By Leslie Paterson

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Picture Books in Secondary School

Picture Books are a useful tool that, when successfully integrated into teaching and learning literacy, can help students of any age and ability develop literacy skills. Picture books provide a real life connection to the reader, as there are illustrations that can provide meaning that is not always present in text alone. Many learners are visual learners, and so the connection might be stronger for that learner reading picture books than it would be for them reading text only. Using Picture Books in secondary school allows the student to focus on ideas, potentially more complex than usual, instead of on written content. Readers are more easily drawn in to the stories in picture books, increasing immediate interest and motivation towards reading. In addition, picture books allow the reader to work with the illustrations to create meaning.

What is a Picture Book?

A picture book is a book “in which Illustrations play an integral role in creating meaning. They are not the same as illustrated books, in which meaning does not depend on illustrations. In a picture book, text and pictures work together”(Bainbridge et. al.). The picture book flows naturally and neatly from beginning to end, and has been shown to “help High School students better understand literary elements” (Robinson).


Elements of teaching Literacy

There any various methods of teaching Literacy that are effective and functional, and scholars and teachers may argue that some are better than others. Whether it be read-alongs, creating literature, or unstructured writing, one overriding theme that appears in most teaching strategies for literacy, is that no single method is most effective. This meaning that there needs to be a combination of different strategies used in teaching literacy, which ideally would encompass the use of Picture Books.

Brian Cambourne is an associate professor at the University of Wollongong in Australia, and has defined 8 conditions for Literacy Learning. Notice that Picture Books can be incorporated into Engagement, Immersion, Demonstration, Use, Approximation and Response, if not all areas of the chart.

Cambourne’s Conditions for Literacy Learning (a reconstruction based on Bainbridge et al)


Fostering engagement involves communicating and modeling relevant reasons for becoming readers and writers. The learner needs to recognize that:
a) I am a potential “doer” or “performer” of these demonstrations I’m observing.
b) Engaging with these demonstrations will further the purposes of my life.
c) I can engage and try to emulate without fear of physical or psychological hurt if my attempt is not full correct.

Learners are surrounded with a visual and aural saturation of print and text and sounds of text.
Proficient readers and writers model the use and construction of text, making explicit the invisible process involved.
Teachers communicate that every student is capable of learning to read and write and they expect every child to learn.
Learners take responsibility for their own learning, making som, but not all, decisions about what and how they learn.
Learners need time and multiple opportunities to use and practice their developing skills in authentic and meaningful ways.
Learners need to feel free to approximate the desired models, understanding that attempts and subsequent mistakes are essential for learning to occur.
Learners need “feedback” concerning the nature of their responses, drawing attention to salient features of models that will help learners modify approximations.
In practice:
Functional use of wall print (print walks/read the room) sustained silent reading, read-alouds, shared reading, taped books, choral reading.
In practice:
Think-alouds, joint constructions of texts, a Focus on knowledge, and understanding.
In practice:
Mixed ability groupings to avoid odious comparisons, constant reminders of their successes, like learning to speak.
In practice:
Structures and processes that allow students to take responsibility, using language that invites open-ended responses and encouraging the justification of comments.
In practice:
Providing frequent opportunities to use reading and writing for a range of purposes.
In practice:
Sharing stories of how we learn, highlighting the role approximations play in helping and hindering the learner.
In practice:
Providing multiple processes that allow feedback from teachers and other students.

Why use Picture Books in Secondary School?

Cambourne's Conditions for Literacy Learning (above) clearly demonstrate that there are many different factors in teaching and learning Literacy. It outlines the importance of using multiple types of Literacy for learners of all ages, and so it is reasonable that Picture Books should be factored into this learning.

Research reported in educational literature suggests that using visuals in teaching results in a greater degree of learning” (Stokes). Most types of learning in school involve the use of the left side of the brain, that is, doing math, reading, writing, and so on. The right side of the brain is in use when doing art, music, and dance. If a student has a brain that works more effectively from the right side of the brain, reading in the traditional sense (i.e. without pictures) at the high school level does not allow this student to work in a way that he or she is most comfortable and successful. If what we want for our students is success, then why not incorporate picture books into secondary school, and continue developing interest and learning for students of different learning styles?


Picture books can also be used as a means to engage students into any given topic. An example of this is Jaqueline Woodson's book The Other Side. This book is aimed at children in grades 2-3, yet as a beautiful piece of literature and art, can be used to capture attention of students of any age. The book's theme is related to black segregation in the United States, and so has potential to be a great discussion piece on the subject.

Although there are picture books aimed at students in secondary school, there are many other books aimed at a younger audience that can be used to prelude and/or support almost any given unit or lesson at the secondary level.

Picture Books for Secondary School Students

Barbalet, M and Tanner J. The Wolf (1992)

Byrd, R. Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer (2000)

Littlechild, G. This land is my land (1993)

Polacco, P. Chicken Sunday (1992)

Winter, J. Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude (2009)

Zhang, A. Red land, yellow river: A story from the cultural revolution (2004)

More suggested picture books for teenagers:

connected youth booklist

adolescent literacy

A great site to check out:

recommended books with teaching guides


Bainbridge, J. Heydon, R. Malicky, G. Constructing Meaning, fourth edition. 2009. Nelson Education Limited.

Ewan, E. Use Easy Nonfiction to Build Background Knowledge. 2007. West Virginia Department of Education. 1900 Kanawha Boulevard East, Charleston, WV 25305

Richardson, M. Miller, M. Using Picture books Kindergarten through High School. 1997. University of South Dakota, SD.

Robinson, B. Using picture books to teach literary terms in the High School English classroom. Department of Educationo University of North Carolina- Asherville.

Stokes, S. Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning: a Literature Perspective. Troy State University. Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education, vol. 1, no. 1