For the last two weeks, our fifth grade students have been practicing visual literacy skills with nonfiction books in the library. The mini-lesson was prompted by a comment from a teacher that students were not paying enough attention to pictures and diagrams during assessment.
I pulled books from our shelves on a variety of topics--astronomy, dinosaurs, animals, electricity, habitats. Placing one per seat, I had students open to a randomly selected page and start "reading" the pictures on the two-page spread. I started with three minutes, but that was too long; two minutes gave them time to read and think without being distracted. I walked around the room, prompting them with science vocabulary from the pictures I saw. Then the students had five minutes to share their picture with the person across the table, using scientific terms to describe the organisms, environment, and processes they viewed.
This is what we do when we share those first picture books with babies and toddlers. We may read the words, but we spend more time "reading" the pictures with them, pointing out the details, filling in the story. Kindergarten and first grade teachers have their students take "picture walks" through a book before tackling the text. This gives the students time and space to make connections with the story and ask questions to fill in the blanks. Interactive picture reading leads to vocabulary development, and prepares the students to face unfamiliar words--they can look at the pictures, and make educated guesses.
This is why it pains me when I see kindergarten and first graders in a race to get to the fiction section of the library, bypassing a multitude of wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated picture books. They are missing out on the visual literacy skills that feed our vocabulary and spark our imagination. When they rush to chapter books without exploring a wide variety of topics in picture format, they miss out on developing the imagery behind the words that lends depth to stories. I feel that in later years, it may impact their ability to observe details necessary for interpreting diagrams, images, and possibly even social interactions.
The next time you sit down to read with your children, be they two or ten years old, pick a picture book. Explore the colors of Kevin Henkes' work, the amazing details in Graeme Base's mysteries, the splashes of Chris Raschka's paint. Brush up on history with Don Tate's biographies. Use your imagination to puzzle out the stories in David Wiesner's masterpieces. Older students will still be challenged by the reading levels of Patricia Polacco's folksy stories.
Just please don't call them "easy readers". Our picture book section in the library is labeled "Everybody"--and that's who should be reading these books.