Picture books for all

Average: 3.6 (72 votes)

Can I hear you tutting? "Picturebooks for all? But aren't picturebooks for babies and small children?"

There are some wonderful examples of picturebooks, often in board book format, which are specifically for babies and small children, but picturebooks are not just for babies.

There are picturebooks created with an older audience in mind; they often work on many levels, satisfying both younger and older readers, their humour can be rip-roaring their underlying messages appreciated on multiple levels and in different ways. Picturebooks can be very successful in our ELT classes, from pre-school, through primary and secondary, even at university level, and they deserve space on the shelf, next to the other 'authentic' materials we may use already. But we'll start off by making sure we are clear about what a picturebook is.


What is a picturebook?
Picturebooks are not easy to define - they are often confused with reading schemes, readers or illustrated books. Within ELT picturebooks are commonly known as "real books", (Machura, 1991; Dunn, 1997; Mourão, 2003) and "authentic storybooks" (Ellis & Brewster 2002). There's an emphasis on authenticity and narrative in all these labels.  They are referring to picturebooks, though authenticity and narrative are not their only defining features.

Here's a quote as a springboard for discussing what a picturebook is:

"I just love the picture book form, being allowed to write with both words and pictures, the little cha cha that I get to have them dance. I love being allowed to tell my story with every inch of the book, that wonderful object, from cover to cover – including the endpapers, title page – everything, even the colophon. Pages can be full and active, or empty and silent. Page turns become part of the rhythm, acting like giant commas. (…) They have to be very tight – authors are generally only allowed thirty-two pages and word counts in the low hundreds to get character, story, and theme across. And of course picture books are usually read aloud, so the text really needs to sing. (…)"  Deborah Freedman

Deborah Freedman is a picturebook creator, she writes and illustrates her books. Her quote highlights several defining qualities of the picturebook. 

  1. "… to write with both words and pictures": this is key to the way a picturebook is read, for we have to read both the pictures and the words to get the whole meaning.
  2. "… the little cha cha that I get to have them dance": to compare pictures and words together as a dance is not uncommon, for they inter-animate (Meek, 1992) in a number of different ways. Their relationship has been compared to a theatrical double-act and a musical duet, to the interweaving of a perfect cloth, to an ecosystem (for they both influence and are influenced by one another), and finally pictures and words are thought to work together in synergy, producing a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Pictures and words both contribute to the message we take from a page, for pictures show, and words tell, and when seen together they affect each other's showing and telling qualities.
    They inter-animate in many different ways: in some picturebooks pictures and words walk calmly hand in hand, rather like those sedate medieval dances with partners holding hands, facing each other and bowing every now and then!  Examples would be Ketchup on your cornflakes (Sharratt) or The very hungry caterpillar (Carle). In other picturebooks the dance is a lively one, the pictures and words dart in and out, using different moves, going in different directions, examples would be Farmer duck (Wadell & Oxenbury), Yo! Yes! (Rascka), or Tusk, tusk (McGee).
  3. "… tell my story with every inch of the book": This is indeed a delightful part of the picturebook definition, that it includes the whole book from front cover to back cover - all those parts which in adult literature we tend to skip over. Examples of picturebooks which use the peritextual features in a big way are Mythological Monsters (Fanelli), Piggybook (Browne) or The lost thing (Tan). 
  4. "Page turns become part of the rhythm …": Picturebooks depend very much upon the turning of the page.  There's often a question that needs answering or a problem that we want to see resolved: these make us want to turn the page: they are like the cliffhangers of our favourite TV serials! An example many of you will be familiar with is in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see? (Martin Jr & Carle), the question "… what do you see?" makes us want to turn the page to see what's there. Another of my favourites is Wolves (Gravett), for the pictures take an alternative route and do not follow the words at all, and for this very reason we are desperate to turn the page to see if what we think will happen really will … and it does!
  5. "… only allowed thirty-two pages and word counts in the low hundreds …": this is a challenge, and one many underestimate. Picturebooks have been called "the richest and potentially most rewarding of literary forms" (Hunt, 2001), yet we struggle with accepting that pictures can be as important, if not more so, than words.  We are a word heavy society considering the written word our main source of information.  If you are to benefit from picturebooks it is important to overcome this, for it is through the pictures that we access much of the information.
  6. "… picture books are usually read aloud ...": How many of us associate reading aloud with small children? Yet there are very positive effects to be had from reading aloud to older students.  In an ELT classroom reading aloud using a picturebook not only provides the obvious benefits of listening in another language, listening to rhythmic sounding words rarely used in our learning contexts, but also the enjoyment that pictures bring with them. Students soon realize that the words say one thing and the pictures show another, and they get the message that is found in limbo between the two. That's a good feeling!

Picturebooks in ELT

And so we have discovered that a picturebook is much more than an authentic narrative, nonetheless, in ELT we tend to select picturebooks because our students will benefit from hearing the words they contain - but what about the pictures? What about the pictures when they are part of a dynamic dance, a dance with different moves? My suggestion would be to select picturebooks that challenge our students to look, listen and think, especially with older students, for they have the language baggage which will enable them to talk about their thoughts.

