There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing young readers using pictures in stories as they read.
What We Used to Think
Checking the pictures in stories used to be seen as almost cheating when reading the stories. I remember as a child thinking that looking at the pictures was meant for after reading the words. Recently a parent was in my classroom reading a story but refused to show students the pictures saying they would only pay attention to the pictures and not the words. Not only were the kids disappointed they missed an opportunity to use the pictures to help them build an understanding of the text as the story was read aloud.
Pictures are in texts for a reason. They support the reader to make meaning as they work through a text. To not allow a student access to pictures is to inhibit their understanding of the text. Let’s explore this shift in thinking even further.
Text Levels and Pictures
When a child begins to read at lower levels the entire story is in the picture. If the line of print says The car is blue, on the page is a picture of a blue car. The next page says the car is orange and a picture of an orange car is on the page. This is because children at this level need the illustration to support them as readers. To not have the illustration would mean that they can’t decode the text.
As children move up in levels the picture support within text gradually fades away. As students know more and more words they use the pictures for decoding less and less. Sometimes authors may use the illustrations to add in bits of the stories that aren’t being told through the words. Here are a few examples of texts at different levels and a description of the picture support at that level.
At a level A kids are just beginning to develop their reading skills. They are learning that books are read from left to right. They are learning that there is a relationship between sounds and letters. You’ll notice that text in a level A is limited. It consists of one line of print that a student would read using the support of their finger moving from word to word. These books often follow a pattern. In the book above the text follows the “Here is the ____” pattern as the students read about making this rabbit craft. You’ll notice that the words on the page match the picture exactly. Level A provides simple text and the narrative is completely told within the pictures. It is at this beginning level that readers are prompted to check the picture when they get stuck. All information included in the text is included in the illustrations.
At a level D kids are finding more lines on a page than they were in previous levels. These readers use the pictures to attach meaning to the story and the picture still provides a high level of support to the story. You’ll notice that possible unknown words such as beach or water can be determined using support from the picture and perhaps initial letter sound. Students read a level D at the end of Kindergarten/beginning of first grade.
Notice how the demand of the reader has shifted from an D to a H. We expect kids to exit grade 1 around a level I/J. Within that first grade year the demands within the text levels change quite drastically. After level E the high level of picture support for a text begins to shift. In a level H there is moderate picture support. The story is mostly told through the text but the pictures help support readers and they decode a text. If a reader at a level H isn’t sure about the word climbed in the last line they can still use the picture to help their understanding. If they aren’t sure about the word stick, there isn’t much picture support to help in the decoding of that word.
In a level K the use of pictures begins to shift. Now readers have many decoding strategies and are able to decode a high number of words with high accuracy. In a level K the text will sometimes demand that the reader search for information in the pictures or graphics. Readers who are still relying heavily on picture clues to decode words often get stuck at a level K because of the limited picture support. Prior to this level many other decoding strategies need to be taught to gradually release the reader from relying solely on picture support. A typical student will approach a level K text about half way through second grade. Notice how the pictures are still important and still provide support however the type of support provided has shifted.
At approximately a level N the use of pictures in stories shifts again. Now there is little to no picture support for readers as they work through the text. This picture provides a bit of context. I see two people on a beach. I can tell that it is probably cold out and they are looking at something dirty. If you read the text on this page you will find out a lot more details. The pictures don’t provide support for decoding anymore and they don’t provide additional information to add on to the text. Readers at this level are now reliant on the text and the illustrations are there for enjoyment. Readers reach a level N at the beginning of grade 3.
As you can see, pictures in stories help the reader build meaning or make sense of a story. If we don’t allow students access to pictures then we are taking away an essential coding system that helps readers work through a text. If students aren’t using the pictures as they read this should be a teaching point that is worked on. Text levels gradually release responsibility to the reader similar to the entire balanced literacy framework. We don’t need and shouldn’t cover up pictures as students work to read texts.
Three Coding Systems- M, S, V
As readers work through text they use three coding systems: meaning, structure, and visual.
Meaning- Does this make sense?
Structure- Does this sound right?
Visual- Does this look right?
We want readers to be cross-checking and using all systems of coding but today we’re focused on meaning. When students are using meaning they are connecting the words in the text, noticing relationships and putting the story together. Illustrations in a text are a source of meaning as a reader decodes the text.
When a child makes meaning of a text they are not only using the words and the illustrations, they also draw upon other sources such as background knowledge and life experiences, sense of how a story works, experiences with books and language.
These meaning cues help readers to make sense of the text as they work through it. Students can use meaning to notice errors in a story when the plot no longer makes sense. They can make connections to their life and what they know using meaning. It helps them to hold the sense of story as they work through page after page of text. Meaning helps readers understand the main ideas in a text and the ideas that support those ideas. It helps them to read with fluency and expression. It even helps them swap out words for words that still make sense (mom for mother). Meaning is essential for a reader.
Please check out this post all about using prompts with children.
As readers we constantly ask ourselves does this make sense? as we move through stories. We want our students to do the same. To do so we prompt our students for these missing skills. This is, of course, after we have already taught and modeled the prompt for them. To learn more about prompting please check out this post. Some prompts for meaning could be
-Did that make sense?
