the intervention) performed significantly better on the Watje Wimpie-task for literary competence than did the children in the control groups. Reliability tests (for internal consistency and content validity and for interrater reliability) confirmed the validity of the task.

Summary and discussion
Chapter 8 offers a summary of the project, discusses the most important findings and suggests directions for future research. The teachers who participated in the intervention were enthusiastic about what they called an interesting new perspective on picture book reading. An issue they found problematic was that when reading picture books as literature children are required to stay within the story for as long as is possible. Within the structuralist approach, a story is to be read and discussed within the literary system to avoid ‘an unseemly rush from word to world’ (Culler 2002:151). When reading a story as literature readers should therefore not immediately move from the story to their own world. This follows from ‘a desire to avoid premature foreclosure, to allow the text to differentiate itself from ordinary language, to grant maximum scope to the play of formal features and of semantic uncertainties’ (Culler 2002:187). Possible future research could concentrate on this aspect in more detail. Other aspects that might be interesting are the somewhat problematic relationship between ‘reading pleasure’ and the ‘structuring’ reader and questions related to issues of complexity (how much structural complexity can young children handle?, etc.). The conclusion that can be drawn from this investigation is that young children can actually become competent readers of picture books in a structuralist sense. If the sector takes the concept of literary competence seriously, the development of it can start as early as the first two years of primary education.


[1] CULLER, J. (2002, 1975). Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. Londen/New York: Routledge.
[2] CHOMSKY, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
[3] DORMOLEN, VAN, M., MONTFORT, A., NICOLAAS, M., & RAUKEMA, A. (Eds.). (2005). De doorgaande leeslijn 0-18 jaar. Amsterdam: Stichting Lezen.
[4] GLASER, B. G., & STRAUSS, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing company.
[5] COBB, P., CONFREY, J., diSESSA, A., LEHRER, R., & SCHAUBLE, L. (2003). Design Experiments in Educational Research. Educational Researcher, 32 (1), 9-13.
[6] Willis, J., & Ross, T. (2007). Watje Wimpie (original title: Cottonwool Colin). Antwerpen/Rotterdam: C. de Vries-Brouwers.
[7] PARIS, A. H, & PARIS, S. G. (2001). Children’s Comprehension of Narrative Picture Books (CIERA Report #3-012). Ann Arbor, MI: CIERA (Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement).
[8] Gosen, M. N., Besselse, M., Glopper, de, K., & Berenst, J. (2009). De ontwikkeling van een instrument voor het meten van de voorleeservaring van kleuters (Abstract). Toegepaste Taalwetenschap in Artikelen, 82 (2).