We have hundreds of picture books in our classroom. Ranging from board books, yes, books meant to be handled by babies, to beautifully illustrated picture book versions of classic stories; ours is a picture book classroom. And while I have written extensively about the power of picture books and how it can be used to hook resistant readers, to build a reading community, and all of the other incredible benefits of having them as part of our reading community, I have not really written about the usage of picture books as mentor texts. That is, until now, so here you are, some of the ways we use picture books to teach different concepts.
Using a picture book as an example, see my list here, we read one aloud and work through the example together. While many of my students can easily pick up on the theme “word” (Death, love, freedom), they have a much harder stretching that into an actual thematic statement. So rather than just death, they have to write something along the lines of “In the picture book, Ida Always, the text is used to illustrate that the fear of death should not stand in the way of creating lasting bonds.” While this may seem hard at first, the idea of doing this work with a picture book, rather than a longer book, alleviates some of the stress that my students have with the analytical work being done. After we write our thematic statement and turn it into a full paragraph, the students are then given a stack of picture books to choose from to practice on their own. This is, therefore, a way to assess their understanding without having to use a common text. Students can then either hand in their thoughts as a written piece of work or choose to discuss it with me or record it using their device.
The writing skills used in a great picture book are worthy of our close analysis. I love finding a stack of small moment picture books and then having students really take the writing apart. How did the author move the story along with such few pages? If we were to remove the images would the story still stand on its own? Why? Other questions can be:
- How does the author transition time or setting?
- How the author situates us?
- How is the character described?
- How are the words further explained through the illustrations?
These are just a few examples of separate lessons that can be done through a lense of writer’s craft.
We have written nonfiction picture books in the past and one of my greatest joys is to get students read some of the incredible nonfiction picture books we have in our collection. I think of books like Pink is for Blobfish, Growing Up Pedro, Gorillas, Giant Squid, or How to Be an Elephant. These authors breathe life into their nonfiction texts and so I ask my students to study their craft. How did they take all of this research and create something so accessible yet information-filled? It is wondrous to see the lightbulb go off for my students when they can see what I mean right in the text.
Fluency and Expression
One of our favorite units of the year is when all of our students perform plays based on Mo Willem’s Elephant & Piggie books. It is incredible to see these sometimes very cool 7th graders, truly connect with their silly side and go for it in their performance. Reading aloud picture books, performing them, and putting your heart into it helps with all public speaking skills.
In order for us to go deeper with text analysis and discussion, I need my students to sometimes gain some confidence. Picture books are not scary. They are inviting to kids. So as we begin the year with an introduction or reminder of the signposts as discussed in the book Notice and Note, I use picture books to introduce every single signpost. (To see the lists go here). It helps me break it down simply for kids, to give them confidence, and then also to be able to transfer it into their own reading.
One of my biggest tools for boosting inference skills is to use wordless picture books. After all, it is hard to read books like Unspoken or The Whale and not have an opinion on what just happened. Another reason I love wordless picture books is that it levels the playing field for a lot of our kids. They don’t have to decode the words to get to the story but instead have to decode the images. I have found that some of my most vulnerable readers are incredibly good at this as this is one of the reading survival strategies they use daily.
As you can see, picture books are not just for show, and yet, even if they were, I would be ok with that. After all, how many times does a child just need to fall into the pages of a picture book to remember the magic that reading itself? What an incredible gift all of these authors and illustrators give us when they decide to spill their ideas into a picture book.
To see all of our favorite picture books, go here or follow me on Instagram for “live” recommendations of books.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.