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Using picturebooks in primary English language teaching – Gail Ellis, Tatia Gruenbaum, Sandie Mourão, Anneta Sadowska


Every year thousands of high-quality children’s picturebooks are published in English.  They offer a rich, but often under-used, flexible and motivating resource for primary English language teaching (PELT). The fusion of the best in trade publishing combined with effective PELT pedagogy makes picturebooks an innovative and enriching experience in the classroom.

What is a picturebook?

A picturebook generates meaning through both pictures and words – the pictures show and the words tell – and children create meaning through these two modes of communication.

  • In the early stages of language learning, picturebooks where the illustrations synchronise with the verbal text support children’s understanding as they often clarify the words.
  • As children’s English language competence develops and they gain in confidence, picturebooks where the illustrations complement, extend or even take the place of the verbal text are useful, as they provide meaningful opportunities for using English to discuss the illustrations and to co-construct the storyline.

Why use picturebooks in the PELT classroom?

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Picturebooks expose children to rich, authentic language in a natural way, as the language has not been sequenced or graded. They also contain high quality illustrations which expose children to different styles or art work and broaden children’s visual experiences.  When carefully selected, picturebooks can also bring diversity themes into the primary classroom such as age, gender, race or ethnicity, disability, religion or belief and sexual orientation as well as promote values such as kindness, tolerance, openness and friendship.

There is a long history of using carefully selected picturebooks in PELT to introduce and develop language related to themes and topics commonly taught to children of this age e.g. colours, clothes, parts of the body. However, picturebooks can take learners beyond core linguistic goals to contribute to their progression in a more holistic way by:

  • developing listening and concentration skills
  • contributing to children’s emotional, social, cognitive and intercultural development
  • supporting literacy development – listening to stories being read aloud is one of the most important ways that children are motivated to become readers themselves
  • addressing topics rarely included in mainstream teaching materials e.g. bullying, kindness …
  • developing multiliteracies such as visual, emotional, cultural, learning, civic, environmental literacies
  • developing literary knowledge by recognizing and understanding the different parts of a picturebook (the peritext – the front and back covers, endpapers, title pages etc) to be able to talk about a picturebook more specifically.

Selecting picturebooks

 It is sometimes difficult to be specific about age-level suitability as picturebooks operate on many levels and can satisfy children of different ages.

Children may have limited English, but their ideas, understanding of concepts and aspirations will be relevant to their development age. This results in a common criticism that the language may be too complex and the content too simplistic.

Real success depends on:

  • having the right story for the interests of a particular group of learners
  • designing tasks to match the linguistic and cognitive abilities of a particular group of learners
  • selecting picturebooks which provide the starting point or springboard for a wide variety of related language and learning activities and opportunities for discussion in English.

When to use picturebooks

Picturebooks can be used as follows:

  • As a supplement. Here, picturebooks are used occasionally to complement mainstream teaching materials in order to show how language introduced and practised through the coursebook is used in a different context. Time spent using the picturebook may vary from read alouds for pleasure to a whole lesson looking at a picturebook in greater depth.
  • As the principal teaching material. When used in this way, schemes of work can cover between 6 – 12 hours around one picturebook incorporating pre, while and post-storytelling activities.  Six to eight picturebooks can be used throughout a school year depending on time allocated for English language learning.

When using this latter approach, picturebooks need to be selected carefully to cover a range of genres, topics and settings or else there is a risk of children developing highly specialised, low frequency vocabulary, leaving gaps in their basic vocabulary. It is also beneficial to encourage home involvement to maximise learning and to make it collaborative and meaningful.  Used in this way, picturebooks can contribute to a whole-school approach to learning and general education by linking with other subjects across the curriculum.

Mediating picturebooks

The teacher plays a key role in mediating picturebooks by helping children to construct meaning, and to use English as much as possible to talk about what they see in the illustrations, what they understand from hearing or reading the words and seeing the images together, and to make links to their own lived experiences.

