being a student, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

On Reader Identity and Its Importance

I was asked recently why the need to focus on reader identity.  Won’t that develop normally if we just focus on skills and all of the things we do within our reading communities?  In the past, I would have said, maybe, perhaps reader identity develops no matter what we do, now, however, my answer would be a little more complicated than that.

Yes, reader identity develops in whichever way with whatever we do in our classrooms.  This is how we end up with the difference in readers.  Those who love to read, those who tolerate it as a means to a purpose, and those who cannot wait to tell us just how much they hate reading.

But to develop a meaningful reader identity, one that goes beyond the obvious questions of are you a reader or not, we have to have teaching opportunities where students can explore what their reading identity is to begin with and then chart a specific course to further explore it and grow.

That means we spend an awful lot of time self-reflecting, discussing and also setting goals so that every child has a chance to answer thoughtfully, who are they as a reader.  So that every child can leave our year together having a fuller sense of what it means for them to be a reader, particularly outside of school and our set reading environments.  This discovery is what creates lifelong readers, but it won’t just happen for all if we don’t make it a point to actually bring it into our teaching.  If we don’t actually plan for the development of all reading identities within our time together.

So where do you start?  Well, I start with a survey (it can be found here or here ) not just so I can get to know the kids but so that they can start getting to know themselves.

Then we confer: what are their reading goals?  No longer do I set the goals for kids, instead they reflect on the relationship and needs they have within reading and then set a goal.  One that is meaningful and personal to their growth.  Some need a lot of help uncovering what that is and others seem to know right away what they need to work on.  We use the 7th-grade reading challenge to help them goal set as we discuss that for some quantity of reading is a great goal, while for others it is much more about habits and developing who they are.

And then we start the work.  The reading, the lessons, the experiences that create our reading community.  Woven throughout all of that though is the need to go back and reflect on the goal they have set and to help them process their own growth.

So every time I confer.

So every time we reflect.

So every chance we get, I ask, “What are you working on as a reader?” and let their answers guide our conversation.

Those who set a goal just to set a goal are quickly helped to try to come up with a goal that is more meaningful to them.  Those who set a goal that doesn’t make sense are quickly prompted to dig deeper.  And those who set a goal that they have little way to reach on their own, well, that’s where our teaching comes in.

It is within the constant conversation always circling back to the question, “Who are you as a reader?” that our students can start to piece together their answer. That they can start to understand the identity that they carry as a reader.   That answer goes beyond their book likes, their reading minutes, their skills.  It speaks to how they handle books, now just how much they read, but when they read, how they select what to read, and what they do with it once they are done.  How they view reading within the broader scope of their lives and who they will be as readers one they leave us.

So whenever I am asked, why bother with student reading identity, I think of the students who started out simply telling me that reading was not for them but left us knowing so much more.  That reading was for them if they found the right book, had the right place and took the time to read.  That reading was for them because they had found meaningful moments within the pages of a book the previous years.  That they perhaps would even consider reading outside of class now.  This is where we see the change.  This is where we do the work.

PS:  Yup, I am still stepping back and doing less.  This post felt like I should write it so I did.  Who knows when the next one will come.


administration, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

Be a Reader Leader – What Administrators Can Do to Promote a Reading Culture

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I originally wrote this post in 2015 and thought it needed an update, so here you are.

Dear administrators, whether principal, coaches, or anyone else who supports reading education outside of the classroom.

I have been pleading with teachers for a few years to please help students become passionate readers.  I have given as many ideas as I could and directed toward the great minds that inspire me as well.  I have begged at times, sharing the words of my students as proof that we teachers have an immense power when it comes to either nurturing a love of reading or killing it.  There are so many things we teachers can do that will have a lasting effect.  I even wrote a book compiling all of the lessons my students taught me when it came to creating a passionate reading community.

Discussing, learning from, and teaching other educators has been a part of my journey for many years now.

