Teaching With Picture Books
Effective Strategies Here For You!!

Teaching with picture books is a stimulating and engaging way to invite students of all ages into a world outside of themselves.

Even for the student who has limited experience in language, the use of picture books can develop, through images and words, greater conceptual understanding and even greater enjoyment.

To teach with picture books allow students access to ideas that words alone may not provide. As such, picture books are a gift to students that should be unwrapped daily in every teacher's classroom.

How to choose a picture book

Not just any picture book will do. Picture books should be chosen for their quality and their appeal. So what makes a "quality" picture book appealing? Many things need to be considered.

The book should "speak" to you - literally jump off the display shelf and say, "Read me! Out loud!" If you like it, the students will most surely enjoy it too.

Picture books should be chosen for their suitability - the right book for the right child/group at the right time.

Themes being studied, or real-life situations like playground bullying, or a new baby, or loss of a pet, are perfect for introducing a picture book.

The difficulty and amount of text and its layout on the page should be just right. (If the amount of text is very short, the illustrations should be able to carry the story throughout. If too long, the children will become frustrated and restless).

Illustrations should be pleasing and well matched to the text-whether soft, subdued line drawings, or bold and colourful images, the illustrations should help to actively draw the reader in. Wordless books are a perfect example of how illustrations can carry a story, even with no words.

Illustrations in picture books

Illustrations in picture books offer so many possibilities for extended learning!

Looking at illustrator styles is one topic for discussion and evaluation: Are these illustrations realistic? Impressionistic? Fantastic? Photographic? Abstract? Which do you prefer? Why?

Even more engaging are the many kinds of illustrations for students to imitate and explore: line drawings, watercolours, oils, gouache, acrylics, and pastels, crayon resist, collages, printmaking and clay - what engaging opportunities to play and respond creatively to text.

Choosing an author/illustrator

Teaching with picture books is as diverse a practice as the teachers who decide to use them in their work. Often we seek out a particular author because we like his or her language or illustrative style.

Most often, however, it is the characters that grab us - especially those recurring characters in book series that students request for read-aloud: spirited Lily in Keven Henkes' stories, feisty Chester and timid Scaredy Squirrel in Melanie Watts' series, the indomitable Pigeon in Mo Willem's books.

In these same stories, children can safely identify with the well-loved characters' fears, successes, disappointments, and resilience - a coming of age that often mirrors their own. Because they love these picture books, younger students make the library a veritable hive of activity as they seek out, share and discuss any other books by the same author/illustrator.

Author Studies

To support this interest, teachers can consider an author study. Author/illustrator studies can be built around character series, genres, issues, and even art techniques. Author studies are an excellent way of making the author a real person.

Viewing author interviews on line (most authors have their own websites) supports the notion that writers are real people who are passionate about their writing and who write about what matters.

If choosing authors who illustrate their own books, we see how their "voice" shines through in both pictures and words. The message given to children is that they too are writers and they can grow in their writing attitudes and skills as they learn from a chosen author/illustrator.

How to Use Mentor Texts

How do teachers use picture books as mentor texts?

A caution here to teachers - while picture books make excellent mentor texts from which to teach curriculum's writing elements, reading strategies, and global issues, do not dismantle the text on first read. (Planned pauses during the first read , to "wonder" or to "predict" will not detract from the story if they are brief and few.)

Remember that the first read-aloud of a picture book should be savoured, an invitation to feast on words, pictures and ideas. Remember always to respect the author's intent in writing this book-- a story to be enjoyed or a concept to be pondered.

After studying a picture book or an author, students can be invited to use an author's layout or language form in their own writing. They can be encouraged to create another story in the series, or a new story from a secondary character's point of view, or a change in setting (and subsequently a plot line), or another character for the story.

Students can compare characters in the same or different picture books. Often they can "see" a character's growth in the picture book, both literally and figuratively, and write about it.

English language learners and struggling readers and writers find tasks less difficult because illustrations have supported their understanding.

