One day, my granddaughter and I were reading, We Are in a Book!* by Mo Willems. We could hardly finish reading because we were laughing so hard. In the book, Gerald and Piggy discover that they are being ‘read.’ The illustrations show the two looking out at the reader and becoming excited. At one point they celebrate and shout (in large print), “THAT IS SO COOL!” My granddaughter found the pictures more engaging and funny than the text. This happens with picture books, no matter the book or the age of the reader.
The “art” in a book is “text” to read, rather than merely pictures to accompany the story. (1) Books in which the illustrations are at least as important as the text is the very definition of a picture book. When I first started working as a teacher, I was cautioned not to allow children to use clues from the illustrations to try to decode the print on the page because it might lead them to guessing instead of decoding. Researchers now strongly indicate that the opposite is true. ‘Reading’ the artwork or picture cues in an illustrated book will help children develop a more complete understanding of the story. In fact, picture books offer wonderful examples of text structure, story composition, vocabulary development, and writing, in addition to many other reading skills. Picture books are not just excellent for pre- and beginning readers, but they also model skills for children who are already readers. (2)
Picture books are essential for the beginning reader and struggling reader. Using picture clues provided in an illustrated text does help the child decode the text. When sounding out or using other word clues does not decode an unfamiliar word for a child, looking at the illustration can often provide additional information for decoding the word. That is why beginning reader picture books, such as We Are in a Book, are so useful to children learning to read. The books not only use short, simple words, but they provide visual clues to what the text is saying. While allowing my granddaughter to read part of the book with me, I noticed that when she struggled with a word she immediately glanced up at the illustration and then returned to the word she was decoding. It was almost like a natural instinct to see where she could find additional information to help her figure out the word that was challenging her.
Besides helping children decode words, picture books serve as wonderful models of story structure and are essential for vocabulary development. Children who are read to often simply know more. Reading picture books to children, even accomplished readers, is an essential part of reading instruction and support. I personally know middle school teachers who use picture books with their students on a regular basis. Children’s discussions after reading/listening to picture books increasingly demonstrate they are reading the art and integrating that meaning with the written text. (1)
I recently read an article written by a retired professor of children’s literature about how she used picture books with her mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She and her mother shared many wonderful moments of clarity and discussion over picture books. Since her mother had read to her as a child, the connection was revisited again when her mother was losing touch with other portions of life. During their experiences, the illustrations caught her mother’s attention and became the focus of most of their discussions. Even as her mother was slipping further away, she would pick up a book they had shared, and, after looking at the pictures, she would start reading the text again. The connection between the illustrations and the text in a picture book lends itself to life experiences. (3)
We are so fortunate in 2013 to have an abundance of picture books at our fingertips. Never in history have there been so many resources. Good teachers and parents should continually use picture books with children. Picture books will help a child become a strong reader and increase her/his understanding of the world in general.
(1) Martens, P., Martens, R., Doyle, M.H., Loomis, J., Aghalarov, S. (2012). Learning from picturebooks. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 66. Issue 4. Pp. 285-294.
(2) Lewis, D. (2001). Reading contemporary picturebooks: Picturing texts. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
(3) Poe, Elizabeth. Reading with my mother. (2013). The Horn Book Magazine, Sept/Oct 2013. Boston, MA.
A Few Suggestions of Newly-Published Picture Books
That is Not My Hat – Jon Klassen
A is for Musk Ox – by Erin Cabatingan
Extra Yarn – by Mac Barnett
Goldilocks and the 3 Dinosaurs – by Mo Willems
*We are in a Book and That’s Not a Good Idea! – by Mo Willems
Goldilocks and Just One Bear – Leigh Hodgkinson
Oh No, George! – by Chris Haughton
Bear Has a Story to Tell – by Philip and Erin Stead
The flying Books for Morris Lessmore – by William Joyce & Joe Bluhm
Each Kindness – by Jacqueline Woodson
Island – by Chen (non-fiction)
Forgive Me, I meant to Do It – by Gail Carson Levine
Chloe – by Peter McCarty
Last Laughs – by Lewis & Yolen **
Sadie and Ratz – by Sonya Hartnett
Sophie’s Fish – by A. E. Cannon
Penny and Her Song – by Kevin Henkes
And Then It’s Spring – by Julie Fogliano