And yet, within my travels of teaching others, I am constantly reminded that it is not just the teachers that have an immense power over whether children will read or not.  That it turns out that much of that power also lies within the realm of administration.  In fact, one of the most oft-repeated statements I hear when teachers struggle to implement common sense reading components such as independent reading time is that their administrators do not support it.  Yet, I also hear of how many of you, administrators, are doing incredible things to create schools that are seen as literacy communities that cherish the act of reading and becoming readers.

And so I write this post to share some ideas that have been shared with me so that others, in turn, may grow in their craft.  So that the pursuit of a passionate reading community can truly become a community endeavor and not just lay on the shoulders of solitary educators who are trying.  What  are they doing?  What can you do to foster a love of reading school-wide?

You can believe in choice for all.  That means protecting the rights of students to read the books they choose.  To help staff support this as well by speaking about choice and making sure not to put restrictive policies in place that will hinder a child from developing their own reading identity.  That will stop a child from choosing a book they want to read.  Teachers should not be the only ones choosing books for students, please don’t put them in that position.  Instead, they should be working with students to learn how to self-select great books based on many things, not just their levels, lexile or other outside measures!

You can promote meaningful work.  For too long, packets, projects and one process for all have dominated the reading landscape.  And yet, if we ask students what turns them off from reading they tell us loudly and clearly that often it is the work that is associated with reading, not the reading itself, that pushes them away.  So look at what is attached to all of the reading students do.  Start conversations with staff about the literacy work that is contained within their classroom.  Ask the students about the reading programs they are involved in and then change your approaches based on their words.  We cannot change if we don’t ask the questions first.

You can buy books.  Research shows again and again how vital having not only a well-stocked school library but also a full classroom library is to students becoming better readers.  Students need books at their fingertips, not far away, and they need high quality, high-interest books that not only mirror their own stories but also provide windows and sliding glass doors to learn about the stories of others to quote Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop.   This requires funding, so please allocate money every year to provide more books for your teachers.  Before you purchase an expensive program to teach reading or more technology, please make sure that books have been purchased as well.

You can fight to have a librarian full-time in your building. Everywhere we are seeing libraries that have no librarians, yet a knowledgeable librarian can be the lifeblood of a reading community.  I know budgets are being slashed, but the librarian should be seen as a necessity in schools, not as an unnecessary privilege.  They are another reading adult that helps support the work of everyone in the school.

You can celebrate books read.  Not the number of minutes logged or the points gained in computer-based reading programs.  Not just those who reached an arbitrary goal set by an outside force.  How about keeping a running tally of how many books students self-selected to read and then finished?  How about you keep a display board of all of the picture books being shared in your school, yes, even in middle school and high school?  How about every child is celebrated for reaching a goal that they set themselves?  In fact, at the end of the year think of how powerful it would be if every single student gave themselves a reading award based on whichever milestone accomplishment they have reached.  Celebrations should not just be for the few, they should be for all.  Celebrate the right things, not the ones that can kill a love of reading.

You can protect the read aloud.  When schedules are made there should be time placed for reading aloud.  This should not be seen as a frill, nor as something that would be nice to fit in if only we had more time. All students at every age should encounter an adult that reads aloud fluently with expression to them every day.  It develops their minds as readers and creates community.  This should not just be reserved for special times in elementary school but should be protected throughout a child’s reading experience in school.

You can promote independent reading time.  Students reading silently is not time wasted, it is one of the most important investments we can make in our school day for any child, any age.  If you want children to become better readers, then give them the time to read.  So ensure that every child has at least one class period where independent, self-selected reading is supported and protected.  Often, this is the first thing to go when we plan curriculum especially when students are older, as we assume they will do it outside of school, yet reading statistics shows us this is not true.  Therefore, we must plan, implement, and protect it during the school day for every single child.

