Picturing Meaning

Applying the pedagogy of Philosophy for Children to the development of reading comprehension

Philosophy for Children, Colleges and Communities (P4C) informs our pedagogy at KNSTE – the pedagogy of our tutors and Associate Teachers (ATs) (who are all trained to foundation level) and, we believe, pedagogy in our partnership schools. In this post I will give a short introduction to P4C and its value, before sharing details of one of our P4C related projects – Picturing Meaning (a reading intervention based around the use of picture books).


What is Philosophy for Children?

P4C often involves groups of people raising questions in response to a stimulus (a story or an image - or the Teachers’ Standards, for example). The resulting enquiries often focus on some Big Ideas (concepts) that seem, to the participants, worth thinking deeply about. Depending on the context and choice of stimulus / question, these concepts can be connected to the curriculum (e.g. the significance of historical events, innovation in design, the role of tradition in communities) or be of wider philosophical interest and relevance to people’s lived experiences (e.g. fairness, beauty, reality).

By engaging in dialogue about these concepts participants come to a richer understanding of them; they come to see concepts and their significance from different perspectives, and they make meaning from ideas that can seem abstract. The process is structured so that participants come to be aware of and then get better at using the skills of enquiry and dialogue. The group become a ‘Community of Enquiry’ and think things through collaboratively, creatively, critically and with care (for others, for their questions, for the process of enquiry).

The community reflects on its practice over time and many skills and attitudes can be deliberately (metacognitively) developed. Three features of dialogic practice identified by Christine Howe et al at Cambridge University to be correlated with pupils’ attainment at KS2 – elaboration, high levels of participation and the questioning of each other’s ideas – are certainly evident (Howe et al, 2019).

Child reading a book

What is ‘Picturing Meaning’?

Some primary age pupils (more than 5 %) read accurately and fluently, but struggle with comprehension. The causes of poor linguistic comprehension are complex, but there is good evidence that improving oral language is associated with gains in reading comprehension. There is also evidence that ‘poor comprehenders’ with good decoding skills are less able to make inferences, understand words or activate their meanings in context, connect ideas in text, remember verbal information and monitor their comprehension (Nation, 2019).

With funding and support from the Laurel Trust, KNSTE set out to explore (with two cohorts of teachers, ATs and pupils so far) the use of P4C pedagogy to develop children’s reading comprehension through dialogue around picture books. There are many wonderful picture books with enough layers of meaning to test the comprehension of people of all ages. The pictures themselves often hold the key to understanding the story, and make wonderful stimuli for P4C-style enquiries.

Take Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat, for example. This is a story of theft, guilt and retribution told with the aid of just three characters: the little fish, the big fish and the crab. The little fish steals a hat from the sleeping big fish and flees the scene, justifying his actions as he goes. The big fish wakes up and sets off in pursuit; the crab, who had apparently promised not to give away the culprit’s hiding place, does so anyway. The consequences for the little fish are, we are led to believe, fatal.

In this book the pictures tell a story that runs contrary to the narrative of the text. For example, the little fish (the narrator) states that the big fish will not notice the theft of such a small hat, but the upturned eye of the big fish shows the reader that the little fellow is mistaken. The little fish is confident that the crab will not betray him, but the crab’s pointing claw reveals the folly again. Our only clues as to the feelings of the characters come from their simply drawn eyes – and from an appreciation of the context.

So how does the pedagogy of P4C support the children to read the clues in the images and to think about the deeper meaning of the story? The facilitator might first ask the children to simply look at one chosen image – perhaps the one showing the crab pointing the way for the vengeful big fish. What do they notice - about the crab; about the crab’s eyes; about the big fish’s eye?

Having co-constructed a list of observations, the group might move to inference. Why are these things worth noticing? What might the illustrator be trying to tell us? How are the crab and the big fish feeling? How can we know? Why might the crab have broken his promise? What might the consequences have been had he not done so?

