Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Wonder of Picture Books by Abie Longstaff

We all know the snuggly, cosy effect of picture books. They are designed to be shared and bonded over; adult and child leaning in together in a moment of comfort and joy.

But, as well as these snuggly qualities, did you know that picture books can promote language development, literacy and social skills? 

‘Dialogic book reading’ is a style of shared reading where the parent interacts with the child, talking about the illustrations and asking questions about the story. This kind of activity encourages the child to think beyond the story, to relate the pictures to their everyday life and to make sense of their world.

So, as parents and carers, how should we read to our children? 

  • Research suggests we should encourage the child to participate in the reading process by asking questions, even at a young age.  
From Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  •  Ask questions about physical things: What do you see? Where is the baby? What toys does he have?    
From Thumbelina by Hans Christian Anderson, Kaj Beckman and M.R. James

  •  Ask about feelings to help the child express themself: The girl looks sad, why is she sad? Are the fish going to help her?
  • Let the child ask you questions too.
  • Feed back to the child; praising them when they notice something in the story. Don’t forget the illustrations in this respect. If a child is decoding a story simply from the pictures, praise this as much as when the child reads a word in the text. 

From Princess Smartypants, by Babette Cole
  • Adapt the reading style to the child’s growing linguistic abilities. For older children picture books can be used to discuss more complicated issues: Why doesn't Princess Smartypants want to get married? Do you like this ending? Can you imagine another giant pet for her?
From Where the Wild Things are, by Maurice Sendak
  •   Move beyond the text and relate the story to the child’s life: Would you like a boat like that? You like costumes too! 
From Possum Magic, by Mem Fox
  •  Talk about culture: What kind of animals are these? Can you think of any other Australian animals? Would you like to live in Australia?
Recent research has found that even picture books with very few words can encourage language development in two-year olds. A study by Manchester University revealed that when parents share very simple books with their child, the language the parent uses contains more complex constructions than everyday speech. This helps the child learn a wider vocabulary, grammar and even enhances their maths, as one of the key predictors in children’s mathematical skill is early language experience.

But, as Monty Python would ask; other than vocab, grammar, maths, sharing, expressing emotion, cultural values, and bonding, what have picture books ever done for us? Well, if that list wasn’t enough… 

...A study found those children who are read a picture book before having blood taken feel less pain.

More information
For tips on dialogic reading, see

For information on language development and picture books, see

For more on pain management and picture books, see
A Prospective Randomised Control Study: Reduction of Children's Pain Expectation Using a Picture Book during Blood Withdrawal Zieger B. et al (2013) Klin Padiatr; 225(03): 110-114


Linda Strachan said...

Great blog Abie.
So much of this may be instinctive for some people but not everyone. Especially new parents who have had little experience of very young children, or those whose own reading skills are not so strong. They can often be concentrating so much on getting the words right and telling the story as it is written, that it can be easy to forget how important the child's 'interruptions' are.
Especially when a child notices something in the illustration that is not in the text - they are adding to the story and it is so important not to rush that moment.
Reading to a child is a lovely time for both child and parent although after a long day it might feel like a bit of a struggle and it can be easy to forget how precious those moments are.

Paeony Lewis said...

Interesting, and I'll look up the links, Abie - thanks. I must admit that sometimes I want to stick to reading the story without interruptions (apart from interaction when it's part of the tale), but instead I should learn to put aside my focus on the story. I wonder how that works when reading to several children at once?

Anonymous said...

This is a great post! When I'm reading with kids they usually like to tell me all about the pictures along with the story. They see so much more than what the words have to say. And when we read with a group of kids, we can get some pretty good discussions going. Picture books are fabulous!!

danielle said...

Excellent advice!

Elli said...

I know this is the way that we're told we *should* be reading picture books, but I hated being read to like this as a child. I couldn't stand my mother putting on voices. I detested it when she asked questions. For me it felt like not only was I being interrogated, but that the story was being interrupted too. It's not that I didn't like looking at the pictures: I did. But what I wanted was to be able to weave my own narrative around them, free from what I felt was parental intrusion. And I wanted to come to my own answers about the text, rather than be put on the spot. Which isn't to say that I disagree with dialogic reading at all - in fact in many situation I would heartily recommend it, particularly for very young children - but I'm not convinced that it's necessarily the only method, or even always the best.

Elli said...

With a postscript to add that I absolutely applaud interruptions from children. But that's not the same as having the parent interrupt.

Abie Longstaff said...

I know what you mean, Elli. Picture books are about pleasure and bonding. Interrogation would take away all the fun! It should definitely feel more like a chat and, if the child likes to use their own imagination, it might be better just to let them describe their own story from the pictures.
It's a balance - we all know what suits our own children and sometimes it's nice just to read the book and share the language and pictures, without questions :)

Jon Burgess Design said...

Interesting post. But, without wishing to over react and be too hostile ;-) I have to say I am wary of introducing another layer of potential parental guilt into the mix. And another aspect of our lives to be judged and measured. I think reading to our children is such a positive in itself that it should be encouraged unconditionally. The snuggly stuff is the important stuff. . .
In group work in schools etc it makes more sense, seeing as their ethos is more results based. Trying to extract the maximum educational/developmental benefit from something that should be pleasurable kind of kills it for me. It smacks of the driven, 'project management' style of parenting where all potential has to be maximised. I think you touched a nerve, sorry ;-)

Moira Butterfield said...

I think these things need to be pointed out, actually, because many parents don't give their kids the chance to interact with them when they read- In fact, many parents don't even read picture books together with their kids at all. They don't see any point or benefit. This interaction does need to be encouraged, strange as it may seem to us. Plus, when adults have read the same book a million times and feel like screaming, these tips are really going to help. And the information that picture books help with pain control is amazing, Abie! Thank you!