You can hire teachers that love reading.  And not just in the English department.  I am amazed that there are teachers who teach literacy in any capacity that do not identify themselves as readers.  This should not be happening.  Years of experience shows that students will read more if we read as well and are able to create a book community where our love of reading is a cornerstone of what we do.  Even when I taught non-literacy subjects, even when I taught science, the fact that I read for my own pleasure meant that our conversations were deeper, more engaging, and the students trusted me as a reading role model.  Plus, how powerful to have students learn within a community of adult readers.  When they can see every adult as someone who values literacy?

You can use levels for books and not for children.  Too often the levels that a child reads at becomes their entire reading identity.  Yet, that level is meant to be a teacher’s tool and not a child’s label to quote Fountas and Pinnell.  That level should be a part of that child’s reading identity but not the thing that defines them.  We should not have policies in place where students can only choose books that are at their levels, but instead, have policies that promote exploration of texts so that students have a natural chance to figure out who they are as readers.  Confining them, even if meant to be helpful, will hurt them in the long run.  And this includes leveling our school libraries and classroom libraries, a practice Fountas and Pinnell are against.

You can discuss students as individuals, not as data.  Oftentimes, programs are purchased that support reading development that spits out a lot of data.  And yet, as we are inundated with data we often lose sight of the child itself.  We start to casually label children as struggling or low readers and then don’t question how that label ends up identifying the child.  So be critical responders to the data you receive and keep the child at the front of the conversation, not the back.  One idea for this comes from Dr. Mary Howard, who encourages us to always have a picture of the child we are discussing in front of us so that we remember the whole child and not just the data points.

You can support challenging texts being used.  In order for teachers to truly create an inclusive library that mirrors the lives of all of our students, we need books that represent all of their stories.  That means we need age-appropriate books about gender identity, racism, abuse, sexual identity, religious discrimination, and other harder topics.  Yet, in many districts teachers are not protected when it comes to placing these books in the hands of children.  This creates a dangerous vacuum where only certain stories are viewed as normal, which can lead to an increase in intolerance and hate.  Establish a policy of tolerance, empathy, kindness, and understanding of others and apply it to the books that are in your school.  Support teachers if a book is challenged.  Understand the urgency of these stories being present in the classroom so that we can create a more understanding world.

You can support and promote the need for two types of reading experiences.  For too long we have focused on the development of reading for skills, not for the love of reading.  Yet, we need both types of experiences in order to fully develop as readers.  Actively support your teachers in creating both types of reading experiences within their day and create a community-wide discussion of how to promote liking reading more, not just which lessons are needed to further their reading skills.

You can build a school-wide reading community.  Celebrate books together, have book announcements, book giveaways, and have every staff member have a “just read” poster outside of their classroom or office.  Give out book recommendations to students as you see them.  Pass out books to those who need them.  Host book clubs for staff and parents.  Highlight the readers in your community and yes, highlight your own reading.

You can have tough conversations.  Part of my job as a teacher is to grow and learn and while I think that most of my ideas are solid, I wish an administrator would have questioned me when I had students do reading logs and forced book reports a few years back.  While the push-back may be hard to swallow, it certainly would have made me think.  However, within those tough conversations, please do listen to the teacher as well.  What are they basing their decisions on?  Perhaps they are the ones who are right, perhaps not, but ask the questions and keep the bigger goal in mind; students who like to read!

What else can you do to create a school where the love of reading flourishes?

You can be a guest read alouder.

You can have books in your office for students to read.

You can share your own reading life by displaying your titles outside your office.

You can make assemblies and other fun events that celebrate literacy.

You can bring in authors.

You can promote reading literacy projects like The Global Read Aloud or Dot Day.

You can ask students what they are reading whenever you see them.

You can institute school-wide independent reading time.

You can speak out against poor literacy decisions being made within your district.

You can ask your teachers for ideas on how to grow as a reader leader.

You can ask your students what they need and then implement their wishes when possible.

You can ensure that your most vulnerable readers are placed with the best teachers.

You can promote the use of picture books at every level.

You can support new ideas within literacy practice, even if they fall outside of a program you may be implementing.

You can keep fidelity to the kids, and not the program to quote my incredible assistant superintendent, Leslie Bergstrom.

You can provide audiobook subscriptions.

You can actively develop your own reading identity and then share that journey with others so that they can see that there is not just one way to be a reader.

You can reflect together with your staff on what may be hindering the love of reading from growing and then do something about.

You can believe that every person is a reader on a journey.

You can send your teachers to professional development with the likes of Kylene Beers, Cornelius Minor, Sara Ahmed, Kate Roberts, Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher and any other of the incredibly talented literacy experts that inspire us all.

There are so many things that fall within your realm, please help us teachers (like my principal Shannon Anderson does) protect the love of reading that students have and nurture it as we teach.  You can choose to create passionate reading environments or you can support decisions that smother them.  The choice is yours.

being a teacher, books, Literacy, Reading

My Favorite Books of 2018

Every year I post an end of the year favorite book list but I thought this year, inspired by Colby Sharp, I thought it would be fun to add the titles as I discovered them.  Now, these may have come out in 2018 or simply have been read by me in 2018.  So here you are, in no particular order, my favorite books of 2018.  To follow along with these live follow me on Instagram.

PS:  My Favorite Picture Books of 2018 can be found here.

Middle Grade or Younger

Minrs 3 by Kevin Sylvester (Final book of the Minrs trilogy)

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes 

Greetings from Witness Protection by Jake Burt

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Rebound by Kwame Alexander

The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown

Enginerds by Jarrett Lerner

Winnie’s Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut, art by Sophie Blackall

The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Lions and Liars by Kate Beasley

Tight by Torrey Maldonado

Mac B. Kid Spy  by Mac Barnett illustrated by Mike Lowery

Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

The Unicorn Rescue Society by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly

The Endling by Katherine Applegate 

Graphic Novels

Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge

Speak – The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Click by Kayla Miller

All Summer Long by Hope Larson

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees



Young Adult

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Wicked Deep

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

Tradition by Brendan Kiely

Day of Tears by Julius Lester

The Fandom by Anna Day

Give Me Some Truth by Eric Gansworth

Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

#Murdertrending by Gretchen McNeil

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse



Dog Days of History by Sarah Albee

#NotYourPrincess – Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charlieboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka


being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

On Real Reading and the Kids We Teach

I asked our oldest daughter, Theadora, how many books she thought she had read this year.  Crestfallen and quiet she answered four.  Four?  I asked, confused.   How can you only have read four?  She reads all of the time, never without a book, always asking to read just one more page before the lights are turned off.

Don’t you mean real books, mom?

Real books? I said.  What are real books?  I mean all books, graphic novels included.

She lit up.  Fifty, Mom, maybe more, at least fifty though.

Fifty books for a child who didn’t think they would ever be a reader because reading was just too hard.

Fifty books for a child who has been in reading intervention for four years.

Fifty books for a child who wasn’t sure that she would ever get through a whole book on her own, at least not one with a lot of pages.

Thea is a voracious reader, and yet, if you were to believe some adults, all of that reading she does doesn’t really count.  If I were to listen to some adults, some teachers, then all of those graphic novels wouldn’t count as real reading because they had pictures in them.  Because they were too easy.  Because they were silly.

I would have to tell Thea that all of those books she loves aren’t real books and that it is time for her to read something real.  To read something hard.  To grow up a little.

Could you imagine?

Yet, this happens to so many kids in so many schools.  When they come to us proudly bearing their Captain Underpants, their Diary of A Wimpy Kids, their manga, we take one look and tell them that in this school, we need to read real books.  That this year, they need to grow as a reader.  That this year it is time to get serious as a reader.

We tell them it is time to try something else or else they will not really grow.

