Picture Books and Older Learners

I love using picture books to teach! I use them to teach all subjects (even math!) and all skill/proficiency levels. I teach picture books that are old favorites, and some that are new to me. They make for fun lessons celebrating major holidays (and some holidays that are not so major). I am a passionate believer that picture books belong in every classroom and should be used with all ages. I used them when I (very briefly) taught kindergarten, I used them when I taught middle and high school, and I use them with my adults (I just assigned my advanced reading class of college students a cause and effect assignment using The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate The Wash). While it may seem strange, or even insulting, to use picture books with older learners, I have found it to be quite effective and that my older learners enjoy, and even at times beg, for me to incorporate them. Today I’d like to share with you the several of the reasons I use picture books with older learners.

First, they are fun. Everyone, regardless of age or stage of life, enjoys a good story and nice pictures. Some of my students were considered older because of the years they’d spent on this planet, others because of things they’d experienced and witnessed, but the vast majority of my students could be called “older,” and every single one of them has enjoyed picture books. I’ve had students that served in the most elite divisions of their country’s military, what would be equivalent to our special forces, who smiled, laughed, and even requested we read more picture books in class. If the strongest and toughest adults among us still enjoy a good picture book, I can’t think of someone who wouldn’t.

Second, picture books actually require one to be a quite proficient reader. We think of them as simple and easy because they are written for children, but they were written for children to understand–not read. Most picture books are not written with beginning, emergent, or even developing readers in mind; they are written for a fluent reader to read to a child who cannot yet read for him/herself, or is still learning to read for him/herself. For example, one of my favorite books of all time is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (which I often read aloud when teaching synonyms and use in our compound word unit). With a Lexile level of AD840 (AD stands for adult directed), this book requires one to possess a 4th-5th grade reading level; it’s actually not that much of an easier read than the Harry Potter books, which have a Lexile average of somewhere around 900 (5th grade).

Third, picture books provide English language learners with a lot of visual support that isn’t present in a novel. At least every other page has an illustration of some kind, usually a quite large and colorful one, that corresponds directly to the text on those same two pages. To get anywhere near the same kind of support in a novel, one would have to focus solely on specially designed novels, such as the Great Illustrated Classics series. These added context clues are very helpful for understanding and acquiring new vocabulary.

Fourth, many classic picture books have been translated into multiple languages and are sold around the world. For example, the classic book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, has been translated into more than 62 languages. It is not unusual for my English language learners to recognize a book because they’ve read it in their first language. All of that knowledge of the story line, characters, themes, etc. transfers, and students are able to draw on it to help them learn the English vocabulary and complete any comprehension or skill activities we do with the story.

Fifth, reading classic and popular picture books usually stimulates fond memories and pleasant emotions. For native English speaking students, this puts them in a mental state which enhances learning and retention. For English language learners, it gives them the opportunity to increase their cultural knowledge and experiences. This then translates into better connections between them and their English-speaking peers. It’s never fun to sit around listening to people reminisce about something you have no knowledge of, and reading classic picture books in class gives English language learners the knowledge and cultural experiences they need to join in discussions of favorite childhood books.

Sixth, and finally for today, using picture books with older learners, particularly adults, provides them the opportunity to connect with their own family. Many of my adult students have been parents and grandparents, even great grandparents, and they are constantly looking for ways to connect with the children in their lives. The parents want a way to help their children learn English. The grandparents are often hoping to connect with a grandchild who isn’t fluent in the adult’s first language. By reading picture books in class, these adults have the chance to practice pronouncing the words in the story, learn the meaning of any new vocabulary, and understand the basic plot line. They are then able to go home and read the book to their child/grandchild, creating fond memories and connections across languages.

I could go on much longer, but I think my point has been made: picture books are valuable learning tools for students of all ages. They have a lot to offer older learners, and I would encourage you to try using them with your own students. If you’re still nervous your older students will be offended or insulted in some way, try introducing picture books by starting with one of your personal favorites. My students are always more interested in books that I love, and it’s hard to believe your teacher thinks you’re stupid if he/she is telling you how much he/she enjoys a picture book. The other thing I have done at times is to preface a unit involving a picture book with an honest conversation. I tell students flat out that I do not think they are stupid, I am not using this book because I think they are childish, and I go on to explain one or two of the reasons I gave above for why I am using the book. Even my most skeptical students have come around quickly after these type of conversations. I’m not going to say that every student will fall in love (or even like) with every book, but since that isn’t true of small children and picture books, I think it wouldn’t be fair to expect it of older learners. Use a variety of books and every student will find at least one that he/she enjoys. Happy teaching, everyone!