When he looks at the pictures, he’ll get so excited he’ll want to draw one of his own. He’ll ask for paper and crayons.
~Laura Joffe Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond. If You Give A Mouse a Cookie
Regarding how teachers teach reading, it’s alarming that pictures get a bad rap. One of the best ways to help children read is by reading them picture books they like starting when they’re young. Teachers should continue in every grade to let students explore books and discuss the stories they read and like. Picture books are critical to reading comprehension.
Children adore picture books and then move on to chapter books with fewer pictures, and soon, they are reading novels without pictures. When pictures are connected to teaching skills, it’s a win-win combination!
Sadly, and mainly due to politics, picture books are connected to Balanced Literacy, and pictures are being blamed for confusing students, like in this NBC segment about Mississippi’s reading progress, with its example claiming children will mistake sheep for a dog in the picture. The idea that pictures are somehow bad for children because they will rely on them is bizarre.
If you want to teach children how to read sheep, give them Sheep in a Jeep, a series by Nancy Shaw (See below). Children love these stories (there’s also one for Halloween). When they see pictures and words together, they will more easily connect sheep with sheep in stories they like.
As a long-time remedial reading teacher and a parent, I understand that reading to children and providing them with picture books aren’t all that children will need to be fluent readers, especially if a child is born with disabilities or in a household where they don’t have access to picture books.
But there is no reason why a class that teaches skills can’t include rich literature of a child’s liking. Providing children with many picture books to look at and explore print provides the critical foundation needed to be readers (see the many ways below).
We’ve known for years how important it is to read picture books to children. When children miss out on this, for whatever reason/s, they might take longer to learn to read. That’s why there has always been a push to get picture books into children’s hands early.
While how teachers teach reading is being acrimoniously debated, parents, teachers, and caregivers of young children must continue to read picture books to children, inundate their world with rich print, and recognize how important this is to get their children off to a good start reading and to help them read better when they start school.
Reading to children with disabilities is especially important. They benefit just as much, if not more, by being read to and allowed to choose books they like to read with exciting pictures.
Here’s a list of some of what picture books teach.
- Attention. Some children are hyperactive but may focus on words and pictures in books they like. Unusually shaped books or books with flaps to find surprises, sensory stimulating books, or books with bright pictures and funny characters might pique a child’s interest in words and help them concentrate.
- Auditory Processing. Auditory processing difficulties make sounding letters difficult for some children. Picture book readers can adjust the speed at which they read and ask for verbal feedback to determine if the child understands what they hear and see.
- Auditory Discrimination. Connecting sounds and blends to a memorable story may make them more easily remembered than when isolated in a drill. Rhyme is especially important because children connect sounds and remember them more easily. It’s commonly recognized that children who have trouble with verse might need more help breaking up the words into sounds.
- Critical Thinking. Children connect ideas and information through discussions about the stories they hear and pictures they observe. Wordless picture books get children to discuss what they see or visually discriminate what’s happening in the story and are often used to help nonverbal students.
- Figure Ground. Children learn to find parts of the picture as opposed to the whole. I Spy and Where’s Waldo are good books for this, and the Highlights for Children Hidden Objects exercises. Reading to children and pointing out what’s in a picture and how each item is related to print is helpful.
- Fluency. When children practice reading picture books with words, they grow familiar with them; they’ll improve the speed at which they read. When adults reread picture books to children or read often, children learn the words being read. Usually, children get hooked on a book, which is normal and helpful because they learn through repetition. And nonreaders who pretend to read to siblings or friends are familiarizing themselves with words connected to pictures.
- Memory. Short- and long-term memory are essential to recall facts and pull the story’s meaning together. Students with good memory skills can recollect information faster than those with poor recall skills. Children with learning disabilities often have poor memory skills, so it’s essential to help them remember what’s read with pictures and words they like. Once a book is read to a child, they should have access to it so they can look at it independently. The words will look familiar, and they may connect them with pictures.
- Prediction. The more children read picture books; the easier it is for them to think about how the story will end.
- Sequencing. Children learn that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Learning how to place ideas and thoughts in order is an important skill.
- Social Perception. When children learn about social issues, they develop understanding and empathy. An essential part of this involves helping them to examine facial expressions in the characters they see in pictures. It helps them to understand how to react to difficulties they face. Bibliotherapy involves assisting children to understand problems they may face with books that address their challenges.
- Spatial Relationship. How do items in the picture compare in size and shape? This would include perceptual constancy, where children distinguish shapes and objects and their position. In books like Clifford the Red Dog, they can discuss the oddities of having such a giant pup.
- Summarizing. Words with pictures help children pull together what a story is about. This ability to gather the parts of a story to make the whole is critical for reading for understanding.
- Syntax. Children see and hear how to string words together to make sentences.
- Verbal Skills. All students, including students with difficulty speaking, are encouraged to tell what they like about a story. Wordless picture books are also useful for generating speech. They can build the confidence of children with second languages and disabilities.
- Vocabulary. When children hear new words connected to pictures of those words, they combine both, and it helps them to learn new vocabulary. Many young readers can associate the image with the term and later remember the word alone. It’s why picture/word books like Richard Scarry’s Busytown, which include funny pictures of busy characters next to words that resonate with young readers. Teachers often present new vocabulary in the story before reading to help make it recognizable to the child.
Towell, B. L., Morrow, S., & Brown, S. L. (2021). Reading to babies: Exploring the beginnings of literacy. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 21(3), 321–337. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468798419846199
Lerner, J.W. (1971). Children with Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.