This reading of the image might lead the way to the identification of the Big Ideas involved – promises, truth, lies, revenge etc. – and to the raising of questions: Why did he break his promise? Pupils can use their inference skills to offer a speculative answer before moving to the closely related but more general question of ‘When is it OK to break a promise?’ Attempts to answer this question lead to an examination of the nature of a promise and its value, to the generation and evaluation of examples of situations in which breaking a promise might be justifiable, and to an attempt to find connections between the accepted examples – is there a general rule here? There will be no simple agreement – different perspectives will always open up and help to ‘expand our awareness’ of the complexity of the question, but the group might end by returning to the moral dilemma of the crab and deciding for themselves whether he is a villain or merely a victim of circumstance. Their ‘comprehension’ of the story will, I think, have been deepened as will their ability to ‘picture meaning’.


Does the approach work?

We have captured quantitative data by using the Salford Reading Test to measure pupils’ reading and comprehension ages before and after the intervention, and the results have been very encouraging (in the first cohort the comprehension age of pupils in receipt of the Pupil Premium increased by 7.5 months, and that of children with SEND increased by 5 months after ten sessions). But we must acknowledge that this was a small-scale study and that the schools we partnered with were doing other great work with their pupils – perhaps we shouldn’t go beyond the claim that the results are encouraging.

Arguably more compelling than the quantitative data have been the observations of the teachers and ATs involved who speak of the heightened engagement of all pupils (including those with SEND, EAL and economic disadvantage), of the change in attitude of higher ability pupils who become more open to the perspectives of their peers, and about their own enjoyment of the opportunity to be involved in a collaborative project that enhances their pedagogical repertoire.


Children reading books


Why does it work?

Just as we must be cautious in making claims about the success of the project, so must we be cautious in suggesting a mechanism for that success. Perhaps there are clues in the work of Christine Howe and Kate Nation (cited above); certainly P4C focuses on the development of oral language, and skilful facilitation supports children to make inferences, to make the different kinds of connections that build meaning, to elaborate and to ask critical questions. Here is a selection of comments from the teachers and ATs I have spoken to that might also point the way:

  • “The children are getting better at listening to each other and expressing their agreements and disagreements.”
  • “There is a sense that the class are ‘in this together’ – a collaborative spirit. The sharing of ideas prompts the thoughts of other children. Children are gaining confidence in sharing their ideas – not worrying about having the wrong answer.”
  • “The maturity of the children has been surprising. Some have been pushed to greater depth through the enquiries, having more freedom to express their thinking.”
  • “Children who don’t usually participate are starting to join in. ‘Louder’ children are beginning to create space for others to get involved.”
  • “I am surprised by their maturity and ability to discuss together – the more reluctant boys are coming out of their shells.”
  • “Pupils are acknowledging the themes in the stories – and this is transferring to longer texts.”

The emerging story seems a good one to me – I believe (but do not yet know) that this work is beneficial to pupils’ reading comprehension. But there are outcomes that may be still more important. I recently heard a colleague, Nick Chandley of Dialogue Works, say that ‘…all children have the right to have some time put aside for thinking together about the things that are important to them’. I agree. And I think learning to engage critically and constructively with other perspectives in dialogue is a hugely important outcome in its own right; it helps us to picture the meaning of all our stories, including the stories of our own lives and those of other people, and that is an important thing indeed.



Howe, C., Hennessy, S., Mercer, N., Vrikki, M., & Wheatley, L. (2019) ‘Teacher–Student Dialogue During Classroom Teaching: Does It Really Impact on Student Outcomes?’, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 28 (4-5), pp. 462-512.  doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2019.1573730

Nation, K. (2019) ‘Children’s reading difficulties, language, and reflections on the simple view of reading’, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 24 (1) pp. 47 – 73 doi.org/10.1080/19404158.2019.1609272


Neil Phillipson, Personal Tutor.
Find out more about Neil’s background here: https://knste-shaw.org.uk/our-team/

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