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Using Picture Books To Teach Secondary English Language Arts

    using picture books to teach secondary english

    There are several ways to use picture books in the secondary classroom? (It’s true.) The best part is that they’re equal parts engaging and effective. Keep reading to learn the benefits and tips for incorporating these illustrated texts in your class.

    Who doesn’t love a good picture book? (I honestly couldn’t tell you.) In fact, picture books are one of my favorite teaching tools, along with short stories. Many ELA teachers face the challenge of teaching everything from reluctant readers to abstract ideas. Where do you even start? (Spoiler alert: a good picture book can be used for both.) You may be surprised to know there are many ways to use picture books in the secondary classroom.

    And whether you found this post because you’re skeptical or curious, I’m glad you’re here. The truth is, the power of a good picture book knows no age or grade.

    Without further adieu, get ready to read all about tips for bringing picture books into your secondary classroom that are equally engaging and effective.

    The Benefits of Using Picture Books in the Secondary Classroom

    Before we dive into the way to use picture books in the secondary classroom, let’s talk about the why.

    Where do I even begin?! There are numerous benefits of using picture books in the secondary classroom. Perhaps one of the most obvious is the pure enjoyment of literature. Instead of viewing a read-aloud of a picture book as simple or silly, I urge you to consider the magical moments that await. The eager faces of engaged students who claim to “hate” reading. The insightful conversations that ensue. The “ah-ha” moments your students have when they realize there is much more to some of their childhood favorites. Whether you’re looking to foster classroom community, ignite curiosity, or inspire learning, picture books may be just what you need.

    Picture books are a great way to:

    • Add a fun, new element to a dynamic lesson
    • Improve reading comprehension and asking questions
    • Practice more complex reading skills, such as making inferences
    • Increase student engagement with and understanding of literature
    • Spark authentic conversations among students

    The benefits don’t stop there. Picture books are far less intimidating than novels and even short stories. Students may not even realize how much learning is taking place as they interact with these fun bits of literature!. However, thanks to their short length, students can get the entire story in one setting before applying or practicing reading or writing skills. Additionally, picture books also work as a stepping stone to high-level skills, complex texts, and heavy topics or themes – #scaffolding. Put it all together, and you have an efficient, effective, and engaging literary teaching tool.

    Ways to Use Picture Books in the Secondary Classroom

    Again, there are many ways to use picture books in the secondary classroom. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right? The ideas mentioned below aren’t the only ways to use picture books in your classroom. However, they’re some of my favorites.

    1. Introducing Literary Devices and Techniques. If you’re looking for a quick and engaging way to introduce a literary device, picture books are it. It might seem silly initially, but these teaching tools are quite effective. Scroll down to the “topics to teach” section below for some topic and title pairings!
    1. Honing Literary Analysis Skills. Picture books are far less intimidating for students than most texts. And it makes sense! That makes them the perfect tool for helping students hone their literary analysis skills. While students might be familiar with some of the children’s literature, challenge them to read the texts with a specific purpose, like unpacking the author’s message or character motivations.
    1. Scaffolding a New Skill. When students learn a new skill, it can be a big jump to head straight to a full-length novel. Instead, consider scaffolding new skills with picture books. Begin with a mini-lesson to teach the specific skills. Then, break students into small groups to apply the skill to a picture book. Not only can students easily read the book in one sitting, but they will have fun diving into the stories and applying their newly acquired skills. Then, they’ll be ready to dive into a more complex text.
    1. Complementing a Complex Text. Speaking of complex texts, picture books can come in handy as supplemental material. Whether you want to ease students into an allegory like Animal Farm of The Crucible, consider setting the stage with Terrible Things by Eve Bunting. Additionally, Pop-Up Shakespeare is a fun complementary text to any Shakespeare unit, while BabyLit has a library of simplified versions of popular literary classics.

    Less Obvious Ways to Use Picture Books

    1. Building Classroom Community. As teachers, we’re so used to being pressed for time that we forget to take a moment to just enjoy literature with our students. However, picture book read-alouds are great classroom community builders, where you’re reading them for pleasure or educational purposes.
    1. Building Confidence. This one might surprise you. How many times have your students claimed they’re not good writers or readers? (Too many to count?) Surprisingly, there are tons of picture books out there about writing and reading. Little Red Writing by Joan Holub is a fun spin on Little Red Riding Hood that dives into the challenges of writing a story – and will help students feel less alone in their struggles. Both How to Read a Story and How to Write a Story by Kate Messner are adorable teaching tools too. They are perfect for an overview without taking up too much time.
    1. Sparking Engaging Discussions. I know the struggle of a silent classroom. (Damn crickets.) The truth is, many students are afraid to participate out of fear of being wrong or coming across as “stupid.” Starting with “simpler” (though often surprisingly deep) picture books can lower students’ apprehension around participating.

    Topics to Teach

    As you consider ways to use picture books in your secondary classroom, you might find yourself overwhelmed. However, perhaps you know you are looking to teach topics like theme or point of view. Maybe you know you need to tackle teaching characterization or inference. I could go on and on…

    Here are several great ELA topics that you can introduce, practice, or scaffold using picture books:

    • Allegory: I love teaching allegory, but it can be tricky for students to understand. However, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is the perfect stepping stone – and conversation starter. Students love diving into the environmental allegory in this story.
    • Irony: Like satire, irony can leave students scratching their heads. However, after a few good examples and confidence-building mentor texts, they’ll be ready to go! The classic Cinderella is a perfect example of irony as students discuss this rags to riches tale.
    • Inference: Wordless picture books are perfect for teaching inference! As you ask students to unpack the story, make sure they use evidence from the illustrations as support! Wave by Suzy Lee is always a great choice.
    • Point of View: Understanding the power (and limitations) of various points of view is an important reading and writing skill. The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka is a great way to help students understand how a story can change depending on the point of view.
    • Personification: Your go-to might be to talk about the personification of animals, but I urge you to try something a little different to show just how powerful personification can be.  Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi does a great job personifying highly relatable emotions that can be hard to explain – anxiety and worry.
    • Symbolism: Before asking students to dive into a dense novel filled with sophisticated symbolism, brush up on their skills with a quick picture book. For example, you might ask students to unpack the symbolism of the bird in Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home.
    • Satire: Satire can be a tricky concept for students to grasp. Therefore, it’s worth dipping their toes into it before fully diving in. Your students will laugh through a lesson on satire with The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka.
    • Theme: When do you ever read a book and not discuss the theme? Consider refreshing your students’ skills with a short yet powerful picture book like Yard Sale by Eve Bunting or The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. Sure, they might be picture books, but these stories really pack an emotional punch.

    I could keep going, but I’m sure you get the point. When it comes to ways to use picture books in the secondary classroom, the options (and topics) are endless. Long story short, you can use picture books to teach basically any literary element, from foreshadowing and hyperbole to characterization and word choice – and everything in between.

    Long story short – you’re never too old for picture books! If used correctly, your secondary students will love them as much as primary students. And they’ll be more prepared to tackle more complex texts after a fresh perspective and fun lead-in, thanks to picture books.

    The possibilities for using picture books in the secondary classroom are surprisingly expansive. They’re community builders and conversation starters. They can be used as mentor texts and all-around teaching tools. In fact, I hope you’re eager to hit the library with a few new ideas after reading this post. As happy as I am to have you here, I think it’s time you get to planning, my friend!

    If you have any ideas for picture books that would be great to bring to the secondary classroom, share them in the comments! I’d love to know – and I’m sure other teachers would too.

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