At a time when the conversation about literature has been focusing on students reading increasingly complex texts, Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s picture book called Duck! Rabbit! (Chronicle, 2009) might seem a bit out of place in a high school English class.
But Brianna Crowley, who teaches at Hershey (PA) High School, sees how she can use the book to teach students about why it’s important to understand point of view in a story.
“To me, it’s an easy access point,” says Crowley, who has dedicated a shelf in her classroom to a variety of picture books that might be more common in a kindergarten reading nook. “To them, it’s going to feel so accessible, but as a professional I’m going to know how to question to help them go deeper.”
Picture books, according to some English language arts (ELA) experts, provide excellent opportunities to teach higher-level skills while still providing an engaging experience for older students who might think they don’t like to read. In fact, many picture books are quite complex, says Mary Jo Fresch, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University and co-author of The Power of Picture Books: Using Content Area Literature in Middle School (National Council of Teachers of English, 2009)
“Not everything is in the pictures and not everything is in the words,” Fresch says. “It takes some real critical thinking to use a picture book.”
Support for English learners
Picture books can draw in readers of all levels, including English language learners (ELL), in a way that text-only books cannot, Fresch adds. In a post for Colorín Colorado, Judith B. Loughlin, an education consultant who taught ELL students in New Jersey, writes about how picture books help older ELL students meet the ELA anchor standards in the Common Core. But she adds that teachers should look for high-quality materials that are “free from stereotypes,” use appropriate academic vocabulary, use pictures and language to explain abstract concepts and build background knowledge.
Crowley says she came around to incorporating picture books into her curriculum for a few reasons. First, she found that her students—no matter how resistant they might seem toward reading—are always engaged when she reads aloud.
“If you’re fluent at reading and you love it, and you’re able to convey that in a read-aloud, I’ve never seen a student react poorly to that,” she says.
Then she began to read what other teachers were saying about how they use picture books with older students. One of those teachers is Paul Hankins, who teaches Advanced Placement (AP) English language and composition to 11th graders at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg, IN, and has been using picture books as part of his instruction for many years.
To teach rhetorical situation, he introduced Jim Averbeck’s and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (S. & S., 2015), a picture book about a girl whose birthday request for a giraffe is labeled by her family members as verbose,” “effusive,” and “loquacious.”
“AP students are not only getting a lesson in rhetorical situation, they are also getting a quick lesson in Tier I and Tier II words that all mean ‘wordy,’” Hankins says. “I would submit that the student who can analyze a picture book like the Sophia book and make a connection back to the bigger lesson we are considering is beginning to demonstrate those skills we want to see upon an AP exam. And certainly upon the SAT/ACT many of these students will take.”
Companions to classics
Several of the picture books he reads with his students are companions to the grade-level texts they are studying. Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick, 2014)—a story of “starts and stops and missed opportunities,” Hankins says—pairs well with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Another example is Yansook Choi’s The Name Jar (Dragonfly Bks, 2003), which he reads with his students before they start on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible because it communicates the importance of one’s name.
Pernille Ripp, a seventh-grade teacher at Oregon (WI) Middle School, uses picture books for close reading activities and class discussions about how people can interpret information differently. The books are also a great source of more challenging words for her students.
“They’re not afraid of harder vocabulary when it’s in a picture book,” she says.
But teachers say there are other important reasons—beyond the curricular connections—to give older students access to picture books.
“There was something about the feeling that happened in my classroom when I pulled out a picture book,” Ripp says about her gradual shift in this direction. Students have also responded by reading more outside of school, she says.
‘A Community of Readers’
Crowley says she hopes to help her students understand that books have a way of creating a “community of readers,” who feel a connection to certain books, even as adults. Her principal and curriculum director even donated their favorites to her classroom and wrote about why those books are still special to them.
Hankins adds that some of the books he reads are simply just for fun. He wrote in his blog that “books should be the treat and not the threat.”
One challenge, Hankins says, is that many older students have limited access to picture books and might only see what’s on the shelves in large stores like Target or Walmart.
“A big part of this is title awareness and knowing how a picture book might connect to the bigger picture we want students to get,” he says. “Picture books are the first format we abandon as early readers moving into chapter books for a variety of reasons, the most tragic reason of all being that someone would tell us that picture books are inappropriate for us to be reading at some point in our lives.”
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