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Picture Books in Upper Elementary School

The Fall of 2006 brought me the savviest class I ever taught.  Nearly all 32 of them scoffed at me on Wednesday, September 6th when I pulled out Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street.

“A picture book?” one student said disdainfully.

“Yes, a picture book,” I replied.  “We’re going to read lots of picture books this year.”

“Why?” another voice asked.

“Well-written picture books, like the ones I’m going to read to you this year, can teach us a lot about writing,” I said.

I was met with blank stares, know-it-all looks, rolling eyes, and a couple sucks of the teeth.

“I mean it.  You can learn to become a better writer by reading picture books.  There are a lot of amazing picture books out there.  You’ll see.”

“Mrs. Bonner* didn’t read picture books to us last year when we were in fourth grade,” one student said.

“Well, I’m not Mrs. Bonner.  I read lots of picture books aloud to my classes.  You’ll see… you’ll come to love them.”

I don’t think I had my class convinced. Even though I knew they would come to love picture books in a short period of time, this was a case of show, not tell.  Telling my students that they’d learn a lot about writing from picture book authors was merely lip service.  It was pointless to tell them they’d come to find the value of picture books as fifth graders when they thought picture books were for babies.  I knew I had to SHOW them by reading lots of interesting, well-written picture books.  One wrong book selection in the first month of school and I knew I’d lose them.  However, I had read picture books aloud to other fifth grade classes before… my books for the first month of school were road tested, so I was confident they’d come to find the value of these texts and would hopefully adopt some as mentors in the weeks to come.

I went back to my 2006-07 plan book last night to see just how I won my class over on picture books (and I did win them over).  These are the picture books I read during the first four weeks of school.  Some of them were meant to build reading-writing connections, while others were for other content areas, team-building, or just for enjoyment:

  • Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street

  • I’m in Charge of Celebrations

  • Two Ways to Count to Ten

  • Paper Boy

  • When the Relatives Came

  • Fireflies

  • The Other Side

  • Not Norman

  • Too Many Tamales

NOTE: I was also reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes aloud in September since we were doing the Sadako Project (to build community).  I also read several short stories, such as “Eleven,” “The Bike,” and “Josie’s First Allowance Day” to my class in September.

As you can see, I had an excellent array of books, which were my partners in showing my students how wonderful picture books could be — even in the fifth grade.

* = Name has been changed.

Stacey Shubitz View All

I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.

I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).

10 thoughts on “Picture Books in Upper Elementary School Leave a comment

  1. I love to read a certain picture book at the beginning of reading workshop and then revisit it 40ish minutes later during writing workshop (or perhaps a day or two later after many of them have read it to themselves). I think this helps everyone find the depth of the text, as well helping them read like writers. I do this with the novels we read too, but the picture books are so quick and accessible. I always start new units with picture books in science, math, social studies, art, etc…

    Tomorrow we are going to revisit “Slice of Life”/personal narrative writing to get us back in the swing of things after the December rush. We are going to read “Voices” by Anthony Browne. There are so many writing lessons in that book! (and art lessons, and drama lessons)

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  2. I love using picture books with my kiddos (middle school gifted). I’ve found them quite useful when I want to introduce some new concept. For example I like to read both Emily’s Art and The Dot when we talk about what is considered art and why. I like The Fly on the Ceiling and Tiger Math for the math ideas. I also really like reading Five Little Fiends, Seven Blind Mice and Zoom (one of those weird wordless books) when we talk about seeing from a larger perspective. I also recommend Mr. Archimedes Bath and Who Sank the Boat for a great water displacement discussion. One other beautiful picture book (that I would not recommend for elementary students but is great for middle school and even high school) is Rose Blanche.

    I would like to hear more about how picture books are being used to teach writing (and anything else). And I’m always looking for other picture books so….

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  3. Patrick: There’s nothing that made me happier than seeing my students reach for picture books during Reading Workshop. They’d often shop from my shelf of picture books, which I kept alphabetized by author, to find other books by authors whose books I read aloud to them in class. It’s wonderful to see kids reaching for picture books… especially when they’re in the double digits of age. SAS

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  4. Thanks for your post… it’s so important that we don’t forget the power of picture books at ALL levels… as mentor text, as read alouds, even as choices for independent reading.

    I’m always drawn to Katie Ray’s words nudging us to find the types of writing that we are trying to write… and putting mentor text in the hands of all learners, regardless of their age, is critical.

    Thanks again.

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  5. I love your selections and also like to add a few books with fabulous voice, like Thunder Rose, or My Feet Are Dancing. In addition to being mentor texts I also need to create a space and value for pic books in my classrooms because they are “just right” for many of my readers. Many of them actually have text that is “above” the level of my struggling readers, but the visual support they offer helps most of my students have a good choice for independent reading time.

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  6. My 4th/5th grade students also love picture books! I use them throughout the day, in every subject area! I find them to be very powerful teaching tools but am ever mindful not to lose sight of the very foundation for using them…the pure enjoyment of being read to.

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  7. My students LOVE picture books. (I teach 5th) I have a passion for weird wordless picture books, Tuesday & The Arrival are two of my favorites.

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