  • Make the reading aloud of a picturebook a special event where the teacher and the children share the emotions, the humour, the action, the suspense, the anticipation and the surprise of the story. This will create a natural communicative situation where the children can interact with the teacher, the picturebook and each other.
  • Involve the children actively by relating the theme of the picturebook to their own experiences.
  • Talk about the peritext and use this to encourage children to predict content. Return to the peritext after the picturebook has been read aloud to help children make connections.
  • Teach children phrases they can use to talk about the story, I think it will be a story about …., I like the way the illustrator has drawn the ……
  • Ask children to think about who is narrating the story (e.g. which pronouns are used: he/she, I/we) and what effect this has. Who is the assumed audience? Who are the main characters and how are they portrayed?
  • Consider how the use of sound effects, gestures, mime, facial expressions and actions can help convey the meaning of emotions, feelings and events in the picturebook and support children’s understanding.
  • Vary the pace, tone and volume of your voice during a read aloud to build suspense and keep children’s attention. Disguise your voice for different characters.
  • Make eye contact with the children, observe their reactions and be ready to respond to them.
  • Commentate on the story where appropriate and point to illustrations to focus children’s attention.
  • Ask probing questions:
    to elicit language and content,
    to find out what the children already know about a theme,
    to arouse curiosity and motivate,
    to focus their attention,
    to encourage prediction,
    to infer meaning,
    to check understanding and learning,
    to encourage the children to think about and express their own personal reactions to the story, to a character or to an illustration.
  • Allow children to ask questions and respond in their own language as necessary and recast in English.

Planning concrete outcomes

If using picturebooks as the principal teaching material, it is important that children know where all their learning in leading. Informing children at the beginning of a scheme of work of the planned outcomes will make their learning more meaningful, purposeful and motivating and will provide them with a strong incentive. Many outcomes are possible so choices can be offered to children or they can make their own suggestions for outcomes depending on their interests. Outcomes can include:

  • Craft activities such as making a model, a puppet, a collage, a display
  • Literacy activities such as writing a personalised version of the story, a miniature book, a zig-zag book, a poster, creating an advertisement, a board game
  • Project work such as researching a topic related to the picturebook and choosing the mode of presentation
  • Acting out the picturebook to an audience as a whole class project.

An online resource

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PEPELT stands for Picturebooks in European Primary English Language Teaching. It was co-founded by four colleagues committed to the value of picturebooks in language education.

The PEPELT Facebook page, website and YouTube channel, aim to help teachers better understand, critically examine, select and diversify their use of picturebooks, as well as address topics rarely included in mainstream teaching materials, so they can embrace their wider educational remit by going beyond the teaching of language alone.

Using videos to present a picturebook of the month from four different perspectives:

  • picturebook peritext
  • multiliteracies
  • teacher education
  • notes from the PELT classroom

PEPELT provides teachers with practical ideas, tips and useful information, which cover many of the areas mentioned in this blog.

The themes and picturebook choices made by the PEPELT team reflect PEPELT’s drive to discuss picturebooks that challenge and address current and topical issues. The themes covered in 2018/2019 were Friendship, Bullying, Love and Care, Celebrating Inclusion, Remembering John Burningham, Pancakes, Earth Day, Love is in the Air – Unusual Friendships and Celebrating the World of Eric Carle.

For the academic year 2019/2020, we have focused on the following themes so far:

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The theme for January 2020 is celebrating diversity, and the book of the month is Amazing by Steve Antony.

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The Facebook page, YouTube channel and website are all open access, so you are invited to join us and help create an engaged and sharing community of teachers, teacher educators, researchers and librarians using picturebooks in PELT.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PEPELT21/

YouTube: https://bit.ly/2rkrS9x

Long Link :https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcPHEWqeXGUDVOLnB4JBooA

Website: www.pepelt21.com


Blogger's Bio

- The PEPELT team consists of a voluntary group of four passionate educators, who have been using picturebooks in primary English language teaching for almost 100 years between them! They are based in four different countries in Europe: France, Poland, Portugal and The Netherlands. They bring varied experience and perspectives to using picturebooks with children in English education.