Students can also illustrate their writing in the style of the author-illustrator, as most have a particular and recognizable medium or technique: Eric Carle's finger painted cut-out shapes, Lois Ehlert's big, bold paintings, Mo Willem's sparse yet award winning line drawings and/or collages, Tomie de Paola's delightful two dimensional illustrations with a heart on every page.

The possibilities of teaching with picture books as mentor texts for language, social studies, science and art are endless.

For what age group is teaching with picture books most suitable?

Many believe that picture books are written only for younger children. Actually, the opposite is true.

Many picture books were written purposely to promote "big ideas" and enduring understandings. These issues-based picture books, written more specifically for older students, utilize middle and higher-grade students' greater life experiences, growing vocabularies, and more finely developed critical thinking skills to promote discussion about themselves and the world they will inherit.

Teaching with picture books provides a scaffold to understanding. For both younger and older students, teaching with picture books promotes opportunities to consider different points of view and lived experiences outside of themselves.

Picture books let students "see" how a character lives and "feel" what the character feels, even when both in no way resemble their own lives. Hearing and seeing how characters live in very different settings, in very different times, and in different situations provides an excellent starting point for comparison, discussion, and intellectual growth.

Not only can students recognize universal experiences and feelings that the same the world over--happiness, disappointment, envy, loneliness, pride, fear, to name but a few-but they can also hear and see that some things are not the same.

There are many different ways to live in the world and many ways of being. No matter how we speak, dress, eat, work, pray and spend our leisure time, we are all equally valuable and are entitled to respect.

Choosing Picture Books for Older Children

Teaching with picture books can help older students gain a greater understanding of history and global issues.

In social studies, history, geography and science textbooks, information is presented in a factual way. While textbooks present facts on government, war, settlement and patterns of immigration, disease and drought, it is through teaching with picture books that these issues take on a more human face.

Teaching with picture books helps students understand through story how the issues of inclusion and exclusion - racism, poverty, gender bias, and religious prejudice - impact individuals and groups.

What does this tell us? Put such picture books directly in the hands of students! Eve Bunting, a prolific author who has written many issues based stories about topics as poverty, homelessness, gangs, and life choices, is a perfect author to show middle and upper grade students that some picture books were written just for them.

Unlike novels, which also support understanding of historical time and place, teaching with picture books offer a shorter, more concise, and colourful way to help to make history come alive.

Stereotyping and Bias

Just as the use of media to support learning must be deconstructed, picture books must also be examined for bias and distortion.

When teaching with picture books, stereotyping must be avoided at all costs. When considering picture books about diverse cultures, histories, traditions and language, the picture books chosen must always be respectful, accurate depictions of time, place, character and culture.

Illustrations, then, are critical, because pictures often tell a deeper story than words alone. Pictures may be the first thing that makes us stop and look. They should also make us stop and think.

Are you ready?

Teaching with picture books will integrate your teaching load and make it lighter. Given the large number of standards and learning goals teachers are expected to cover in a school year, picture books are a gift to you, your program and your students!

Bring on Leo Leonni, William Steig and Lauren Child! Invite Patricia Polacco and Allan Say to your classroom! Bring on Chris Van Allsberg, Shaun Tan, and David Weisner! What do their books and pictures mean? What can we infer? How do we know?

Are you ready? So many picture books await! Choose your read-aloud and practice "being the book". Live it. Read aloud with enthusiasm in a voice that is uninhibited and dramatic. Use gestures and varied intonation--convey a mood! Your voice and the book you have chosen will invite the children in-- to learn, to imagine, to navigate new understandings.

As one student explained, "Our teacher reads us the most amazing picture books. As I listen, all the words, ideas and pictures go right into my head. When it is time to write, all those ideas and pictures are already in my mind and I take out whatever I want. It's OK. My teacher gave them to me . . . and now they are mine."

I want to thank Anne Porretta for writing this page. Anne is a Literacy Visual Arts Specialist, a York region Mentor for Teachers and a College Supervisor for Medaille Teacher's College.

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