In 2013, we had our first baby, Gianna. Taking the advice of a mentor and a colleague*, I started collecting picture books. With a bouncy baby girl on my knee, I read classics, like “Goodnight Moon,” and New York Times best sellers, like “The Pout-Pout Fish.” It didn’t take long for me to realize their complexity. Then, something else strange started happening. I began to see literary concepts jump out at me right from the pages. It wasn’t long before I started conducting research.
Picture Books Research
I discovered that back in 1984 authors Beckman and Diamond suggested the benefit of using picture books with kids of all ages to promote language arts learning. Though the focus of their work was on middle school and junior high levels, the authors identified significant universal experience. Namely, they indicated the same misconception that many of us secondary teachers hold: “[teachers] may assume their students are too old for picture books” (p. 102), and Watson (1978) expressed another: teachers conclude that picture books for big kids are “too babyish” (p. 208). On the contrary, I found many researchers who agree that picture books provide an accessible way to add varied materials to the curriculum, improve reading comprehension, incorporate visual literacy, stimulate higher-order creative thinking, and introduce vocabulary with rich language (Beckman & Diamond, 1984; Giorgis, 1999; Senokossoff, 2013; Tiedt, 2000; Watson, 1978).
Getting Started with Picture Books
I am so excited to share my research using picture books in secondary ELA to teach literary analysis. Because this is a topic that I fear too many secondary teachers (my former self included) pass off as too elementary or not academic, I find it important to share my research and sources. This article will not only help you plan your own lessons using picture books, but it will provide you with the support to justify its value and feel confident with this topic. I presented on this topic at the Keeping the Wonder Workshop Season 1, and if you’re interested in learning the exact lesson plans that I use, I’d love for you to join our virtual workshop where I break down this information further.
The first step is to understand the ways that picture books can be used in your secondary ELA classroom. I created three overarching actions to help me when lesson planning: 1) introduce a literary concept, 2) explore literary devices, and 3) extend a literary theme.
Introduce a Literary Concept with Picture Books
A picture book read aloud is a great anticipatory activity to introduce a literary concept. In fact, I’ve used a traditional read aloud model to introduce literary concepts, such as tonal shifts. My Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students often have a hard time connecting tonal shifts in poetry to author’s purpose. Therefore, I started the lesson with a read aloud of the well-known picture book, “Llama Llama Red Pajama” by Anna Dewdney. This picture book about a little Llama waiting for his mother to check on him before bed includes several deliberate tonal shifts tied to the author’s intent: to show little readers that they shouldn’t panic when their parents have work to do at bedtime. While this message of patience is a good reminder (myself included), the real magic happens when my students recognize the significance of the tonal shifts.
These tonal shifts are brilliantly represented by rhythmic verse and memorable illustrations, which help my secondary students identify the tonal shifts and connect them to the purpose. After introducing this concept, students have a much easier time applying their understanding of tonal shifts and author’s purpose to 17th century poetry.
In this example, I use a picture book to introduce a challenging literary concept, tonal shifts. The read aloud structure is an important aspect of this introduction. In fact, reading aloud to adolescent students helps them to understand “the power of the spoken word and the bond that develops between speaker/oral reader and audience” (Megyeri, 1993, p. 186). Performing a read aloud to students is something that takes practice, and I do mean performing. Using intentional voices for dialogue, inflection, and emotion help students understand tone and mood and increases their engagement. If you don’t feel comfortable right way (or ever), there are other strategies to incorporate picture books for academic purposes that require student voices.
Explore Literary Devices with Picture Books
This next method involves student voice as an inquiry-based approach, an approach that requires students to explore a question, problem, or scenario to arrive at an understanding, solution, or hypothesis, and as a way to build what Jacobson (2015) described as a “community of readers” (para. 17). Using a stations strategy, I identified five literary devices. Then, I paired a children’s book with each literary device. Students worked in groups of five to complete the task of 1) reading the book aloud by taking turns, 2) defining the literary terms through their own research, and 3) identifying how and why the literary term was exemplified by the picture book.
