Picture Books in Secondary Classrooms

Most picture books have a greater range than the one listed by the publisher. Even though a picture book may say it’s target audience is three to seven-year-old children, most of the time picture books can be used with kids beyond that range. While I’ve used middle grade novels to demonstrate the qualities of good writing to children, I most often turn to picture books because they are:

  • Short—You can read them quickly and then use them to demonstrate a strategy during a mini-lesson or conference.
  • Visual—The illustrations support all students, including struggling readers and English language learners, with comprehension.
  • Engaging—Many kids have become disengaged or reluctant readers by the time they reach fourth grade. Picture books are a way to invite them back to reading. Using picture books as mentor texts can help marginalized readers make better independent reading selections because they see that their teacher values picture books.
  • Community builders—Picture books provide an accessible way to tackle tough topics, which students can discuss at length in the classroom. Kids can often relate to the struggles of the characters in the picture books and are more willing to discuss or write about those struggles because they’ve seen them portrayed on the pages of a picture book.
  • Anchors—Students can use beloved picture books as touchstones in their reading and writing work. The most memorable books can be used across a school year.

Many outstanding middle and high school educators—including prominent bloggers, authors, and speakers such as Sarah Mulhern Gross, Paul Hankins, Cindy Minnich, and Pernille Ripp—also use picture books with their secondary students, for the reasons I mentioned previously and also because they provide high-level opportunities for inference and interpretation work, as well as spark empathy and ignite creativity. Picture books are a powerful resource at any grade level! (Shubitz, 2016, 14)

Last month, I had the honor of guest hosting the #G2Great Thursday Night Twitter Chat. I began a side-conversation with two participants Tricia Ebarvia, who teaches high school English, and Mindi Rench, who has been a middle school literacy coach, about the value of picture books at the secondary level. Both Tricia and Mindi have ignored the suggested age range on picture books and have chosen to use them with their students. Here’s a bit of what they had to say about using picture books at the secondary level:

One is never too old for picture books. However, I’ve noticed many kids resist picture books as they get older. But perhaps it’s not the kids outgrowing the books, but rather adults telling them they’re too old for picture books. Allow me to quote Mary Howard, who said it best:

So how do we plow through the road blocks? I believe there’s a two-pronged approach for extending the range of picture books beyond the early elementary school years. First, I think we need to show teachers why picture books are a valuable resource. Next, it’s important to show how one can teach craft from picture books to a variety of students.

Recently, Kathleen Dudden Rowlands published an article, “Slay the Monster! Replacing Form-First Pedagogy with Effective Writing Instruction,” in English Journal, where she asserted:

Writer’s craft is the art of writing. It is how writers use language intentionally for effect. Craft lifts writing from the mundane to the aesthetically pleasing. In English classes, the texts we teach have value beyond a plot line or a message; our selected authors delight us because they use language in fresh and surprising ways. Help students notice the language choices authors make. (This is the close reading championed by the Common Core.) Use the texts students are reading as mentor texts to introduce craft moves, and invite students to emulate those moves (Fletcher; Noden).

In the words of Tricia Ebarvia, who has been teaching high school English for the past 15 years:

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While secondary teachers shouldn’t be using picture books exclusively as craft models, they can use picture books alongside high-level literary magazines (e.g., The New Yorker). If we normalize the use of picture books as kids move through school, then these shorter texts can be used in service of teaching the art of writing to across all grade levels.

Want to get started finding picture books to use with your secondary students? Here are some blog posts from the 2016 #pb10for10 that will help you find some high-quality picture books to use with your secondary students: