Increasingly, parents and teachers are embracing the controversial Science of Reading (SoR), pushing for State policies that reinforce more phonics instruction. It’s troubling to see they only discuss commercial decoding programs, of which there are many. They rarely mention the importance of picture books and giving children the chance to read freely.
Is phonics important? Of course. Well-prepared teachers know this. But there’s much evidence that picture books are critical to early learning. They deserve to be highlighted in how children learn to read.
Picture Books Prepare Children for Kindergarten
A recent study in Pediatrics found two programs that increase kindergarten readiness in preschoolers. Was it a decoding program? More phonics for three and four-year-olds? No.
Researchers found that supporting families to read picture books to their children helped their children be ready for kindergarten!
For newborns through age 5, Reach Out and Read provides children with a new book and guidance from the pediatrician during well-visits about reading at home.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library mails new books to the child’s home once a month from birth through age 5.
The study found that:
Sharing books with preschoolers promotes speech and language development, preliteracy skills, and, ultimately, kindergarten readiness. Both Reach Out and Read and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library have shown positive influences on the home literacy environment of preschoolers.
Providing young children, especially children at risk, with access to picture books helps prepare them for kindergarten!
Picture Books vs. Decoding Booklets
SoR includes decoding booklets focused on letters and sounds. These books might have a place in reading instruction, but they’re no match for books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar a picture book that illustrates the beauty and how children learn through picture books.
Author Eric Carle died on May 23. While the world of children’s literature lost a shining star, the vivid pictures and endearing sight of a caterpillar munching its way towards becoming a butterfly will always captivate children and teach them about the life cycle.
Wordless Picture Books
Wordless picture books are sometimes cast aside and considered a waste of a child’s time. But wordless picture books help children think.
Kirsten, The Library Lady, describes how wordless picture books help children learn cause and effect. They raise questions about the pictures. Children can tell what they think about the pictures, increasing vocabulary, improving sequencing skills, and much more.
She provides a list of picture books without words.
The Importance of Causal Information
Children have an insatiable appetite to understand why things are the way they are, leading to their apt description as “little scientists.” While researchers have been aware of children’s interest in causal information, they didn’t know whether it influenced children’s preferences during real-world activities, such as reading.
Specifically, it demonstrates that children’s interest in causal information extends to personal book preferences.
Let children choose the picture books they like.
Picture Books and Mathematics
In Picture Books as an Impetus for Kindergartners’ Mathematical Thinking, we learn that picture books provide early learners with an environment conducive to learning mathematics and spatial relationships.
Picture books with high literary quality create their own priorities separate from possible didactical intentions. This makes them an interesting research area and a source for new understanding of the learning of mathematics.
If possible, get a subscription to Highlights for Children, Lady Bug, Ranger Rick, or other magazines for children, including pictures and short stories. Children’s magazines are also usually available in the library.
Stories in magazines are often accompanied by vivid pictures and games that address specific reading skills.
Children still enjoy getting a magazine from the mailbox, a welcome relief from screens, or for children who may not be ready for reading longer books.
Children who might be overwhelmed with all the words in books could be less intimidated by pictures in comic books.
In The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research, Stephen D. Krashen highlights numerous studies that indicate the importance of comic books to reading, including Marvel Comics (p. 91-110). Many of our favorite superhero movies like Superman, Spiderman, and Batman, come from comic books.
Comic books can improve language development, including for children learning a second language. Bright pictures help children make meaning of the difficult text (p.124).
Comic books provide rich story plots, and even funny books teach reading. I distinctly remember picking out words associated with pictures in Dennis the Menace and Mighty Mouse comic books!
Introducing children to books that address personal issues they may be facing can be used at every stage of a child’s life and is called bibliotherapy.
Many picture books reflect difficulties and help children feel better about themselves and learn about problems facing others.
Here are some examples of books connected to difficulties children might be facing.
Some children might need more intensive phonics instruction if they have difficulty learning to read or have a known disability.
But even then, beautiful, rich, and funny picture books should be the mainstay of a child’s reading instruction. Programs like Learning Ally, the use of audiobooks can be helpful.
Picture books are what children especially need when they are first learning to read or have a disability.
As summer approaches and there’s fear of learning loss in children due to the pandemic, libraries with wonderful picture books await children. Schools need great libraries and library programs that are available to them over the summer.
Picture books are both pleasurable and instructive and will help children learn to be great readers. Ignoring the importance of picture books is detrimental to children and will likely cause them learning problems in the years to come.
The more access young learners have to quality picture books, the more they will care about reading and do it often and well.
Krashen, S. D. (2004). The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
The following isn’t a book I referenced, but I like to mention it when discussing the importance of picture books.
Co-author, Shirley C. Raines, was the President of the University of Memphis and is an early childhood specialist. She and Robert J. Canady have written a series of books with ideas on expanding picture books in a child’s life.
Raines, S. C. & Canady, R. J. (1989). Story S-T-R-E-T-C-H-E-R-S: Activities to Expand Children’s Favorite Books. Mt. Rainier, Maryland: Gryphon House.
Jim Trelease, a parent who understood the power of reading aloud to children, including picture books.
Trelease, J. (2013). The Read-Aloud Handbook. New York, NY: Penguin Books.