Here is an example of how two state school teachers in Portugal planned to use a picturebook with their B1 level, year 9 students (14 - 16 years old). The activities were part of the students' citizenship learning programme and the picturebook they used was The red tree (Tan).  Here's their description of the book:

"Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to... The Red Tree is a wonderful story about solitude and the importance of hope in one’s life. The main character, a young girl, goes through the day feeling lost, until she finds 'it' in an unexpected place. What 'it' is, is up to each of us to discover."

These are their ideas for using The red tree:

Before reading

  • Complete a word search activity with emotion words. 
  • Elicit further emotion words.
  • Show and discuss the cover and opening picture entitled ‘Dawn’, which is part of the peritext.
  • Ask the students questions, help them think about how the girl feels and predict what happens in the picturebook. “How do you think she feels?”; “What do you think the story is about?” etc

Reading the picturebook

  • Read and show the picturebook, ensure you leave plenty of time for the students to look at the illustrations. 
  • Read the book again, and if you have a class set, let students look at their copies.
  • Talk about the illustrations, but don’t forget there is no right answer to anything. 
  • In groups, ask them to make a list of the images that represent positive and negative feelings. (There is a supportive handout for this.)
  • Follow up with students sharing their ideas with the rest of the class, give plenty of time for further discussion.
  • Read the picturebook as many times as you feel necessary.

After reading

  • Create a red tree of hope: Give students red leaf shapes. Ask them to write positive emotion words on the leaves, place the leaves around a brown trunk.
  • Make a class poem book: Ask students to complete a poem, using feeling words. (There is a supportive handout for this.) Students can also illustrate their poem. Put the poem sheets together into a class book.
  • Self-evaluation sheet.

It's clear that the teachers are focusing on the visual and encouraging their students to talk about the impact this has on their understanding of the picturebook's message. They help the students focus on the puzzles they find within, and also reinforce the fact that there is no right answer. They provide opportunities for discussion, which later lead into structured supported writing activities. I would say this collection of activities is very appropriate for older students, wouldn't you? It's real communication in English for real reasons.

There are a number of picturebook titles that can be used in a similar way with older students in an ELT context and at the end of the month I hope to publish a list, made up of some of my suggestions and yours too. For the time being here are four possibilities and if you want to know why I think they are appropriate for older learners, ask me!

Browne, A. (1986) Piggybook, Julia London: MacRae/Walker Books
Erlbruch, W. (2007) Duck, death and the tulip Wellington: Gecko Press
McKee, D. (2006) Tusk, Tusk London: Andersen Press
Smith, L. (2010) It's a book New York: Roaring Book Press


You might be thinking, "But picturebooks are difficult to get hold of and far too expensive". There are a number of online bookstores where you can buy cheaper books. Amazon provides a second-hand service and www.bookdepository.co.uk send books with free worldwide delivery. Many of the books I refer to in this article can be purchased for under €6. I acknowledge that this might be a lot for some teachers, but not all. 

And so the questions I am posing you, the readers here, are:

  • If you don't use picturebooks, with any age group, why don't you? What stops you? Tell me.
  • What do you think about using picturebooks with older learners in particular? Is it something you think you would like to do, if you don't already?
  • Do you use picturebooks in your English classes? If so, do you select titles that challenge your students to look, listen and think? Tell me about the picturebooks you use.

By Sandie Mourão

Useful links

  1. My blog looks at several titles for older children and focuses on the picture in picturebooks
  2. This website looks at diversity in children's literature
  3. An article about picturebooks for older readers in bookshops in Carousel
  4. A blog post about reading aloud
  5. Carousel - The guide to children's books

Picturebooks cited:
Browne, (2008) A. Piggybook London: Walker Books
Carle, E. (2002) The very hungry caterpillar London: Picture Puffin
Fanelli, S. (2006) Mythalogical Monsters London: Walker Books
Gravett, E. (2006) Wolves London: Pan Macmillan
Martin Jr, B. & Carle, E. 1995 Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? London: Puffin Books
McKee, D. (2006) Tusk, Tusk London: Andersen Press
Raschka, C. (2007) Yo! Yes! New York: Scholastic
Sharratt, N. (1996) Ketchup on your cornflakes London: Scholastic Hippo
Tan. S. (2000) The lost thing Melbourne, Lothian Books
Tan, S. (2000) The red tree Melbourne, Lothian Books
Waddell, M. & Oxenbury, H. (1995) Farmer Duck London, Walker Books Ltd

Dunn, O. (1997-2004) REAL BOOK News http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/real-books
Ellis, G. & Brewster, J. (2002) Tell it again! The new storytelling handbook for primary teachers. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited
Hunt, P. (Ed.) (2001) Children's Literature Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Machura, L. (1991) Using literature in language teaching. In Brumfit, C., Moon, J. Tongue, R. (Eds) Teaching English to children London: Harpercolins Publishers
Meek, M. (1992) Children reading now, in: M. Styles, E. Bearne & V. Watson (Eds) After Alice: exploring children's literature London: Cassel
Mourão, S. (2003) Realbooks in the Primary Classroom. Southam: Mary Glasgow Scholastic
Deborah Freedman's quote comes from an interview which can be found here:

Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments