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Too often in classrooms we view drawing as a crutch, or a distraction that we want children to grow out of, so they can focus on the ‘real’ task of writing. But we seriously misunderstand the function of drawings, and their contribution to learning, if we think they are just what children do when they can’t yet write. Drawing is not the evolutionary inferior to writing - writing and drawing are two distinct communication systems, and each deserves their place in the communicative repertoire of our children.
Children who draw before they tackle writing tasks produce better writing - it’s longer, more syntactically sophisticated and has a greater variety of vocabulary.
If you have ever read a 10 year old’s long and winding story you will know how much a first draft would enhance comprehensibility. The message to teachers is a simple one - instead of telling children they can draw a picture if they finish their writing, have them draw before writing. Everybody should have the opportunity to use drawing as a means of expression and communication - just as everyone should learn to write.
The child who claims to be bad at drawing, furiously erasing parts of their drawing till the paper wears away, has probably learned what ‘good’ drawing is from unthinking comments from adults who have ‘helpfully’ observed that the sky isn’t red, or that their Easter bunny looks like a kangaroo. Indeed there does come an age, usually around 8 or 9 years, when we begin to see our drawings as others do, and most of us are usually disappointed with what we see - and give up on drawing.
For most children, this helps consolidate the learning but for some children it can be the key they have been waiting for to open the door to the learning.


If our only measure of success at school is performance in standardised literacy and numeracy tests, schools will be tempted to narrow their curriculum and to sideline the Arts. This is disastrous, not just for the Arts and all their intrinsic worth - but for the reading and writing skills we are so focussed on improving. Drawing improves children’s writing, and can enhance learning in other areas - so let kids draw.
We use a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence, so you can republish our articles for free, online or in print. They draw before they write, so their drawings seem somehow miraculous in those early years - their first communication that is permanent and there for all to see. Large canvasses of abstract finger paintings give way to recognisable broad stroke figures, houses, and sunny skies. It is likely this is because the act of drawing concentrates the mind on the topic at hand, and provides an avenue for rehearsal before writing - rather like a first draft where they can sort things out before having to commit words to a page.
And if you’ve ever taught 10 year olds you will also know they are not terribly inclined to do multiple written drafts. They provide a common reference point for the teacher and the child to discuss the story before it is written, and this is an important additional oral rehearsal that strengthens the quality of the writing. Of course there are children with a natural talent for drawing, but they shouldn’t be the only ones who enjoy drawing, any more than we think only the naturally talented writers should write.


And for those children with a drawing talent, closing down drawing in the classroom can feel to them like just another brick in the wall.
Most of us have a romantic notion of drawing - we see someone who produces life-like images and sigh, knowing we could never do that. But actually, with tuition and encouragement, all of us can learn to draw pretty well, and more importantly, feel the pleasure that comes with this kind of expression. Let kids freehand draw and paint, and don’t be afraid to teach some drawing skills so they can get what is in their mind’s eye down on paper. Drawing what you have understood from a reading passage, drawing the science experiment you have just done or drawing the detail of an autumn leaf are all examples of engaging with the same learning from a different angle.
The confidence and self belief this gives them can change their attitude and engagement with other aspects of schooling.
Young children quickly learn that success at school is measured by how well you can read and write, not by how good your drawings are. They’d rather sum up all their story’s inconsistencies with ‘It was all a dream’ than follow a teacher’s suggestion to go back and make significant changes.



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