By: Cindy Williams, Third Grade Teacher, Reading Specialist
We all remember some of our very first picture books that were read to us at an early age. One of my favorite books from my childhood is, Are You My Mother? By P. D. Eastman. Following the little bird on the journey to find his mother was captivating and the line drawings depicting the story demanded my attention.
Do we abandon the joy of reading picture books too early in our children’s lives? Could they help our children develop a love for reading? Are picture books a beneficial tool for students in the middle and upper school grades to promote a deeper understanding of complex ideas?
There is research that suggests we are pushing some of our elementary students into chapter books before they are ready. Picture books have language that is often more sophisticated than some of the first chapter books that children read. Children can enhance their vocabulary, imagery, and increase their comprehension of the text by reading illustrated books. Those who read illustrated stories may be more motivated to develop stronger reading skills faster than when a child is only reading chapter books. Picture books are more interesting and exciting to children. The pictures add a better understanding of the action and a better sense of the plot. Even before children begin to read, the picture books allow them to decode the meaning of words as they listen to the story. Picture books appeal to children’s curiosity and sense of wonder, motivating them to read independently.
When students are encouraged to read text-only stories or chapter books prematurely, we may be limiting their joy of reading and slowing their growth as independent readers.
A ”text only” story cannot use the rich vocabulary choices that illustrated stories use due to the fact that some students are still developing their basic vocabulary.
Many middle, upper school, and even college instructors have recognized the importance of using picture books in their lessons. Reading a picture book does more than any other literary format for connecting people with one another. If you have a difficult idea to express, a picture book is the perfect place to start. The Butterfly, by Patricia Polacco demonstrates the hardships endured during Word War II and Goin’Someplace Special, by Patricia C. McKissack gives a glimpse of bigotry in the 1950’s. Both are difficult topics to discuss, but are easily approached through these picture books.
The Caldecott Medal, awarded each year for outstanding children’s book illustrations, “defines the picture book audience as birth to age 14” (Fingerson & Killeen 32). Many topics tackled by picture book authors are more appropriate for middle school students and are created with the adolescent reader in mind. Their topics are sophisticated, inviting in-depth discussion. Issues that are important and very real to young adolescents—homelessness, crime, environmental problems (Beane 1993)—are easily explored through picture books. The mature content of these books, written specifically for middle school readers, lends itself to opportunities for thoughtful analysis and critical thinking.
It seems that picture books are worth a thousand words and offer a positive reading experience for everyone.