Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Older Readers Should Read Picture Books

I have often observed how keen some parents and teachers can be to move their children's reading on from picture books to chapter books. Many parents move their children on from picture books very quickly, encouraging their children to read chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. In an age when many parents are sold on the idea that 'Your Baby Can Read' from 6-12 months, there is an urge to move them quickly on to novels.


Some parents seem to move their children on too quickly in their often well-motivated quest to help their children succeed as readers. Julie Bosman note in an excellent article on this topic in 2010 that sometimes the motives are confused. She quoted the manager of a major children's department in Washington who said:
“They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them ‘Stuart Little,’....I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ It’s a terrible pressure parents are feeling — that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.”

These are tendencies that I have also observed and motivated me to write about this in 2010. This post is a revised version of the earlier post and highlights what I see as four myths about picture books.

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary and syntax.  For example, the text of 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour, and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts. Graphic novels and electronic picture books like 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore' which I've reviewed previously (here) are taking this to a completely new level.

Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and reduce the demands on the reader'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can make 'stripped down' language make sense, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for little children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations. Picture books are a vital way in which children can draw on 'multiple intelligences' at the same time (see my post on this topic here), including linguistic, spatial, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic (e.g. 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar') and even musical intelligence' if it integrates early rhyme and music (Matt Ottley integrates a complete original musical in 'Requiem for a Beast'!). David Almond's book 'Slog's Dad' which I reviewed recently (here) offers two parallel story journeys in the one book, one in words, and the other in pictures. Arguably, every form of intelligence can be potentially integrated into the picture book. This is not to suggest that chapter books only emphasize 'linguistic Intelligence' - for example, 'spatial intelligence' includes abstract, analytical abilities that go beyond simply seeing images - but their potential to do this is more limited for the young child.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.
 
Other reading

Julie Bosman's article in the New York Times (20th October, 2010) HERE

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emerging Comprehension' HERE
 
All my posts on picture books HERE

24 comments:

stuss said...

Thanks for this. I have a six-year-old who is a reasonably confident reader, who wouldn't touch picture books after he discovered Roald Dahl a year or so ago! However, he has a brother who his four years younger than him, and since the younger boy has begun to be interested in books, the older one has suddenly 'rediscovered' all these wonderful old books. He is loving that he can read them all by himself now, and if he is feeling patient enough he'll read them to his brother, also.

Kerry @ Climaco Classroom said...

This is a very informative post. I use picture books with 8th graders when introducing a new concept during Reader's Workshop. Thanks for the great info.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments Stuss and Kerry. I'm glad picture books are important for you too. I also like both your blogs too. Trevor

Ben said...

Thank you for sharing this article, it was a very interesting post and you raise very valid points. As a trainee teacher I have seen some teachers that are reluctant to use picture books with higher year grouping. However, I believe on reflection that it is very important to do so and I will always plan to include experiences with picture books with older pupils when I graduate.

Your blog is great too, I can't wait for more posts.
I hope you can hop along to my blog too,

All the best
Ben :)

beingbenm.blogspot.co.uk

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Ben, thanks for your comments. I'm glad to hear that you're a blogger too. Your blog looks interesting. It's good to have the reflections and ideas of a teacher starting out. Cheers, Trevor

Sheila said...

Wonderful article! Picture books are a fantastic way to introduce young children to visual art as well as literary art. As a parent, I loved reading aloud to my children, and I remember our oldest son using the word "commenced" correctly in a sentence when he was about five because he'd heard it in a picture book. I recall looking at picture books when I was very young and being inspired to draw and paint because of those images. With the new technology, it'll be interesting to see how books change as they "go digital." I'm sure many creative people will do amazing things with art and words but without real pages.

Elizabeth said...

I agree, I also think older children reading picture books is important. We encourage yr 5/6, 10 and 11 yr olds to shadow the Greenaway awards to get them to look at picture books. It also means that the Junior library still has picture books in it as the schools have to buy a set to do this. They always enjoy it and get a lot out of it. Elizabeth

Trevor Cairney said...

Thank you Sheila and Elizabeth for your contributions to the discussion. Like you Sheila I'm keen to see how digitization can contribute new things to the experience of 'reading' picture books. As yet, much of the potential is unrealized. Trevor

Mark Fearing said...