For example, when my AP Language and Composition students were studying writer’s craft, station one was the picture book, “All the World,” by Liz Garton Scanlon, which was paired with the term, asyndeton, and station two, included “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown paired with the term, polysyndeton. Each station followed this pattern. By the end of the activity, the students read a total of five picture books and explored each term through an inquiry-based approach. They overwhelmingly agreed that this process was much more engaging and helpful than a typical slideshow and notes lesson.
Extend a Literary Concept with Picture Books
The final category that I identified is to use picture books as an extension of a literary concept, theme, or unit of study. In other words, once the concept is taught, a picture book can function as an extension or remedial activity. Jacobson (2015) used the term “companions to classics.” In this case, picture books provide a new lens for which to interpret important themes and concepts (Jacobson, 2015). In addition, visual literacy, the skills necessary to analyze the complexities of an image, is an important skill that can be developed during these supplemental lessons (Senokossoff, 2013).
In my AP Language and Composition class, students analyzed the rhetorical situation in Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech. After studying her speech, I performed a read aloud with Malala’s picture book, “Malala’s Magic Pencil.” The visual imagery and symbolism is spellbinding. Not only does it highlight a moving rendition of her harrowing personal and global triumph for girls’ education against misogyny and violence, but it also signifies the core of her message as expressed in her acceptance speech.
When it comes to student interaction with picture books, traditional approaches to analysis can be applied to picture books. In fact, picture books provide an excellent opportunity for close reading both textually and visually and a new lens for discussion and analysis (Senokossoff, 2013). Depending on your classroom goals, guided listening and looking activities can be completed before, during, or after read alouds or group activities. These guided reading opportunities can align specifically to your classroom goals.
Here are some additional ideas that can be used as your extension activity:
- create picture books mimicking the writer’s style and diction
- analyze the effectiveness of the illustrations
- write and share a critic’s review of the picture book
- analyze the subject, occasion, audience, purpose, and speaker
- complete a reader response journal entry or free write
- participate in a Socratic Seminar to compare the picture book to the traditional content
When it comes to introducing the selected picture to your secondary students, there are some best practices, or rather worst practices. It’s so easy to start with an apology or a justification for any new strategy, but I caution you to use positive intentional language when introducing the picture book to the class. As you’ve now read, there is a very solid research base to support the benefits of using picture books for secondary students, not to mention the literature that supports the value of picture books in general. Giorgis (1999) expresses this very clearly: [when a teacher]
apologizes to the students and tries to explain the reasons for bringing a book for “little kids” to the class. Students immediately perceive that they are going to be “read down to” and often are put off by the experience. If students reject picture books in their classroom, the question should be raised as to how the book was introduced. If the picture book is explained as an inferior text, then students will develop a negative mindset before the reading occurs, and the experience is doomed to failure. (p. 52)
To summarize, when introducing picture books treat them with the academic value they deserve, and watch your students literary analysis skills soar to new heights.
*The advice from my mentor was “love them and read to them.” It’s advice that I’ve tried to use as a mom and a teacher.
Beckman, J., & Diamond, J. (1984). Picture books in the classroom: The secret weapon for the creative teacher. The English Journal, 73(2), 102-104. doi:10.2307/817545
Giorgis, C. (1999). The power of reading picture books aloud to secondary students. Clearing House, 73(1), 51-53.
Jacobson, L. (2015). Teachers find many reasons to use picture books with middle and high school students. The School Library Journal. Retrieved from https://www.slj.com/2015/09/books-media/teachers-find-many-reasons-to-use-picture-books-with-middle-and-high-school-students/#_
Megyeri, K. A. 1993. The reading aloud of ninth-grade writing. Journal of Reading, 37: 184-90.
Robinson, J. (2010). Little kids, stuffed animals, and picture books at a high school? Reading Today, 27(4), 36.
Tiedt, I. M. (2000). Teaching with Picture Books in the Middle School. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Senokossoff, G.W. (2013). Picture books are for little kids, aren’t they? Using picture books with adolescent readers to enhance literacy instruction. Reading Horizons, 52(3), 211-232.
Watson, J. (1978). Picture books for young adolescents. The Clearing House, 51(5), 208-212. Retrieved from http://reddog.rmu.edu:2083/stable/30184980
For information about how you can use picture books in conjunction with teaching poetry, check out this article I wrote about teaching poetic analysis.
Picture books make a great introduction for literary lenses. Read this article about literary lenses for information.