The Value of Picture Books in Your Classroom

Read Alouds

If you’re a primary classroom teacher, picture books are basically a no-brainer. They’re quick stories for short attention spans, full of applicable life lessons and fun illustrations. However, the value of picture books doesn’t stop when students reach fourth or fifth, or even sixth grade.

Picture books have been written to tackle a variety of topics that range from social-emotional learning to science and math content. Almost any lesson can include a correlating picture book, and often the stories inside those books are the key to helping students retain new content or process what they’re learning. Check out the list below for some guidance on how to use picture books in your classroom this year.

Strategies for using picture books in the classroom

  • Consider your presentation

Even if you’re teaching those pre-pubescent fifth and sixth graders, don’t discount the magic of seeing the pictures. If you want maximum engagement, create a plan to show as much of the book to as many students as possible. Gather your class on the carpet or circulate through the room to avoid complaints of, “But I didn’t get to see the picture!” If you want to utilize some technology, display the book using your document camera or create a presentation with images of each page.

Many picture books are now available in video format on YouTube or StoryLineOnline. Those are incredible resources, but the maximum attention will come from listening to you read the story aloud, complete with dramatic pauses, exciting facial expressions, and changes to your voice. Never be afraid to go all-in— I used to work with a colleague who borrowed my college graduation gown every spring when her class read a story about a judge. 

  • Consider your audience

You likely won’t read the same picture book to a kindergarten class as you would a fourth-grade class, but even classes on the same grade level may need different books. Considering the appropriate reading level is just another part of differentiating your lessons to reach all your learners.

Sweet teacher friend, it’s up to you to help older students remember the value of picture books. In her workshops, Jen Jones of Hello Literacy often reminds teachers to not dismiss picture books because they’re “too easy” for older students or higher readers.

The popular early chapter book Fly Guy is a level I, and the lovely picture book A Bad Case of Stripes is a level P. The classification of a picture book doesn’t mean students are too old for a book. Don’t let rumors about books being too ‘babyish’ circulate in your classroom; squash them with a comment about how you- the adult- still LOVE your picture books!

  • Consider your sources for books

A quick Google search will help you find a picture book for almost any topic. Multiple books about the same topic will really help send the message home. While you may not have twenty books about the next social studies unit in your personal stash, your school library and public library probably will. Many public libraries offer drop-off services for teachers, ferrying books to and from schools in order for you to have easy access to all the books you could need from them.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more books for your classroom library. Make that wishlist at the book fair. Link your online wishlist to your teacher’s website. Send those thank you cards to parents who donate books and continue to share all of the incredible picture books with your students.

  • Consider your goal

Any good lesson is planned with a goal in mind. What is the outcome you’re hoping for? What should students be able to do when you are done teaching this lesson or unit? One of the most helpful content areas to use picture books is writing. Reading and writing are reciprocal processes, so why not support your students by giving them high-quality examples of the writing skill they’re developing? Point out how the author is implementing the skills you want your students to master.

In middle school, my math teacher read aloud Sir Cumference and the First Round Table.  Yes, I said middle school. It’s easy to dismiss picture books as childish, especially by that age, but as I listened to that book, I know my teacher’s goal was achieved: I never forgot that Lady Di reached as tall as the circular table, and her son Radius was half her height. 

  • Consider your application

How are students going to apply the content that’s being delivered in the book? It could be as little as a class discussion about the theme or act as the catalyst to a two-day science investigation. If you’re incorporating picture books into your lessons, remember to include something that bridges the book into the rest of the lesson, just as you would when utilizing a video clip.

  • Consider the delight

Even with state standards and district assessment breathing down your back, don’t forget to read picture books for the pure joy they bring.

Set a goal of reading them aloud just to make your students happy and immerse them in a story, whether you do it twice a day or once a week. You’re reminding students that reading doesn’t need to be done for a purpose; reading is most often done because of the pleasure it brings us.

Be sure to also make picture books available to your students. As a 4th-grade science teacher, I would gather picture books relating to each unit we were studying, and place them at the front of the room for students to enjoy when they had some free time. Books that you’ve read aloud to students can be seen as especially valuable, so consider some sort of system for letting students read the book again if they’re interested.

Go gather your picture books!

Hopefully, by now you have a renewed appreciation for the use of a quality picture book in your classroom. Go dust off that stack of books and start deciding how you can implement them into lessons this fall. 

Now it’s your turn! Let us know below what YOUR favorite picture book is in the comments below!

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