To this day, some of my favorite books, of any kind, are still picture books. I feel strongly that when the brain 'reads' words and digests pictures at the same time, we take part in an exercise that builds muscles that otherwise are not touched. I think it's a fascinating topic and I have attempted to write about it a few times. Excuse my linking, but here's a URL to a posting from last December.

http://mfearing.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/pictures-vs-words/

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Mark. Thanks for your comment. I like your blog and your work. Trevor

Miss Foote said...

What a great post. I was just having a discussion with my class about all the strategies reader's use with picture books...even though they have pictures.

Laurie
Chickadee Jubilee

The Equation said...

Thanks for sharing the information. That’s a awesome article you posted. I found the post very useful as well as interesting. I will come back to read some more.

Anonymous said...

You might also like to have a look at a math graphic novel which is an innovative idea for teaching secondary school mathematics trough a detective story. Here is a sample of the book: http://www.ellinoekdotiki.gr/FlipPage/index.asp?ITMID=1316

Timothy Young said...

I really enjoyed reading this. As the author of a new picture book that skews a bit older, I found it very encouraging. A librarian just sent a note to my publisher that a number of 5th graders were enjoying a preview of it the other day. It's called I Hate Picture Books! and it comes out in a couple of weeks.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for the most recent comments most of which point to some good resources and books. I don't normally post anonymous comments (especially if promoting products) but the graphic novel mentioned is very interesting example from Greece. Trevor

Jen Robinson said...

Trevor, I plan to keep this post bookmarked to read every year. I would like my daughter (who is nearly 3) to appreciate picture books for a long time. And what a waste, if we could only enjoy the hundreds of picture books on our shelves for another year or so ;-)

Denise Vega said...

As a writer of books for young readers, I really appreciated this article and wanted to add one more thought. It's important to note that most picture books are not written with the idea that they will be read by the child (though that often happens). They are meant to be a shared experience between an older reader (parent, grandparent, caregiver, etc) and a child, with the child engaging in the story through listening (to the sound and rhythm of the words) and looking (at the illustrations to discover even more about the story). This experience is vital for the development of pre-literacy skills in the very young child. That said, picture books can and should also be enjoyed by children who can already read and this post provided excellent reasons for that. And I loved the comments describing the creative ways people are using them in classrooms and at home. Thank you! I'm so glad I stumbled upon this blog.

Barbara A. Mojica said...

My Little Miss History Travels to Mount Rushmore is the first book in a series of nonfiction books for middle grade children. It relies heavily on pictures to help children remember historical facts. By using a variety of pictorial illustration techniques and an adorable character, I hope to make learning about historic places fun.

Keith Schoch said...

I am definitely a believer in picture books for the upper elementary and middle grades, as you can see at my Teach with Picture Books site (http://teachwithpicturebooks.blogspot.com). Thanks for flying the flag and helping to rally the troops!

Trevor Cairney said...

Many thanks for the comments from Jen, Denise, Barbara and Keith. I'm pleased to hear that there are many others who share my views on this topic, including author's and illustrators. Good additional point Denise, yes they are often a shared experience and to be read by adults to children, not simply read alone. It's also great to be reminded of some great books, authors and blogs in the comments. I appreciate all the new visitors to the blog. Come again! Trevor

Jay said...

Great post! We're big fans of picture books, comics, and graphic novels over at our little free library. It's so important to spread the word about the real value and benefits of visual literature. Thank you!

Jay said...

Great post! We're big fans of picture books, comics, and graphic novels over at our little free library. It's so important to spread the word about the real value and benefits of visual literature. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I teach reading in K-4 in Title I classes.I, also, teach Reading Recovery. I really agree with much you had to say here about picture books. Older kids, junior high students (ESL to boot),love to have picture books read to them as well. They may not express it, but this reading can certainly hold their attention. Being read to never goes out of style. I love to be read to even though I am a grandma~

Susan Syddall said...

As a mum of two boys (aged 6 & 7 yrs), I thoroughly agree that picture books are a fantastic literacy source. I confess, I enjoy reading them as much as my children do! There shouldn't be an age-limit for picture books!