Is Spontaneous Drawing Truly a Language?


A major funding organization fails to see how the arts contribute to literacy and shuts the door on a reasonable request. I will make the case once again for spontaneous drawing, not only that it is a language in its own right, but, from the age of two, that it is deeply supportive of literacy. I base these opinions on the analysis of hundreds of drawings by children over a professional lifetime, as well as from reports from parents and teachers. Drawing belongs to the Arts family; a similar case can be made for music, dance, drama, creative literacy and the entire spectrum of the visual arts.

Spontaneous Drawing as a Language Medium 

We tend to think of language as a medium of practical communication which makes it easy to downgrade drawing as a language, for clearly, words are what we use when we want to communicate practical concerns. But there are other functions of language very much needed by the growing child. I have summarized them in a rather awkward but all-encompassing sentence: the function of language, aside from practical communication, is to articulate, express and communicate our most subtle and complex perceptions, thoughts, feelings and memories. These multiple functions relate directly to the normal mental development of the growing child and “kick-in” as early as the second year of life with first words and first crude marks on paper. A medium that demonstrably fulfills this complex definition is, I submit, a language in every sense of the word. Watch children draw. Talk to them about what their drawing means and how it feels and you will be convinced! The point is, for most children this challenge is far beyond the power of words.

The problem facing the young language-user is that literacy is coded and difficult to use for the novice. Spontaneous drawing, on the other hand, is an uncoded language which the child uses with relative ease! We are a culture that cares for its children but we have inexplicably focussed on literacy and totally ignored spontaneous drawing. Does this suggest a serious oversight and a need for change?

The sad result of this neglect of drawing is a population shaped by a far from perfect language experience growing up. We as adults can get along reasonably well without a background in spontaneous drawing, but we should remember that language shapes personality, contributes to character, is a source of psychological development and health and that it goes far in defining culture. Reading the paper and listening to the radio, convince me that we need all the help we can get!

Is spontaneous drawing a language then? Spend time with children who are drawers; look closely at the drawings they produce and talk to them before you make up your mind.

Does Drawing Have a Positive Effect on Literacy?

What we have largely failed to notice is that the developmental arc of the growing child is potentially and ideally supported by two languages which emerge in the second year of life, one that is coded and one that is not. In the opportunities for drawing that we do offer, we have mistakenly believed that children can be “taught” to draw and we offer formulas, advice on “how to make it look more real.” These, as it turns out, are counterproductive. In the early years, at least through the years of childhood, it must be allowed to unfold naturally through daily practise. As a schooling community, we have failed to recognize that the child’s crude attempts at representation are symbolic. We should encourage children to accept their crude efforts as symbols just as words are symbols. They will reach their own level of what I call empathic realism when the time is right.

Children do, however, need an adult to inspire them with conversations about possible drawing themes. It cannot be overemphasized: The role of the teacher, parent or caring adult is to motivate drawing with life-themes. These discussions are, of course, an important link to literacy. Themes are most beneficial when they focus on four mental categories:

  1. perception (drawing things that can be observed);
  2. thought and obvious intellectual content (drawing to solve problems and in response to ideas);
  3. feelings and emotions (drawing to articulate the affective side of the drawer’s life);
  4. memory (drawing past events and short term memory problems).

Having noted that first words and first graphic representations appear more or less in the same time-frame, we can go on to what seems to be part of Nature’s plan: It seems beyond coincidence that the two languages we are discussing share a similar syntactical framework. Both have vocabularies, i.e., word symbols on the one hand and graphic schemata on the other. (Schemata: the child-drawer invents a semi-realistic symbol, the schema, which is used consistently until it fails to satisfy the drawer’s story-telling needs.)

It is found again in the pictorial compositions of the child’s art work. On the level of syntax we find that both languages have ways of depicting or symbolically presenting the elements of the concrete world (nouns), its action modes (verbs), its subtle variations as adverbs and adjectives in words and graphic differentiations in drawings. By sharing a common structural syntax within the limitations of each, literacy and drawing show that they spring from a common language need to record the world of personal experience and tell stories about that world.

Small children take eager pleasure in explaining to an older person what his recently finished drawing is about. It is the child who now demonstrates the interconnectedness of drawing and literacy and the role they play in the mental development and health of young language users.

A Cautionary

Don’t expect children to manage on their own, they will soon lose interest and tire of resorting to the cultural stereotypes of their age-group. When an adult is not present to stimulate and converse, minds are not stretched, the drawing/literacy relationship is not realized. Children and their future culture are the losers.


Bob Steele
Bob Steele is a retired Associate Professor of Art Education, UBC. He has taught art to all age groups in BC since 1950, has written and self-published four books on art education and on retirement, and started the Drawing Network. In 2011 he was made a Companion of the Guild of St.George for his advocacy of drawing as a language medium for children and an aid to literacy.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2015 issue.

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