Using Picture Books to Engage Middle School Students

By Murphy, Patricia | Middle School Journal, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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Using Picture Books to Engage Middle School Students

Murphy, Patricia, Middle School Journal

More than 300 years ago in 1658, a teacher and Moravian bishop, Johann Amos Comenius, created what is now recognized as the first picture book made expressly for children entitled Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures). This is most often referred to as Orbis Pictus. He was among the first to appreciate the belief that children remember things best if they see them (Saunders, 1999). "For it is apparent that children (even from their infancy) are delighted with pictures and willingly please their eyes with these sights" (Comenius as cited in Saunders, 1999, p. 8). The National Council of Teachers of English has established the Orbis Pictus Award given annually to recognize excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children.

Today, it is a challenge for teachers to convince resistant readers that literature holds secrets, adventures, and revelations worthy of their time and attention. When teachers demonstrate how to explore literature and guide students in doing so, teachers help break down barriers that are common among middle school students. The starting point for growth is each individual's effort to interact with the printed page. The teacher's task is to nurture and cultivate those interactions and transactions between individual readers and literary works so that readers of all ages will be able to construct their own meanings (Routman, 2000).

Unfortunately, when middle schools are structured to skirt the messiness of active participation and interaction, teachers lose opportunities to engage students in their learning. Picture books can help by entertaining, informing, and leading students to greater understanding of the world around them. They teach about content, about the world they represent, about form, about literature and about language and about how stories can be told (Benedict & Carlisle, 1992). For the many students not interested in specific content or academic learning in general, picture books are a captivating medium to learn content. Picture books can pique the interest of many adolescent students who, on the surface, may appear to be bored and apathetic.

What are picture books?

Picture books average 32 pages in length, with a picture appearing on every page or on every two-page spread. A symbiosis exists between the illustrations and the text. Just about any definition of a picture book includes the requirement that, in a marriage of words and pictures, the two partners share the responsibility of making the book work (Benedict & Carlisle, 1992). For example, the trade book, Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome by Sherwonit (2002), describes the origin and history of the race. However, the stunning photographs provide the visual reinforcement of the danger racers encounter and the bond between humans and dogs. This book provides an excellent example of the interdependency between the text and the illustrations. The actual reading event is a synergy of text and art; a new entity is revealed that is more than the sum of its parts.

Why use picture books?

The middle school classroom offers many compelling reasons for using picture books. First, they are short enough to be read in one sitting. Culham (2001) observed, "They are short on pages, but long on meaning" (p. 2). With precious little classroom instructional time, teachers and students can read a picture book from start to finish and still have time for meaningful subsequent assignments, discussions, or activities. Second, picture books contain intriguing illustrations and are pleasurable to view. Picture books provide an array of art styles and offer opportunities for aesthetic learning. Third, picture book texts, with their trademark brevity, contain carefully chosen words. The texts are often used as writing models. Fourth, picture books are reader friendly. Young people are allowed to relax and enjoy the reading.

Furthermore, struggling readers in the middle grades find wordless picture books the perfect vehicle for creating their own texts.

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