What Are Storyboards?

Storyboarding, or picture writing, is the origin of all written languages, used by ancient cultures before text evolved and as a natural bridge to text. The Chinese language was built using pictographs. Egyptians used storyboards, or hieroglyphics, first etched in stone and later written on papyrus, to organize a complex society and to rule the ancient world.

Look at any comic strip and you’ll see picture writing in action. A storyboard is a writing format, generally a set of boxes (or rectangles, circles, or other shapes) placed in a logically sequenced order. Each box or frame is a place for the writer to put information, pictures, symbols, or text.

Storyboards appear in many forms, from emerging literacy books to emergency instructions on airplaces to technical textbooks. When writers in various fields want to make ideas easily understood, they choose a storyboard format or one of its close cousins: the flow chart, the time line, or the PowerPoint presentation. Storyboards are widely used because we know pictures combined with text offer a rich synthesis of information that can entertain and inform. The pictures in picture writing can be simple cartoons, photographs, or sophisticated technical diagrams.


Stick Pictures and Text

The low-tech storyboards I use in the classroom are designed to show students a clear path to text. We use simple stick pictures combined with spare text as our essential writing style. Offering students hands-on drawing has many advantages over using premade images or clip art. A central benefit of stick pictures is that kids can do it themselves, and they like to draw. As we explore drawing, as a differentiation tool, it is important to recognize that the act of drawing, like the act of writing text, is satisfying and informative. Putting pencil to paper, making symbols in pictures or text, helps our ideas to grow.

It is the logical sequencing power of storyboards, combined with the hands-on engagement of drawing, that makes these tools work for learners.

Teachers long comfortable with teaching almost exclusively with text often ask, “What if a student is reluctant to draw?” I’ve never had a student, from first to twelfth grade, who couldn’t use stick pictures in some form. Once students and teachers start using drawing as a thinking tool, it becomes a mix of text and simple stick pictures to fit their skills and needs, whether they’re in third grade or eighth grade.

Here is a basic six-square storyboard format from teacher Amy Rocci’s third-grade classroom.


The purpose of this storyboard was to see if students could retell the main events of a fairy tale. All the basics of storyboarding in the classroom are evident in this student’s work. Students were asked to retell the fairy tale using sequenced boxes containing both stick pictures and spare text—a few key words—in each square. Through her storyboard, this student conveys what she thinks are the six main events in the story. In a sense, she is creating the visual equivalent of a bulleted outline of main points. Note how her pictures and the text support and reinforce each other; together they tell the whole story.


A storyboard can be any length—two or two thousand squares. A storyboard can be simple like the Cinderella board, or elaborate and dense in content like a graphic novel.

Storyboards also can be adapted to fit many tasks, from maps to time lines. Like making text lists down a page or writing text across the page, the way we arrange storyboard boxes can help convey the logic of the task at hand, and make that task easier to accomplish. To convey content, organization boxes can be arranged vertically or horizontally, or set in meaning ful clusters.

Path to Text


It is important to note that whenever text-writing is the goal, the storyboard format offered to students should create a clear path to text. Generally I emphasize formats that parallel writing syntax; squares are written and read across the page the same way we read lines of text, starting in the top left square, returning at the end of each line.

The other main format that creates a clear path to text is boxes with text lines beside them. I generally use this format after a story or essay has been brainstormed and revised. This format allows students to see the direct link between their storyboard and sentences or paragraphs ot text.

The Tellingboard: Brainstorming and Revision Made Easy

A tellingboard is a larger-scale storyboard with movable cards, designed to allow easy brainstorming and revision. This tool makes building a story, an essay, or an oral presentation easier because the writer has hands-on, cut-and-paste capability like a word processor. As we go forward we’ll see this tool can be used for many tasks, from writing to reading to revision and conferencing—making them more engaging and effective.

The tellingboard is a large-scale storyboard designed with moveable cards to allow easy drafting and revision of ideas. I recommend an 11-by-17-inch board that folds to fit in any writing folder.

Simple Is Best

Macbeth's potent vision, highlighted in a student's notes about his character.

The Cinderella example might look like baby stuff. Don't be fooled. A storyboard is supposed to look simple, to make information visible and clear. The student’s job was to summarize the main events in order, and she did a fine job. Her storyboard can be easily “read” and understood by anyone who knows the Cinderella story. You’ll see the same cimplicity in older students’ storyboards, but a closer look will show that their simple pictures efficiently encapsulate sophisticated ideas, as seen in the excerpt from a character analysis storyboard of Macbeth at right.

The use of simple tools is the real strength of storyboards in the classroom; the same writing process can be used by kindergarteners and graduate engineers or law students. In fact, the law student’s notes integrating text and pictures are easier to read and more potent because the stick-pics provide landmarks in pages of dense text. I find students often learn to storyboard faster than adults. I encourage older students to try and storyboard as simply and clearly as a sharp third grader Whether you are retelling a fairy tale or development a complex plot for a novel, simple often turns out to be better.