Education Insights | Why Read Picture Books to Older Readers?

Pre-Prep Bedtime Stories

All readers become interested in stories by starting out with pictures books. When mum or dad read a bedtime story to a small child there is a shared experience and a degree of comfort which is generated by the warmth of those interactions. Children see letters and words formed on the page and are given meanings from the reading of the parent and the pictures that go along with the text. Child and parent will happily point at the pictures finding the objects mentioned in the text, or discuss their own interpretations of the story based on the aural and visual stimuli provided. We naturally allow children to explore their own ideas in this environment without the requirements of objectives and curriculum points. Of course, this starting point is fundamental, but as the child grows up is it really time to put away those picture books?

Author workshop on ‘How to publish a picture book.’

When using picture books with older readers I must make it clear that I’m not talking about books designed to help children begin to read. While we often think of picture books as only serving this purpose there are hundreds of titles available with intricate and beautifully written stories which deal with topics ranging from war and loss to fantasy and adventure. At the end of this article I will introduce some excellent titles which you may want to investigate further.

So, what are the benefits of picture books?

Puppet shows to the nursery

First is discussion. That same shared experience, this time in the classroom with the child’s peers, opens up those familiar avenues for exploring the child’s own interpretations, and creates a much wider dialogue with others in the room. As the child grows and their ideas mature, they need opportunities to express those ideas. Class interactions around a shared picture book enhance a child’s oral language skills, their ability to make meaning from what they see and hear around them and generates an authentic response to literature.

Second is the pictures. Obviously, this is what sets a picture book apart from other types of text. The pictures can act as a focal point while the book is being read to a class or an individual child; can enhance, explain or even alter the meaning of the text and can introduce big ideas (and small ideas) quickly and concisely without the need for paragraphs of text. We must read the pictures as much as we read the text, developing inference skills and critical thinking. The pictures add nuance to a story while helping to make the text accessible to everyone, meaning the child can focus on their interpretation and not stumble on new vocabulary, allowing them to relax into the story and develop their own ideas to discuss with peers.

Pre-Prep Open Day

The third is fun. This goes back to those first experiences of being read to, sharing with parents in a comfortable environment. Children don’t usually, in my experience, consider having a picture book read to them as work. They consider it to be something more playful and allow themselves to become more open to sharing and discussing their ideas, more critical in their thinking and more enthusiastic about learning. In this situation it is the educator’s role to allow space for the sharing of ideas to take place appropriately and to select books which enhance the learning that is taking place in the classroom.

Book Fair

I think it’s unfortunate that as children get older we can become prejudiced against the humble picture book. While I would advocate children to read as much and as widely as possible I think it’s wrong to say that if a child can plough through a long and difficult text it makes them a good reader. Novels, of course, are also extremely important in a child’s reading development but never discount the power of sharing a great picture book. Reading picture books allows us to go back to the fundamentals of reading, which are interpreting and understanding. The marriage of words and pictures, while giving us a superficially more simplistic text, allow children to deeply explore their interpretation and understanding of the story being told in a communal, unique and pleasurable way.

As promised, below is a short list of some great picture books. If you want to find out more please check out other books by these authors, as they have some excellent titles.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna

The book focusses on refugees, following a family and the unimaginable decisions they must make as they leave their home and their lives behind.

Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Surreal, scary and funny in equal measures. A great book for exploring fears and the idea that grown-ups don’t listen to children.

Shackletons Journey by William Grill

An atmospheric text charting Shackleton’s Journey to Antarctica. This is an exciting, book which provides a true experience and reminds us that it is the people, not the journey, that truly matter.

How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson

A thought-provoking book allowing children to consider what they would do if they could live forever. The artwork is fantastically detailed and can be explored again and again.

House held up by Trees by Ted Kooser and Jon Klassen

A powerful story about the passage of time and how nature reclaims. Great artwork and thought provoking.

Home by Jeanie Baker

A wordless book again dealing with passage of time from a human perspective. Excellent illustrations which show the view from the same window over a lifetime.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

A wordless book which presents a complex narrative on migration, starting a new life and the problems we can encounter.

The Wreck of The Zephyr by Chris Van Ahlsburg

Beautiful, dream-like illustrations and a rich text tell the story of the wreck of a sailing boat. Thought provoking and surreal.