The Power of Picture Books
So many of us have fond memories of our elementary teachers reading aloud to us as we sat on the rug looking up in anticipation of the amazingness that was about to come out of the pages that they held in their hands. That read-aloud provided us with an opportunity to learn about interesting moments in time, fantastical characters, or even just a moment to laugh with our peer group. The teacher had the chance to teach explicit skills, model good reading habits, and pass on a passion for topics that we might often overlook. What a sensational learning experience...so why does it have to stop?
Reading aloud to older grades, specifically middle school students (grades 6-8), is just as essential and desired as it is for the younger grades. As with younger students, reading aloud models literacy skills, a portal into passions and topics of interest, and most importantly provides a time to discuss essential civic and humane issues that otherwise might never arise. Take for instance the beautifully illustrated picture book, The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome. At first glance, one might assume that this simply done story is intended for quick story time; however, this book addresses a very heavy topic, the plight of the enslaved. It’s rhythmic, child-like manner quickly engages the reader but also opens the door to discussing the heart-wrenching decision by fleeing slaves to leave their family behind. Throughout the book the reader finds themselves immersed in a family who expresses their love for each other daily in a myriad of ways. When their world is turned upside down the reader shares in their heartache but also celebrates the possibility of freedom for at least one suffering individual. Imagine the conversations to be had amongst middle school or high school students empathizing with the plight of the enslaved determined to be free, but terrified by the possibility of never seeing their family again.
Allowing our students to connect and identify with history through explicit discussions and reflections before, during and after a read-aloud experience, rather than passively absorbing the information has the possibility of creating passionate historians who understand the repetitive nature of historical issues. Middle school students are often presented with complex texts and asked to analyze themes or develop inferences that become even more difficult because of the text levels. Picture books provide a window into hard content in easier to digest and decipher chunks, increasing the confidence in readers and their willingness to tackle these necessary reading tasks. Picture books, with their vivid illustrations and short storylines, can increase engagement and retention of information as students are able to focus on the central storyline with ease.
Read-alouds are most effective when pre-planned, take time to read the book before you read to the students so you’ll know stopping points for discussion and can anticipate questions that the students may have. Prepare a few open-ended questions that allow for student discussion and debate. If you are running short on time, “book talk” the book and have it available for students to read during class if they have extra time. Encourage students to visit the picture book section of the library to find other books that expand their knowledge of topics discussed in class.