Teaching critical literacy through picture books
This is the fourth is a series of posts about the role of picture books, especially The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
The purpose of this post is to discuss the importance of critical literacy and the necessity to teach children to
- think critically
- not accept everything that is presented in text (oral, visual or print)
- evaluate the source of the information and the intent of the author
- match incoming information with prior knowledge, and
- question, question, question.
In these previous posts
Searching for meaning in a picture book – Part A
Searching for purpose in a picture book – Part B
Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C
I suggested ways of including The Very Hungry Caterpillar in an early childhood classroom and discussed the responsibility that authors have in differentiating between fact and fiction in story books.
In Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C I pointed out the inaccuracies in The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the pervasiveness of the misconceptions, if not totally attributable to the book, then at least in part. This is verified by Jacqui who, in 2011, wrote on the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust website
“When speaking to teachers I often find raised eyebrows when I explain that butterflies’ larvae do not make cocoons. The teachers refer to Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, where he refers to a ‘cocoon’.”
Note that Jacqui refers specifically to this book, rather than to sources in general.
As shown by Jacqui, though, it can be difficult, even for teachers without specialist entomological knowledge, to sort out fact from the fiction.
These are two pieces of misinformation contained in the story:
Caterpillars eat a lot of different food
Most caterpillars are fussy about their diet, some eating only one specific plant, others eating a variety of plant foods.
Butterflies come out of a cocoon.
Butterflies emerge from a chrysalis.
Moths come out of a cocoon.
Watch these two videos:
This one by Strang Entertainment shows the caterpillar becoming a chrysalis.
This one shows a silkworm caterpillar spinning a cocoon (about 2 mins in).
They are two very different processes.
However a quick glance at these Google search results shows just how pervasive the misconceptions are:
Even seemingly authoritative educational websites misinform. Look at the way these two websites promote themselves, and consider the misinformation they are peddling.
The website Math & Reading Help
states that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is “factually accurate . . . teaches your child to understand this biological process … a butterfly. . .(is) a caterpillar that has emerged from its cocoon”
Primary upd8 which promotes itself as “UKs most exciting science resource”
also suggests using The Very Hungry Caterpillar for teaching about the life cycle of a butterfly.
If self-professed “authorities” can’t get it right, how are we laypeople meant to make sense of it. Suggestions like these reinforce the need for the skills of critical analysis to be developed.
Unlike those above, I contend that this book has no place in the science curriculum. Its greatest value is as a tool for teaching critical literacy.
When children have learned about the life stages of a butterfly and then listen to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, they are very quick to pounce on the inaccuracies and immediately want to write to the author and tell him of his mistake.
When told that he already knows and that he isn’t going to change it, as confirmed in an interview reported on the Scholastic website, they are incredulous.
“Why would he do that?” they ask.
When told that he doesn’t care that it isn’t right, they are indignant.
But herein lies its value:
I am able to affirm their learning: they know more than Eric Carle; and, more importantly, I am able to reinforce with them that just because something is in print, doesn’t make it true.
In addition, it is important for them to realise that misinformation does not occur only in picture books, nor only in this picture book. It is just as common in news media, as shown by this article from Brisbane’s Courier-Mail on December 7 2013
Nor is misinformation restricted to caterpillars and butterflies.
This article, again from the Courier-Mail, on January 26 2014 also contains inaccuracies:
Squirrel gliders don’t fly, and they don’t have wings.
Suggestions for teachers and parents:
- point out inaccuracies and inconsistencies
- encourage children to think about what they are reading and hearing and to evaluate it against what they know
- support children to verify the source of the information and to check it against other more authoritative/reliable sources
- help them to recognise that every author has a purpose and to identify that purpose
- invite children to ask questions about what they are reading and to interrogate the content
- encourage them to question, question, question.
As demonstrated by the Google results shown above, there is a good deal of misinformation available, often cleverly disguised as fact. Being able to navigate one’s way through it is a very important skill.
Eric Carle says “If we can accept giants tied down by dwarfs, genies in bottles, and knights who attack windmills, why can’t a caterpillar (sic) come out of a cocoon?”
What do you think?
Do picture book authors have a responsibility for informing their audience? Is a butterfly coming out of a cocoon in the same realm as giants tied down by dwarfs? Would we accept a child hatching out of an egg? What parts of a story should be based in reality and which parts can be imagined?
“Why can’t a butterfly come out of a cocoon?” asks Eric.
Well, Eric, they just don’t.
Please share your thoughts.