To champion the picturebook (by Sandie Mourão)

In May this year I launched my blog, Picturebooks in ELT. The motivation came from the work I’m doing with picturebooks for my PhD.  When I began my research programme, I had no idea it would lead me down this route…

“What route?” I hear you mumble.

“Picturebooks and children’s literature generally, and my wish to champion the picturebook … let me explain.”

As a pre-school English teacher, using picturebooks is one of the many activities considered appropriate pedagogy for this age group.  I teach older students too – and I use picturebooks with my primary students – it’s also considered appropriate practice in primary education.  I’m also a teacher trainer, and I use picturebooks in my training, and I know from my reading and my work with teachers that we can use picturebooks with teenagers too.  I would use picturebooks with teenagers and young adults if I worked with them.

So what is it about picturebooks that makes them so appropriate in all these very different contexts?

First and foremost, they are versatile, complex objects.

“Objects?” I hear you mumble.

“Oh yes!” I nod eagerly.  They are objects in their own right, not just a collection of pages between two covers: their conception is carefully thought through by authors, illustrators, designers and editors; In a quality picturebook every single bit – the covers, the endpapers, the title page, even the dedication – can be part of the narrative, contributing to the result you experience.

“Experience?” another mumble from your direction.

“Oh yes!” I nod even more eagerly.  Reading a picturebook is an experience, a multimodal one.  You can read the words and the pictures: the words tell and the pictures show. Sometimes what they tell and show is similar, sometimes it’s different.  In the latter case, we need to see the shown and read the told to get the whole meaning.  Often the relationship between picture and word, the told and the shown, is complex.

“Complex?” you mumble again.

“Yep! Complex.”  (I‘m on a roll …) Pictures and words can provide similar information, of course in different ways as they are different modes of communication, but the final message is the same.   But, in some picturebooks we see things in the illustrations that are not mentioned in the words, or they give us completely different information.  There is a gap between the pictures and the words which we fill as the active reader.  A good picturebook is layered in meaning, we return to it and read and look again and again.   It also means that readers see and read different things in the same picturebook. Picturebooks are like Walt Disney and Pixar films – Hercules and Ice Age appeal to everyone, old and young because the young like the pictures and funny characters and the old get all the jokes.

And picturebooks can be about pretty much anything.


“Yes!  Anything!” There are picturebooks which talk about death, divorce, or being gay;  about depression or being a teenager.  There are picturebooks that look at bullying, having baby siblings, about having a pretend friend, about having no friends.  There are picturebooks which show us how others live, how they speak, and what they do.  Then there are picturebooks which take us into a wonderland world of talking creatures, hardworking ducks, lost teddies and tomboy princesses.  There are picturebooks that help us count or say the alphabet, show us the life cycle of a butterfly or how to make the colour green.

It is no wonder that with such diversity at our fingertips we can use them in so many contexts.

And so because of their versatility, their multimodality, their complexity, because they are misunderstood by so many teachers I have set up my blog, I have decided to champion the picturebook.

It's a bookI’d like to share one of my favourite picturebooks with you.  It  is written and illustrated by Lane Smith – in case you didn’t know, some of the greatest picturebooks are created by one person. It’s called ‘It’s a book’. It was launched this summer and coincided, by chance, with discussion in the media about the future of the book. It’s a hilarious play on the different ways we interact with books and computer screens.

It’s certainly not a pre-school book – its simple minimal sentences hide a layered complexity full of jokes, understood and shared through the common knowledge we have of computers and books.

Lane Smith contributes to a blog called Curious Pages, which “celebrates the offbeat, the abstract, the unusual, the surreal, the macabre, the inappropriate, the subversive and the funky.”   He’s written about his book on the blog and it’s well worth visiting.  And there’s a book trailer on Youtube which is fun too.  But the book is better!

Using it in the classroom could range from asking children to compare computers and books, or to think about the different expressions we use with technology. Help them think about the evolution of the written word, when scrolls became books, possibly writing a different text.  Or how about just sharing it, delighting in the shared jokes you can giggle and chuckle at together, so much of the information comes through the visual.  A book for book’s sake!

