Why primary schools need to embrace picture books to boost literacy

This primary headteacher and self-confessed picture book obsessive offers some tips on using them in the classroom

Simon Smith

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I love picture books. I would go as far as to say I am obsessed by them. And because of that – because I use them all the time in my teaching and rave about them in our school – I know something that those schools less keen on picture books do not: they are an absolutely essential tool for boosting literacy. 

But let’s clarify what I mean by picture books. I’m talking about books where the art and the words work together to create meaning so that, without either, the story is nonsensical.

I’m talking about books like the spooky 1950s B-movie stylings of The Watertower by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman, the heart-breaking story of forced immigration in The Journey by Francesca Sanna, the surrealism and humour of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen or the beautiful exploration of loss in My Father’s Arms are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde and Øyvind Torseter.

These books are often dismissed, with teachers going for something much meatier in the words department. In many cases, we fail to see the illustrator as an author and miss the nuance created in the images. We are often so driven by text that we’ve forgotten how to explore the meaning of the pictures. 

Picture books set you free

We want, it seems, to be instructed on meaning. Current assessment procedures lead us to this prescribed interpretation of meaning, "this tells us this...this is what this means". 

By enforcing meaning and interpretation, we are denying the children one of the fundamental joys of reading: exploring and interpreting for themselves; guided, not told, by the teacher; bringing their own understanding and knowledge to shape the interpretation of the book.

Why is this important? Leland et al (2005) suggest that "children who experience a critical approach to literacy learn to ‘read between the lines’ and generate alternative explanations regarding the author’s intent. They are encouraged to take an active role in questioning both the texts themselves and the beliefs and personal experiences they bring to them". 

Benefits of picture books

By using picture books we also create, as Martin Galway, English teaching and learning adviser with Herts for Learning, puts it "a swift democracy, a shared world experience that can mitigate/compensate for varying levels of experience of the world".

By reading picture books we are all experiencing for the first time, we can remove barriers to entry.

And picture books allow us all access to explore and interpret. They are routes into inference and deduction and critical thinking. They are an amazing resource to enable children to "make meaning through thinking and discussion" as Mary Roche, a former primary teacher now lecturer in teacher education, says. 

But how should you use them? Here are my top tips. 

  1. Pick your books carefully
    There are many wonderful books, and CLPE Power of Pictures is a good starting point for finding titles. Or just go on Twitter, where there are loads of people sharing brilliant books. What you are looking for is books that give you the chance to explore, books that don’t give you all the answers.

  2. Develop your understanding of how picture books work
    Understanding the picture book codes – position, line, perspective and colour – can change understanding and interpretation. The codes give children a framework for interpretation and from that they can understand the craft of picture books. 

  3. Don’t be overly prescriptive with interpretation
    Let the children explore. Create the time and space to talk about the books.

  4. If you can get a visualiser, great 
    It makes exploring easier. To be able to share the close up detail with the whole class allows children to understand the nuance in the art or to really explore what is there. You can really focus in on the detail.

  5. Enjoy them
    Picture books have a lot to offer adults, too. Embrace them and sharing picture books will be an an absolute joy. 

Simon Smith is headteacher at East Whitby Academy, a primary school in North Yorkshire

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