Thea became a reader because of Dav Pilkey.  Because of Dogman.  Because of finding a book where she could decode the images and then decode the words, synthesize the two and come up with meaning.  I will never forget the look on her face when she declared herself a reader.  Her teachers may not know that, there is so much we don’t know,  and I think of how many teachers do not understand the journey that some kids have been on to finally identify as readers.  That some teachers may not see just how big of a mountain becoming a reader has been to climb.  And so we dismiss their journey in the finality of our words as if real reading is only when a book is devoid of pictures or doesn’t make you laugh.

When we tell a child that the book they are reading is too easy, we have no idea how hard it just might be for them.

When we tell a child that the book they are reading is not challenging them, we have no idea just how much work they may be doing.

When we tell a child that it is time for them to try something else, we have no idea just how much they have tried before they finally had success with the book they are reading.

What if we instead reveled in their success?

What if we instead encouraged them to keep reading “easy” books knowing that at some point they will choose something else?

What if we instead told them how glad we are that they know themselves enough as a reader to know that this book, that this series is a great fit for them.

What if we instead gave them more books?  More time?  More appreciation for the work they are doing so that they could see their own success.

We are so quick to tell kids to challenge themselves.  We are so quick to dismiss their entire reading experiences.  We are so quick to tell them that what real readers do without realizing the damage our words may have.  It has to stop.

Thea is still a vulnerable reader.  A reader who finds comfort, courage, and strength within the pages of a graphic novel.  She grows her confidence in bursts and once in a while she branches into a book with no pictures.  She is on a journey.  My job is to support that journey, not destroy it through my well-meaning intentions.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child  Also consider joining our book club study of it, kicking off June 17th.  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.





being a teacher, books, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

Why We Need to Embrace Book Abandonment

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In the spring of 2016, I asked 1,200 students aged eight through thirteen in North America to explain how they felt about book abandonment.  I was curious because I had realized that working with my own students, that something as simple as letting go of a book in search of another book was not second nature to them.  In fact, many of my students struggled with the notion of letting go of a book even if it meant they were not reading.  Even if it meant they avoided the book.

This struggle had prompted me for years to do an actual lesson on abandoning a book.  On giving all of our students specific permission to step away from a book they had either indicated they wanted to read or actually started reading.  To step away from a book without having to try it for so many pages, for so many days.  To step away from a book even if their teacher recommended it.  Even if their best friend loved it.  Even if they loved it at first.

When I asked those 1,200 students I had an inkling of what they would say and yet I was taken back to see the answers.  Out of 1,200 students, more than 400 of them reported feeling guilty and disappointed.  That’s 33% of the respondents reporting that something as simple as letting go of a book made them feel bad.

My follow up question was why they felt the way they had felt.  There were three main responses.  Some children reported feeling like they had disappointed their teacher, after all, it was the teacher that had recommended the book to them in the first place.  Other’s reported that they were disappointed in themselves for picking a “bad” book to begin with.  And some even reported feeling guilty about not liking the author’s work, as if the author would somehow know that they didn’t like the book.

We know there is a lot of emotion tied up with being a reader, but we should not have guilt be one of them.

Students should rejoice at first when they realize that a book is not for them.  They should celebrate this milestone knowledge and be happy that they have uncovered another part of their reading identity.  And then they should move to not caring. To simply seeing book abandonment as yet another part of being a reader.  Of knowing when to let go.  Of knowing when to search for something better.

Now you may think, but what about those serial book abandoners?  The kids that never finish a book?  That haphazardly pick up a book only to leave it behind seemingly having checked off the reading requirement for a day?  They are a conversation waiting to happen; kids who do not know themselves as readers yet.  For ideas of how to work with them, please see this post. 

And while we need to teach students how to work through challenging text, we also need to give them opportunities to discover what love to read, what they cannot wait to read, what will bring them further into reading.  Book abandonment helps us with that if we embrace it as yet another skill that all readers know how to use.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child  Also consider joining our book club study of it, kicking off June 17th.  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.



being a teacher, Literacy, picture books, Reading

Using Picture Books With Older Students – A How-to Guide

I have written extensively about the use of picture books within our classroom and yet there are still questions that keep coming up.  No worries as I realized that I had yet to make a central blog post about picture books and how I use them with older students and so while this post may be long, I hope it is helpful.  Note that really everything I write here about using picture books with older students also goes for using them with younger kids because as we all know there no is no too old for picture books.

