In 2010, I read an article in The New York Times that both saddened and infuriated me. In “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” by Julie Bosman we learned about a bookstore in Brookline, MA, a beautiful community surrounded by Harvard, MIT, Tufts, etc., where parents were rejecting picture books. They skipped buying them for their children in favor of chapter books.
Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.
Picture books v. high-stakes testing–what an awful switch for children. Pushing them this way meant they would miss out on the beauty and wonder of picture books, and they would lose an important precursor to learning how to read.
What about picture books five years later?
In response to The New York Times report, a group of children’s book authors and illustrators got together to call November Picture Book Month. I decided to write about the importance of the picture book to learning how to read…how these books are better than inundating young children with so much testing and the Common Core practice of close reading.
Picture books seem popular again, but they are aligned to Common Core State Standards. I have already written about close reading. Children are bombarded with too many questions about the books they read, interrupting the story’s flow. They don’t need to be asked questions about every character, or the setting, or what is happening in the story, or what they think is going to eventually happen.
Children will raise their own questions if the book is appealing. The teacher should only intervene if there is confusion, or if they are asked a question–or if it helps the story flow. The belief is close reading will assist with reading comprehension, but adults are essentially not trusting the child to think on their own.
Along with this, children don’t get much time to read picture books because testing dominates. You don’t have to go far to hear everyone’s concerns about so much testing of young children, but little is being done about it.
Common Core also calls for more nonfiction. Nonfiction picture books are important, but children should be allowed to choose the books they read on their own–the books that make them feel comfortable.
The most important part of reading at this age, often forgotten, is getting children to want to read.
Qualified teachers, with a background in early childhood education and corrective reading, who know what to look for, will be able to spot reading difficulties in children. Parents recognize problems at home too, when a child ignores books or struggles with sounds and letters, or doesn’t pay attention when they should. Teachers also notice language and motor difficulties in young children. There is no need for high-stakes testing.
Schools never needed Common Core for children to learn from picture books either. Children have always learned from picture books. Here’s how it works:
Wordless Picture Books
Wordless picture books are critical for language development. Children are in control when they look at pictures and describe what those pictures mean on their own.
Being in control of a book, as a child, is a mighty thing. Pictures permit that control when children don’t know the words. They use their brains to think about what’s happening. If adults don’t give them opportunities to do this (too much testing), or they micromanage the process (close reading), children miss out on this important process.
Picture Books with Words
When children become curious about pictures, they move into the picture books that have words. They get excited to be reading and want to understand more. They will figure out what the story means–what the words are saying! Pictures help them make sense of the words.
I have a memory of when I was around 4 or 5 years old that illustrates this well. I was looking at a picture book with a little friend. The book had words I didn’t know, but I used the pictures to understand what was happening and pretended to read the words. I was able to interpret the pictures well enough that my buddy thought I was really reading! My guess is most people can relate to this experience when they think about how they originally learned to read.
Chapter books are great for children too, but parents and teachers shouldn’t bypass picture books thinking that jumping into chapter books will make their child read faster or be smarter.
Our elementary schools should be filled with rich beautiful picture books, and chapter books, at different levels, for children to read and enjoy. Children have the right to be given free reading time in school, and they also should have the right to pick the books that interest them when they are first learning to read.
If a child doesn’t care about pictures or picture books, the teacher can then intervene and suggest books to the student. Picture books are not the only focus of a great reading program for young children, but they should be a big part of it.
A simple picture book has practical value and children have learned to read this way for years.
One last thing. We must give children picture books, if nothing more, than to anchor them for life’s difficult times. How many of us remember the characters in our lives we met in picture books?
To illustrate the power of pictures, the picture books we hold dear, and the comfort they provide us even as adults, HERE Benjamin Schwartz from The New Yorker, touches us deeply, through Madeleine, a picture book many of us have read to our children, and which we had read to us at one point in our lives. Thinking of the Paris tragedy, through a beloved picture book character, he speaks to us in volumes.
Feel free to share your thoughts on picture books and your favorite titles.