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Picture Books with Secondary Students

By April 19, 2016 January 24th, 2018 No Comments

Everyone Loves a Story

Here’s what I’ve found with tweens and teens. They love stories. And they love to be read to. Even when my middle and high schoolers were struggling or just stubbornly resistant readers themselves, I’ve never once in my entire teaching career had a student resist listening to a great story read aloud. I started using picture books in my classroom for all kinds of things, but mainly because we love them. They are beautiful and rich and yummy like caramel, and they make reading fun.

Picture Books Aren’t Just For Kids

Teachers are discovering all kinds of advantages to incorporating picture books into their secondary classroom instruction. Here are a few:

  • Picture book collections give students quick access to different genres and historical eras and serve as mentor pieces. (Example: Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say to acquaint students with the Civil War.)
  • With a picture book you can read the entire work aloud, model the focus you want students to concentrate on, let them explore the craft, have a discussion, and even have students try it out in their own writing–all in one period.
  • Picture books help older English language learners meet the ELA anchor standards in the Common Core.
  • Picture books pair well as companions for grade-level texts. (Examples from Paul Hankins: Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole pairs well with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Yansook Choi’s The Name Jar pairs well with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.)
  • Picture books serve as
    • writing prompts.
    • mentor texts for craft and genre study.
    • “ways in” to thematic units.
    • complete texts for close literary analysis or application of different critical lenses.

The “Hidden” Complexity of Picture Books

Paul Hankins teaches Advanced Placement (AP) English language and composition to 11th graders at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg, Indiana, and blogs about teaching. (We love his blog!) In a recent School Library Journal article, education writer Linda Jacobson describes how Hankins uses Jim Averbeck’s and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia to teach rhetorical situation. In the story, Sophia eloquently requests a giraffe as a birthday gift and is labeled as “verbose,” “effusive,” and “loquacious.” Hankins notes that

AP students are not only getting a lesson in rhetorical situation, they are also getting a quick lesson in Tier I and Tier II words that all mean “wordy.” I would submit that the student who can analyze a picture book like the Sophia book and make a connection back to the bigger lesson we are considering is beginning to demonstrate those skills we want to see upon an AP exam. And certainly upon the SAT/ACT many of these students will take.

Mary Jo Fresch, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University and co-author of The Power of Picture Books: Using Content Area Literature in Middle School (National Council of Teachers of English, 2009) confirms that picture books are actually quite complex because you can’t get the whole story from the pictures and you can’t get the whole story from the words.

““It takes some real critical thinking to use a picture book,” Fresch says.


The Educator’s Room offers a series of lessons for using picture books with high schoolers. Posts include ideas like using the Cat in the Hat to explain Freud’s theory of the id, ego, and superego; using to Fredrick by Leo Lionni to examine what the poet does for society; or using The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka for a lesson on point of view.

Teacher, author, speaker, and blogger Pernille Ripp shares her favorite picture books for middle schoolers and many great ideas for using with her students on her blog

Love the Teaching Channel! Here’s a one-minute video from teacher Sarah Brown Wessling with a great lesson on using picture books to practice literary skills.

Want some solid data? Read The Use of Picture Books in the High School Classroom: A Qualitative Case Study by Melissa Reiker.