I have written before of why I use picture books with my middle school students, the changes it has created for us as we build our community of readers.  I have shared lists upon lists of our favorite books as well, hoping to help others find the very best value in the books they bring in, hoping to inspire others to make them an integral part of their classroom.

How Do I Know Which Books to Get?

I am connected.  I am a proud member of the Nerdy Book Club and through Twitter  I am connected to many picture book loving people; teachers, librarians, parents, and all of the other amazing people out there.  I follow hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks  #Titletalk, #pb10for10 #classroombookaday and #nerdybookclub to stay in the know.  And I tweet out asking for recommendations all of the time.

I keep a written list handy.  I have a journal book with me at all times, and while I often add books to my wishlist on Amazon, I like having the list in my bag.  I am always adding to it and will cross out as I either purchase or reject.  This also makes it easy for me to recommend books to others that they may not know about.

I read them beforehand, most of the time.  Many times we will wander to the nearest bookstore so that I can browse the books before purchasing them.  How do I know that this will be a great one for our room, well there are few things I look for…

Do I react to it in any way?  A picture book doesn’t always have to have a deep message for me to react to it; was it funny, did it make me think, did it leave me with questions?  All of these are things that I look for.

Is it easy to follow?  Sometimes it takes more than one read to really get a book and while I love those books too, most of the time, I am looking for a book that my students will get rather quickly.  At least most of them.  However, I do purchase picture books to use with smaller groups that have layers we can peel away.

Is the language accessible?  Yes, I teach 7th graders but their reading development levels range from 2nd grade to high school, so can all students access the text or will I need to “translate” it?

What purpose does it have?  I often look for picture books that can be used as community builders, self-connections, or conversation starters.  We also use them as mentor texts as we develop as readers and writers throughout the year.  But I also look for picture books that will make my students laugh, make them reconnect with being a little kid again, or help them get out of a bad mood.  I try to get a balance of all of these types of books in the hands of students.

Will we read it more than once?  Because I buy most of the picture books in my classroom, I look for enduring books that we will return to again and again.  Different things make books repeat reads; the illustrations, the phrasing, the story.  Bottom-line: it is a gut feeling most of the time.

Do we have other works by the author?  My students feel closely connected to the picture book authors and illustrators whose books we love so I try to expand our favorite collections as often as possible.  Some of our favorites are Jackie Woodson, Julie Flett, Peter Brown, Mo Willems, Peter H. Reynolds, Ame Dyckman, Jon Klassen, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

How Do I Organize our Picture Books?

Every hardcover picture book is stamped on the inside with a custom-made stamp from Amazon, which has been easily one of the best purchases I have ever made.


They are then also labeled with the first letter of the author’s last name on their spine.  That way as long as I know the author’s last name, I can quickly pull the book from that section.

shelving pbs.jpeg

Picture books are typically not checked out by students as they are easy to lose, however, others teachers borrow them freely.

Picture books are shelved together in our classroom but not organized by theme or author.  I simply do not have room for splitting up the groups, so I try to display the picture books by theme in our classroom instead.  For example, whenever it is a new month or after a break, our display is always changed out.  I want students to want to read them as much as possible and a fresh new display helps entice them.pbs on display.jpeg

How Do I Select the Book to Use?

I first identify the purpose of the lesson of course and then go through either my lists of picture books or simply flip through our stacks.  As our collection has grown, I have started keeping a better eye on picture books that can be used for more than one purpose.

