Picture Book Read-Alouds in the Upper Elementary Classroom

12 September 2015
Do your upper elementary students feel comfortable checking out picture books? Chances are good that they don't, but they should. Check out this post to learn how you can demonstrate why.

Picture books, ah picture books! Short stories, beautiful illustrations, memorable bedtime stories, and a child's introduction to the magic of a book. Picture books are easily my favorite section of any Barnes and Noble, even as an adult.

Fifth Graders are Too Old for Picture Books (or are they?)


So why is it that at the beginning of each year in my fifth grade classroom, the bucket of picture books is the saddest of all? Why aren't my fifth graders checking out picture books? I always ask my students and get the same response: "We're too old for picture books."

"What? No! No! No, no, no, no, no!" I think to myself. I know why it happens. Throughout their years of elementary school, we've been encouraging them to move on to more challenging text, and we are excited to put that Nate the Great book in front of them because we are opening the door to chapter books! Judy Moody? Check! Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Check! Every book in the series of Percy Jackson series? Check! Oh, the glorious celebration as students challenge themselves! But now that we've taught students to challenge themselves, how do we let them know that picture books are still a perfectly acceptable option?

How and Why Picture Books Work

Read-alouds are a powerful tool, and they can hook a student on a story and help them to understand that picture books do not have an age limit, and are, in fact, for everyone. Often, when I do convince my fifth graders that it's perfectly acceptable to check out a picture book, it's after I've shared the book aloud. Of course, teachers need to get the most bang for their buck, so how should you use picture books effectively in the upper elementary grades?  

My suggestion is to sit down with your SOL curriculum framework and your favorite read-aloud. You will be amazed at the lessons that lie within one book. I can sit down with a picture book and find opportunities for teaching main idea and details (3.5i, 3.5j, 4.5c, 4.5d, 5.5g, 5.5h), character development (5.5b), problem and solution (3.5h, 4.5e), making text to text connections (3.5b, 4.5f, 5.5a), drawing conclusions/making inferences (3.5g, 4.5h, 5.5i), make, confirm, and revise predictions (3.5c, 4.5i, 5.5k), and identify cause and effect relationships in the text (4.5j, 5.5j). And that's just a fictional picture book. Grab a nonfiction picture book and the teaching opportunities are aplenty as well.

Of course, you'll most likely want to focus in only one of those. Choose your focus and read the book for the lesson. Each time I prepare a lesson with a picture book, I have to read it not for pleasure, but for my focus. This helps me to know if the story I've chosen lends itself to my lesson. Not all picture books will be a perfect fit. As I read through, I usually grab a sticky note to mark the parts that are best for my focus. Then, after reading through the first time, I go back to those pages and prepare my lesson. I keep the stickies in there to remind me of when my think-aloud moments will come, and usually add some notes that will be helpful when I'm reading the book to the class.

Tips and Ideas for Using Picture Books

I always bring my passion for reading to the story when I'm reading aloud. I encourage you to choose picture books that you truly enjoy because it will show. I LOVE fractured fairytales so I often bring out my fractured fairytale collection. They lend themselves to TONS of lessons. Most importantly, students dive in to the books, enjoy the fun stories, and eventually use them as inspiration for writing their own fractured fairytales (3.9, 4.7, 5.7). Interested? Read Write Think has some great ideas here: Writing Fractured Fairytales

Picture books are often encouraged as mentor texts for writing and I second that idea! Have you read The Day the Crayons Quit? It's perfect for persuasive writing and voice! In fact, here's a link with book activities for multiple grade levels: The Day the Crayons Quit Activities (5.7)

When it comes to read-alouds, I think that Patricia Polacco is the cat's meow. I use many of her books as read-alouds and we even do an author study toward the end of the year where students will use multiple reading and writing skills and strategies. Many of her stories are rich in vocabulary and are wonderful for context clues. One of my favorite lessons uses Pink and Say to focus on context clues. (3.4d, 4.4a, 5.4a) Here's a great link with fabulous ideas for using Patricia Polacco book's in multiple grade levels: Patricia Polacco Book Ideas

And remember, picture books aren't just for reading and writing! Are you teaching social studies? Grab a picture biography on Abraham Lincoln, read it, and complete a timeline with students. Try this timeline from Read Write Think: Interactive Timeline Are you teaching science? Read a book on Mars and identify nonfiction text features. Cease the moment anytime you can integrate subjects. There's never a bad time for a picture book! 

My motto is, "If you read it, they will too." Some of our best childhood memories include hearing our favorite stories read for the first time. Be a part of that experience for your students and share a picture book that they'll want to read again and again.

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