-Look at the pictures.
-What happened in the story when ______?
-What do you think it might be
-Can you reread this?
Additional Professional Reading
The Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum has been my guide for all things literacy for the past 7 years. This year I finally got the new updated version and I could not love it more.
I know that it may seem costly but you will get your money’s worth out of it. Included in the text are sections about the various components of a balanced literacy framework, the expectations at each grade level, as well as a detailed description of each guided reading text level. These descriptions help me determine how to problem solve points of error amongst students, predict possible areas of struggle and extend the learning within each level. It is worth the investment! There isn’t a single day of teaching that I don’t reference it at least once.
A preview can be found at the Heinemann link below.
Changing Our Thinking
I hope this small shift in thinking is helpful in your classroom!
Leave a comment below about your shift in thinking, any questions you might have, and how this is working for you within the classroom.
*Please read the title in Uncle Vernon’s voice if you didn’t the first time. Just imagine how he’s feeling as he screams to Harry that there is NO SUCH THING as magic!*
The Unfortunate Event
Let me paint this picture for you. It was the day of the elementary book fair. Our kids had their zloty ready to go. Their parents had sent them with money that was burning holes in their pockets all day long. It was finally time! We walked down to our library and we listened to directions. If you didn’t have money you could get a sheet of paper and create a wishlist. If you did have money the cost was listed in pounds on the back of the book and you had to come and look at the sign to see what it would be in zloty. You know, a real easy task for first grade. When you were ready to check out you could find the lady and she would check you out. Any questions? Nope! My kids take off with such excitement to peruse some new books.
All around I hear calls of joy. “Oh my gosh look at this!” “Woah! Come here!” “Ms. Natasha! Ms. Natasha!” Suddenly the whole class is summoning me over to a little corner with shouts of, “look what we found!” I walk as fast as I can over to where the kids are standing to see that they have stumbled upon a book series we know and love. One of my favorite animals is an otter and we have a little, stuffed otter named Ruby. When I was in London I went into a bookstore (if you live in a non-English speaking country and visit an English speaking country you must stop in a bookstore) saw this story about otters and bought it immediately.
The kids were so excited when I shared it with them and because a lot of my kids started the year far below grade level they could read the words of this book! It was so amazing to share this story together- no matter how simple the text was. So, here we are at the book fair and they see this!
They were all so excited! They knew we had to tell the other first-grade teacher about the squirrel one because she had a squirrel named Pearl. The kids who had wishlists hustled over and started writing them down. The excitement of the book fair was at an all-time high! I walked away to allow the kids more room in that area. The librarian asked me a question when suddenly I heard, “GET AWAY FROM THE BABY BOOKS! You’re in grade 1! Look at the real books.” The book fair lady had stacked up this entire series and banned my kids from going back to that table. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!!!
Their little spirits were crushed. They felt insulted and betrayed. Hurt little ones came walking over. I reminded them that they brought their money and they could look at any book they wanted. Something that seemed like a fair rule to me but not to the lady selling the books. (Later when kids tried to buy books she denied it to several and told them to pick new books or picked new books for them because she didn’t deem them appropriate. We went head to head but I wasn’t the one selling books and my class had to play by her rules.)
WE MUST STOP THIS NONSENSE!!
You know what? Every time I pick up a book to read I don’t choose one that is my instructional level. For example, I love reading Buzzfeed articles. Do you think those are written at my reading level? Are the fashion blogs I read at my reading level? Are the young adult literature books I love so much at my level? NO! They are far below it. That doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter what I read it should matter that I read and I love reading. I love reading so much that I am always sharing what I read, no matter what it is, with my friends.
We need to stop trying to tell kids what to read and start encouraging all forms of reading! Stop it! So what a kid wants to read a book that is deemed too easy for them. So what that this kid only wants to read Elephant and Piggie but you have decided they are too easy for them. Don’t extinguish a burning love of reading by shaming what a child is reading. If a kid wants to read a graphic novel but you decide graphic novels aren’t books it sounds like you’re the one with the problem, not the kid!
There is no such thing as a baby book. It just doesn’t exist. If you are a reader you can read any book. ANY BOOK!
Truths About Reading
Different books in different cultures
I know that part of this is cultural. Children’s books in Polish aren’t written as children’s books in English are. Right now my kids are reading heavy chapter books with no pictures in Polish. It isn’t because they don’t need the picture support when they read it is because in those books pictures are an “extra” They weren’t added to help the reader gain an understanding of the text. When we talk about picture support that entire skill doesn’t exist in their native language texts. So, yeah it can be tricky to understand why the books they’re reading in English look more childish the books are just designed differently in each language.
Our school has a lot of work to do to explain this to teachers and parents and guests and administrators and children but this struggle doesn’t just happen at my school. Our librarian frequently denies books to children because she thinks they shouldn’t read them. Assistant teachers frequently rip books out of kids hands and tell them not to read them. Parents tell their kids to stop looking at the pictures and “read the book.” I know this might be happening at your school too.
Tell me your stories in the comments below and let’s band together to shift a damaging mindset about reading to a more inclusive and positive one!