Which book I choose to share depends on the lesson.  I treat it much like a short story in what I want students to get out of it so it has to suit the very purpose we are trying to understand. I introduce the concept by sharing a story and then I ask my students to come as close as they can to the rocking chair in our corner.  Once settled, whether on the floor, on balls or on chairs, I  read it aloud.  We stop and talk throughout as needed but not on every page, it should not take more than 10 minutes at most to get through an average size picture book.  If it is a brand new concept I may just have students listen, while other times they might engage in a turn-and-talk.   I have an easel right next to me and at times we write our thoughts on that.  Sometimes we make an anchor chart, it really just depends on the purpose of the lesson.  Often a picture book is used as one type of media on a topic and we can then branch into excerpts from text, video, or audio that relates to the topic.

Because I teach the same class multiple times in a row, I often switch out the picture books I use with the different classes.  There are some that you can still love reading after 4 times, while others get to be a bit tedious, so I adjust as needed.  This is why having a lot of great picture books to choose from is something I am committed to.

I do not have multiple copies of really any picture books, I don’t see it as needed.  Instead, I pick the picture book to read aloud and then find “companion books,” other picture books that share the same concept, for example easily identifiable themes. These are spread out on tables, waiting for the students to select them. This way, when I ask students to work with them they are truly testing out the skill and not just whether they can spot the same things that we just practiced together.  Often times, students can choose to work with a partner as they explore their self-selected books.

What Are Different Concepts You Can Use Picture Books to Teach?

Thematic statements

Using a picture book as an example, 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.

Writers Craft

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 does the author situate us?
  • How is the character described?
  • How are the words further explained through the illustrations?
  • How does the illustrator deepen the message?
  • How are words repeated?
  • How do we pick out symbolism and what does it signify?
  • How can we introduce all of the Notice and Note signposts through picture books?

These are just a few examples of separate lessons that can be done through a lense of writer’s craft.

Plot and Small Moment Stories

While my students can write stories, they do not always write good stories.  Sometimes they get bogged down in too many details, other times they have too few or their story is simply not interesting.  Using picture books we can study the art of plot, as well as how to encapsulate an entire story in very little language.  These are great primers for students to think of their own story craft.

Non-Fiction Focus

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 BlobfishGrowing Up Pedro, GorillasGiant 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.

Introductory texts. 

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.

Introducing Hard Content

There are incredible picture books that discuss topics such as death, jail, suicide, war, and even drug abuse and so we use these picture books to broach harder topics with students.  Seeing their stories or stories that are incredible foreign to them played out within the pages of a short book really allows for us to open up a discussion as well as connections to the pages.

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.

How Do you Assess Skills and Strategies Through a Picture Book?

Because we are a classroom driven by self-selected reading, it can be hard to figure out what students really know.  Picture books are again a central tenet of this.  Whether I have introduced a brand new skill or simply done a review, I can quickly assess students’ knowledge and use of the skill through the pages of a picture book.  All I have to do is gather up the picture books that all have the skill in them such as character development and then have students read them.  After that, they can either write, discuss, or record a response to show me their understanding.  That way I do not have to know the independent book they are reading but I can still see what they can do.

What Comes After the Reading?

Picture books are not just something we read, we write them ourselves in our epic nonfiction picture book project.  We study them.  We speak about them.   We get ideas and inspiration from them.  We carefully protect the time we have to read them.  They are the mentor texts we shape our instruction around.

What Are Some Current Favorites?

And because I cannot write a blog post about picture books and then not share a few favorites, here are some that I love at the moment.  For “live” recommendations follow my Instagram account. 

Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat

Heartbeat by Evan Turk

I’m Sad by Michael Ian Black and Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and Stevie Lewis

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez


So there you have it, a little further explanation of how picture books are used in our classroom.  They become part of the tapestry of our room and something the students search out for solace when they need to feel like they are readers again. As one child told me after I had shared our very first picture book, “Picture books make you remember your imagination again.”  And I knew that these kids got it.  That they knew that this wasn’t just me having some fun, but that picture books will teach us some of the largest lesson this year.  That picture books are not just for little kids and laughter.  They are for readers of all ages, and in particular, those who have gotten lost.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child  Also consider joining our book club study of it, kicking off June 17th.  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.