Using picture books for older readers
by Gaynor Andrews, debut picture book writer
As every teacher knows, picture books are not just for very young children. My daughter received Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree as part of a Speech Day prize in year 11 and adores it. The simple lines of text and sumptuous illustrations create an evocative, multi-sensory experience, with a powerful, underlying message.
In picture books, words and art work together to create meaning and, in great picture books, there will be something new to discover on each reading. Like graphic novels, pictures support the understanding of the text, and both are excellent for teaching and learning across the age groups.
Picture books open up discussions about the environment (We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade), diversity (The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad, S. K. Ali and Hatem Aly) and grief (Grandad's Island by Benji Davies). They can be used to discuss disability, immigration, war and bullying. There will probably be a picture book for every difficult issue that needs to be discussed with a class of children. The straightforward text often belies deep layers of meaning, so that the topic can be discussed on many levels and with different age-groups.
There are picture books – both fiction and non-fiction - to provide entry points into lessons across the curriculum. And, of course, they are perfect for literacy lessons. They provide tools for teaching inference and deduction skills, promoting critical thinking and discussing viewpoints. Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, for example, is ideal for character analysis and comparing facts with opinions, as well as promoting visual literacy – the playful illustrations add another layer to the story. In this blogpost, @teacherglitter describes a series of literacy lessons, including inferring, persuasive writing and drama, based on the wordless picture book, Flotsam by David Wiesner.
The delights of discussing picture books with older children include being able to dig deeper into the text – spotting the alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphors. What is the author really saying? How were the words or letter sounds used to convey comfort or unease, languor or speed?
Picture books are often used to launch creative writing activities – character descriptions or writing letters or even producing a whole new picture book which can be shared with younger children in the school. When I’ve worked with my year 6 class on writing picture books, the enthusiasm for the task is palpable. They are writing as readers – remembering the delights of hearing these stories themselves a few years earlier and knowing just what their 4 year old readers will enjoy.
Teachers who write are often in the same privileged position – we know our audience well, we know what stories capture their hearts. We write to tell a story we want to read ourselves. And, as writers who also teach, we know what skills our students need to acquire. Teaching opportunities seep into our work without us even noticing it.