The benefits of reading with young children are well-documented, and it’s hardly ground-breaking to suggest that the more engaging the books, the more eager the reader. I’m going to focus here on picture books: why to use them in ELT and how to choose them.
What are picture books? Why use them?
In November I was asked to review for the EL Gazette on a new publication, Teaching English to Young Learners ed. Janice Bloom. You can see my review here. One of the things I particularly liked about this collection of essays was the emphasis it places on storytelling and drama as being central to young learner methodology. There’s a chapter by Sandie Mourão dedicated to the potential of using picture books with young learners, which I’d encourage you to read if this interests you.
Let’s start by defining our terms. ‘Picture books’ are authentic children’s books (ie not designed for English language teaching purposes). They contain words and pictures which, when seen together, produce a whole that is ‘more than the sum of its parts’ (Words about Pictures. The Narrative Art of Children’s Picturebooks, Perry Nordelman, University of Georgia Press, 1988). This interdependence between words and artwork is important, as it forms the basis on which we enjoy the book and begin to decode its meaning. Artwork and design isn’t merely illustrative or decorative, it can provide new or even contradictory information from the text. You could go so far as to say that by reading picture books, learners begin to develop visual literacy skills that will be in demand in their 21st century lives.
Picture books are brilliant for young second language learners. When read in class, they provide highly scaffolded opportunities for vocabulary learning and listening skills development. They can be used to develop reading skills before learners are reading for themselves (What do you think is going to happen next? What can you see in the picture? Look at the cover – what’s this book about?). They can also serve as a springboard to talk about values (more on that here) or to activate prior knowledge and interest in a new topic.
Take the example of a favourite book of mine, Will you be my friend? by Eric Carle. There are virtually no words on the page. The story unfolds as the reader observes the mouse in the artwork approach a range of animals in search of a companion. He tries to befriend various animals: a fierce crocodile, a scary fox, an aloof peacock, and so on, until eventually finding a like-minded mouse who says yes. There are ample opportunities for talking about the different animals, their colour, fur, feathers, size and height. But the real pleasure comes from a subplot which is purely visual. The grassy green strip at the bottom of each page turns out to be … [spoiler alert!] … a hungry snake. Good job that mouse is now safely down in the burrow with his new-found soulmate.
How to choose picture books for young learners
What criteria can you use to select the books that children will love the most? In my experience, the best picture books have some or all of the following features.
Rhythm, repetition, rhyme and alliteration
Look for stories which have a clear rhythm. Patterns like this make books so much more fun to read and hear, and anchor the sounds of the language in children’s minds. Rhyme and alliteration teach children to discriminate sounds. This is the bedrock of learning phonics. See more about rhyme and early literacy development in this excellent blog by Anna Ranson.
Part of the appeal of repetition and rhyme is that these features satisfy ‘a cognitive need for pattern’ which is hard-wired in children. (Janice Bland, ‘Grammar Templates with Poetry for Young Children.’). Through exposure to language patterns, presented in meaningful contexts, learners gradually begin to acquire an inventory of grammatical frameworks for future use.
Poems with strong rhythms, alliteration or rhyming structures are also much more easily remembered. That’s why Beowulf was written with two matching initial consonant sounds in each line, incidentally (in an oral tradition, how else were the poem’s reciters to remember three thousand lines of rambling text?). For language learners, and children learning to read in their L1, being able to remember chunks of text can be very empowering. It’s the first step towards becoming storytellers themselves.
Hippo has a Hat by Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt
If you don’t already know Hippo has a Hat, then you’re in for a treat. It has a thumping rhythm and really joyful, clear artwork by Nick Sharratt.
Stories with clear rhythmic structures often provide very useful frameworks for fun substitution drills. For example, taking some lines from this book as our starting point, after reading the story we can encourage learners to jointly construct a new version of the text, specifying that the animal and the clothes must begin with the same letter:
Hippo has a hat.
A cardigan for cat
_________ has a _____.
A _________ for ___________.
You could also ask learners to identify words with the same rhyming sound on each page (cat-hat, etc).
Encouraging prediction: an important reading and listening skill
Hippo has a Hat also features artwork which encourages you to guess which animal is coming next, by allowing you a glimpse of a hoof or a leg. Learning how to make informed guesses is critical to our language learning journey, and this is a fun way to start doing that.
Will you be my Friend? by Eric Carle
Another reason to love Will You be My Friend? is the way it facilitates the development of predicting skills. As the mouse comes near each animal, we see just their tail first. Based on this partial information, children delight in anticipating the answer to questions like Whose tail is this? What kind of animal is it? Is it friendly? What does it look like?
An element of surprise!
The most skilled writers are those adept at taking us on a journey and then suddenly changing the landscape in a way that makes perfect sense. I love books that surprise me. Surprises make us laugh and, crucially, make us want to talk.
The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett
This is a beautifully illustrated story about a duck who finds an enormous egg. Like all the birds around him, he looks after the egg until, one by one, they all hatch except for duck’s. What happens next? Well, in a frenzy of snapping, it’s revealed that duck’s egg didn’t contain a bird after all. I’ll let you guess what it might be instead!
Surrealism and playfulness of any sort can make a book a big success, in my experience. Some of the favourite bedtime stories in my household are funny because they contain an element of dramatic irony, meaning that, as readers, we know something that the characters don’t. Many stories and plays use this tried and tested device because it’s a very accessible form of humour.
Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne
This is a lovely, simple story about a girl who takes a basket of fruit to her friend in a neighbouring village. As she walks, animals gradually steal fruit from the basket on her head without her knowledge.
Do judge a book by its cover. Artwork quality matters, but there is no one style that is best. I recommend choosing books with a range of artwork styles to explore with your learners. Artists like Nick Sharatt are appealing because they have bold outlines, striking colours and often incorporate humour. Artists like Emily Gravett are completely different – the appeal of her pictures lies in their trueness to life and their endearingly rendered faces full of character. An artist like Axel Scheffler, who has become a household name following his illustrations for The Gruffalo and other Julia Donaldson books, is successful because he successfully combines humour and characterisation, plus a huge amount of detail.
Why not ask learners what they think about the pictures in the books you read together (in L1 if necessary)? Do they like them? Why (not)? Upper primary learners are sure to have opinions on this. Asking which picture learners like best is a very useful question. It can reveal a lot about what they remember about the story, their comprehension of it and whether or not it engaged them. Equally important, it allows learners to reflect on their own learning in an age-appropriate way.
Books that encourage a physical response
Most teachers of young learners will be familiar with the value of incorporating elements of Total Physical Response methodology, and of planning a balance between stirring and settling activities. The right books can provide a useful framework for this.
Monkey and Me by Emily Gravett
This beautiful book is crying out to be enacted by students. Every page shows a little girl and her toy monkey exuberantly jumping, waddling or swinging like an animal they saw in the zoo. Readers predict which animal the characters are copying, based on their movements. The language is very controlled and the refrain is repeated, so it’s suitable from low levels. It also has a highly addictive rhythm which you will almost certainly have stuck in your head for some time afterwards. Recommended.
There’s so much more to say on this topic, I feel I’m barely scratching the surface. For those keen to explore further, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education has lots of helpful information, from the perspective of promoting reading in L1. They publish a great article on choosing quality children’s texts here. Their website, The Power of Pictures, includes great teaching ideas to support learning with picture books.
Since first writing this post, I’ve discovered this wonderful blog dedicated to picture books in ELT. Enjoy!
Please do tell me your favourite picture books for young learners and why you like them.