The Missouri Reader Vol. 42, Issue 1 - Page 51


Free Books for Your Classroom

Classroom CloseUP

Using Picture Books in Upper Elementary Classrooms to Elicit Student Engagement and Comprehension


Alicia Hill

Students gather around the carpet at the front of the classroom. Some sit in bean bag chairs and some on soft cushions. They eagerly await the picture book we are preparing to read. I sit on the reading stool and show students the cover of the book as I think aloud and make predictions. It sounds like an early elementary classroom, but this is exactly what my fourth grade class looks like during reading time.

Our school purchased a new curriculum series for English Language Arts. As I scanned through some of the suggested reading materials, I noticed that the majority of the books recommended were picture books. I have a fourth and fifth grader at home and I have not seen either one pick up a picture book in years. Needless to say, I was a little concerned. Reading picture books to fourth graders? They’re too old for that, right? We’ve often used picture books to entertain our students, but are they really learning anything from them?

Teaching reading skills and strategies is key if we want to develop proficient readers. But if all we are doing is teaching the strategies, we have missed the point. We teach the strategies so that students can use them effectively on their own. Incorporating short, engaging picture books into our lessons lets students practice these strategies and skills immediately while the ideas are still fresh in their minds.

I will never forget the look on my fourth graders faces as we read Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca. They were learning about visualizing our texts as we read. As we read about how the astronauts climbed into their horizontal seats I had students lay their chairs down on the ground. I asked students to lie back in their chairs, close their eyes, and imagine they were boarding the space shuttle; getting ready to begin a journey like no other. I asked them to think about what the astronauts must have been feeling. Were they going to miss families? Would they actually get to walk on the moon? Did they have everything they needed? Would they make it back alive? I could see my students’ facial expressions changing. They were connecting with the story. They were visualizing the trip and considering the feelings the astronauts might have had. It was clear their imaginations were stimulated to visualize the scene even with the beautiful illustrations the book provided.

In addition to applying the comprehension strategies, students are also exposed to rich vocabulary when reading picture books. “Children’s picture books contain 30 rare words for every 1,000 words” (Trelease, 2006, p. 124). This provides students with opportunities to expand their vocabulary while also completing the intended practice of skills and strategies. All of this can take place in the ten to twenty minutes it takes to read a picture book from cover to cover.

I use picture books for my writing instruction as well. There are many great examples of fun non-fiction picture books. I used George Washington’s Teeth by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora as an example of a fun non-fiction text. The author places an emphasis on George Washington’s teeth, but in doing so tells the story of his life. The book includes a timeline and many interesting facts about George Washington. Students experience all of the fantastic examples of nonfiction text features while also learning about how he led the American army to victory in the Revolutionary War, became our first president, and how he helped his dentist create a set of false teeth. Spoiler alert: they were not made of wood.

There is no doubt novels have their place in an upper elementary classroom as well. Students need to be able to read longer texts and follow the story over an extended period of time. This is where our chapter books shine. Our struggling readers, however, must also have access to books they can actually read and comprehend. “Comic books, magazines, picture books-all with engaging text supported by lots of illustrations-appeal because they seem more manageable to students” (Routman, 2003, p. 65). These high interest reading materials help keep our struggling readers engaged and provide them with the satisfaction of completing a story.

Based on my experiences in my classroom I feel certain that picture books do have a place in upper elementary classrooms. They provide an excellent opportunity for students to immediately practice skills and strategies taught explicitly in the classroom.


Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Trelease, J. (2006). The read-aloud handbook. (6th ed.). Middlesex, England: Penguin.

Children’s Books Referenced

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca.

George Washington’s Teeth by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora

Alicia Hill is a third-year teacher at Strafford Elementary School in Strafford, Missouri. She teaches fourth grade and loves her job!