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Rethinking Reading: Picture Books for Older Readers


For teachers of older students, incorporating picture books can transform learning experiences in unexpected and impactful ways. Picture books are engaging and powerful tools for teaching complex themes, building critical thinking skills, and developing visual literacy. In this post, we will explore seven reasons why picture books are a vital resource for older readers.

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Why Picture Books Aren't Just for Kids

Picture books are traditionally associated with young children, but their appeal and educational value extend far beyond the early years. For teachers of older students, incorporating picture books into the classroom can enrich learning in unique and impactful ways.

Using Picture Books for Older Readers

1. Developing Visual Literacy

In today’s visually driven world, interpreting and analysing images is crucial. Picture books offer a rich medium for honing visual literacy skills.

Example: The Arrival by Shaun Tan, a wordless graphic novel, uses intricate illustrations to convey the immigrant experience, allowing older students to decode visual cues and understand complex themes.

Classroom Tip: Have students analyse the illustrations for symbolism, composition, and the relationship between text and images.

Illustration of two giant bears in top hats shaking hands over a river, with a crowd of onlookers and city skyline in the background.

2. Introducing Complex Themes with Picture Books

Picture books often address themes like social justice, mental health, and identity in a nuanced way that resonates with older readers.

Older readers can benefit from the clarity with which these books present intricate ideas.

Example: The Journey by Francesca Sanna explores a family’s journey to escape war and find safety.

Classroom Tip: Use picture books as conversation starters for discussing sensitive topics in a supportive environment.

A person walking at night through a forest with oversized, ominous green faces looming above, depicted in a dark, illustrative style.

3. Building Critical Thinking Skills

The brevity of picture books requires authors to convey meaning concisely, encouraging students to read between the lines and interpret underlying messages.

Example: Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne uses multiple perspectives to tell a seemingly simple story, prompting students to analyse how perspective shapes the narrative.

Classroom Tip: Ask students to identify different narrative perspectives and discuss how each viewpoint changes the reader’s understanding of the story.

Illustration of a child and a dog's shadow standing at the start of a winding path in a park with trees, lamp posts, and distant figures.
Click on the image for Voices in the Park activity ideas and questions

4. Making Connections Across the Curriculum

Picture books can be used to introduce or reinforce concepts in various subjects, from science and history to art and literature.

Example: Rainbow Weaver by Linda Elovitz Marshall explores traditional Mayan weaving techniques while promoting environmental awareness through the use of recycled plastic bags, connecting cultural heritage with sustainability.

Classroom Tip: Pair picture books with related non-fiction texts to provide a comprehensive understanding of the subject.

5. Encouraging Creative Expression in Older Readers

Picture books are a form of art in themselves. For older readers, provide an opportunity to appreciate artistic styles and techniques, nurturing a deeper understanding and appreciation for illustration and design.

Example: Journey by Aaron Becker, a wordless picture book, invites students to interpret the story and create their own narrative through illustrations.

Classroom Tip: Encourage students to write alternative endings, create sequels, or illustrate their own scenes based on the book.

Fantasy landscape featuring a waterfall leading to a river beside a giant fortress with ornate towers and floating airships in the sky.

6. Promoting Empathy and Understanding

Picture books help older readers develop empathy by focusing on universal experiences and emotions. Readers can broaden their perspectives and enhance their emotional intelligence by connecting with diverse characters and situations.

Example: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson demonstrates the impact of kindness and the consequences of its absence, helping students understand empathy and the importance of treating others with compassion.

Classroom Tip: Use picture books to introduce historical or contemporary social issues, followed by discussions or writing assignments reflecting on the themes.

A watercolor painting of a person with curly hair standing by a pond, their reflection visible in the water, surrounded by lush greenery.

7. Making Learning Accessible and Engaging

Combining text and illustrations makes picture books accessible to students with varying reading levels while keeping them engaged.

Example: The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain takes readers on a journey underground, introducing students to geology and ecosystems beneath a city street.

Classroom Tip: Integrate picture books as supplementary material for differentiated instruction, supporting students struggling with traditional texts.

Illustration depicting various wildlife, including birds, foxes, and badgers, in their natural habitats with descriptive text overlay about their living environments.

8. Cultural Literacy with Picture Books for Older Readers

Picture books serve as mirrors reflecting cultural narratives and values. For older readers, they offer insights into societal changes and opportunities to reflect on cultural heritage, fostering a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Example: Dreamers by Yuyi Morales tells the story of a mother and her child immigrating to the United States.

Classroom Tip: Encourage students to share their own family immigration or migration stories. For students who may not have a direct immigration story, invite them to reflect on family traditions or cultural values they cherish.

A whimsical illustration of a mother and child reading among floating books, toys, and whimsical space and sea elements.
Click on the image for Dreamers activity ideas and questions

In Summary

Picture books have significant value for older readers, offering opportunities to develop visual literacy, critical thinking, creativity, and empathy. By incorporating them into the classroom, teachers can provide a richer, more engaging learning experience that resonates with students across grade levels.

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