The book Depository is an online bookshop which does worldwide free delivery.  The hardback version of It’s a book costs under €10, once the paperback comes out it’ll be around €5. OK, I know it’s a fortune for some teachers, but not for all those ELT teachers out there.

From May till now I’ve been challenged in more ways than I imagined possible, but what a journey it has been , I’ve discovered a whole new world of people who, like me, blog about children’s literature, and I’ve discovered other worlds too. It was motivating to be asked to write this guest blog, but I wanted to get a number of posts written and feel comfortable with the way things were going. Do visit, and leave a comment or two.  I would love as many teachers as possible to discover the wonderful world of the picturebook and to understand better how this multimodal object can bring both language and fun into our classes.

For anyone who’s interested in learning more about what I do in the ELT world, I have a website, do take a peek.

Thanks Barbara for giving me the opportunity to share my passion with fellow teachers.

Note: This article by Sandie Mourão originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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10 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks for sharing your passion, Sandie! It’s contagious 🙂

    I love picture books and so do my students. Thanks for introducing me to “It’s a Book.” It’s going to be a welcome addition to our class library!

  2. Matthew Spira says:

    I fully agree that picture books are under-appreciated as teaching and learning tools. I also completely agree that there are so many different ways to implement them in the learning experience.

    As context for the above statement, the kindergarten and elementary-aged language academy I work for in South Korea has recently coalesced around the strongest staff it has had in its history. For the first time in my tenure (and I’ve been there the entire time), I don’t think we have a single weak teacher.

    And back when I was a manager in the business world, I was a firm believer in the principle of MWOB – “Managing by walking around.” I’m not the manager of my school, but when I walk through the hallways and peek- perhaps more importantly listen to, or simply experience the classroom dynamics- what I see are the teachers making the learning opportunities three-dimensional by incorporating multi-sensory input at an appropriate pace for children with very imaginative variations of standard materials.

    Often, it is simply a set of visuals being organized in different ways to highlight different comprehension strategies, or to stimulate production along different channels.

    One thing I personally like to do is give photographs or sets of photographs (for sequencing of both narrative and expository forms of writing) to students and have them try to exhaustively describe the images. Depending on developmental level, I’ll either provide scaffolding through targeted but open-ended questions, or simply provide an “editorial eye” doing the creation process of their assignment.

    Maybe not the exact same thing as you describe, but I’m simply trying to illustrate my complete agreement to the versatility of picture books in a wide variety of contexts.


    • SandieMourao says:

      Thanks for your message Matt 🙂 Couldn’t agree more. The illustrations in picturebooks provide wonderful opportunities for talk, which we often overlook in our focus on the words.

    • Eric Kane says:

      YES! 🙂 Picture books without the pictures are “just” books. The pictures are half the equation – MORE for the youngest learners. We use a lot of interactive reading strategies in the classroom and they seem to be the one thing that can keep even the youngest kids glued to the floor for the longest time! They love predicting, describing, answering, laughing!

  3. Yoshie says:

    Thank you for great sharing about wonderful picture books! They are so helpful for me. Also I am really impressed by your passion.

  4. Kathleen Kampa says:

    Your photo makes me feel like sitting down and reading for hours on end. Picture books are truly magical! I use picture books with students of varying English levels and ages. They beckon the use of Multiple Intelligences strategies (I end up singing and moving with many of the books I read). They invite children to think holistically about the “big ideas” in the books linking all of the “little pieces” of vocabulary together.
    Best of luck on your research . . .
    Kathleen Kampa

    • SandieMourao says:

      Hi Kathleen,
      Thank you for your wonderful response. I love your “big ideas” and “‘little pieces’ of vocabulary” comment. Perfect. Picturebooks do just that. The illustrations help us see the whole and then focus in, which is often quite the opposite of what we do with words, which is look at the bits to get a whole.
      And yes, picturebooks do wonders for the whole child/student, catering for their affective, social and cognitive development, as well as their emotional development. They are truely wonderful things and a good picturebook is better than all my favourite things tied together in a bow.
      Do pop into my blog every now and again and read about some of the picturebooks there.

  1. October 29, 2010

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