Throughout this tumultuous year of Covid-19-dodging, the one constant that has been enjoyed in equal measure by my son and me is reading together. In particular, reading picture books. Now that he has turned 7, I wondered whether he would want to move on completely to chapter books, and while I am looking forward to all those wonderful stories ahead of us, I’m not quite ready to leave picture books behind.
I needn’t have worried. The festive flavoured picture books that were once a part of his “book a day” advent calendar back when the Go Jetters and the Octonauts were his go to favourites on CBeebies still provided winter warmth, nostalgia and plenty of discussion about narratives, themes and illustrations. And while I have my eye on some yuletide chapter books for next Christmas, we won’t be passing on the picture books just yet.
It seems odd that there is a traditional notion that children progress from books, where art and words work in perfect synergy, to illustrated chapter books with the emphasis on words, to text-only books, as if dropping the illustrations is a mark of maturity. Yet picture books are just as important for developing literacy as any other kind of book. They offer unique routes into meaning, understanding and nuance, and help us to develop broad skills of interpretation. When we read them, we infer meaning from both words and pictures, and develop critical thinking skills in the process.
New York based Assistant Principle, Andrew J. Canlé, views picture books beyond early years as important for two main reasons. He explained, “First, many students lack the experience to understand classical literary allusions; picture books of classic tales can fill in those gaps. Second, picture books offer an opportunity for students to focus on creating sophisticated themes from familiar and “non-threatening” material. This can help them enhance their discussion and writing about what it is that authors do/communicate.” These are significant benefits for children of all ages.
Early education specialist, Stefanie Paige Wieder, Director of Education and Content at Barefoot Books, stresses the need to continue to read aloud to children after they have started to read for themselves. “It’s important to continue reading aloud, even after your child [class] learns how to read on their own. Not only do children benefit from enjoying illustrations into their older years, according to recent research, when children begin to read independently (usually between the ages of 6 and 9), their parents often stop reading aloud to them. Yet, 83% of children between the ages of 6 and 17 said they “loved it” or “liked it a lot” when their parents read aloud to them at home. Their top reason? It’s special time together.” Wieder adds, “A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until about age 14. Reading more complex books aloud to older children improves their vocabulary and reading comprehension.”
Five top tips for using picture books
Some ideas for utilising picture books in school beyond key stage 1:
1. Choose wisely
It almost goes without saying that quality varies, just as in other genres of publishing. There are some great examples out there and if you need inspiration, Twitter is a good place to seek advice and recommendations, and the Book Trust website has a useful book finder by genre and age Bookfinder: find children's books for every age | BookTrust. Your local librarian will also be able to recommend suitable texts according to the theme you’re covering or the interests of your pupils.
2. Take your time
Never storm through a picture book; rather, cherish it. The more we take our time, the more we can glean from it. Share it (a visualiser can help, if possible) and enjoy the slowed pace and rhythm.
3. Be open
Children will have their own interpretations of what is happening in the story, and will predict a range of outcomes for the characters involved. It’s great if you can give space to this process, and allow the children to run with their interpretations in some (cross curricular) way.
4. Develop the story from the illustrations
Don’t rely on the words alone. The illustrations can add texture and meaning, and develop understanding.
5. Build language skills
Explore rhythm and rhyme and repeat texts for vocabulary development. The opportunity to talk about the story, the images, the nuance and the meaning supports understanding at any age and may help to stimulate writing, too.
Find out more:
Barefoot Books website can be accessed here.
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.