Picture Books Set the Stage for Middle School Learning


By Jennifer Sniadecki and Jason DeHart


In our first segment, “Picture Books: Engaging Middle School Readers,” we wrote about two of the main reasons we love using picture books in middle school classrooms. First, research shows that picture books are engaging and effective for older readers. And second, teachers can use picture books to advance older children’s literacy skills and meet our teaching and learning standards.

In this segment, we focus on the “simple power” of picture books to add accessibility and enjoyment to the learning task.


Here is a memory from Jason’s classroom:

“Are we really going to read a picture book?” my students asked, complete with the characteristic grunts and groans for effect.

We were in the early steps of a Holocaust unit, and I remember my hesitation about using books that weren’t already part of our school bookroom. I came from a background of using canonical texts in my graduate program – what if someone walked in and saw me using a (drum roll or ominous music) – picture book?

“Yes, I think it will be fun,” I said, knowing well that it would not just be an experience in entertainment, but would provide a captivating introduction to an important series of classes.

Little did I know that Eve Bunting’s Terrible Things would show me the simple power that could be contained in pictures with minimal text.

In an easy read aloud that took less than ten minutes (yes – less than ten minutes), we had uncovered a rich allegory for a major world event. At times, I even played up the aspects of the picture book, holding up the text and saying: “Can you see the picture there?” and “What do you see on this page?”

My students were silent, taking in the power of the book, until we began to peel back the layers and talk about what we would learn in the unit.

Teaching is a tough balance, and English teachers have to juggle reading, writing, speaking, and listening – all while tending to the additional daily work that comes with teaching. Picture books are accessible and enjoyable, and teachers can use picture books in one or two 45-minute class periods effectively.

In Nancie Atwell’s staple middle school professional text, The Reading Zone, she writes, “(with) five, fifty-minute classes per week, I think the crucial questions are What’s the best use of the brief time we’ve got? and What can we let go of, so we can focus on students becoming skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers?” (Atwell, 2007, p. 108).

Picture books offer much needed versatility

So, the question for us becomes: How much time can I build into my instruction for reading? Richard Allington, literacy expert and author of many titles about the teaching of reading, suggests that quality instruction has to include time for real engagement with reading and writing.

Imagine that simple truth. We have to spend time reading to teach reading. We believe that picture books offer a meaningful way to balance all that is required in these short, daily class periods.

When we are thinking about planning, picture books can be included in an instructional routine as a central text or as a way of introducing a complex literary idea in tandem with other reading texts.

For example, Jennifer’s 7th and 8th graders studied prominent politicians and world leaders in social studies classes. She chose many books to introduce the character traits of leaders to supplement textbooks, such as What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton (2018), Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson (2016), and To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport (2017).

Using picture books to begin the unit, then revisiting those books later, students solidified their understandings of what character traits are needed for great leaders, what actions make these people respected leaders, and the actions leaders take to make them worthy of our study. Through both words and pictures, these books can act as an invitation to a unit, or they even be a central text to examine.

Picture books are an excellent, uncomplicated way for teachers to build background knowledge or supplement information about notable people, historical events, or other topics that students may have missed when they were younger. Meagan Patterson, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas, says:

“One of the things we saw [in her research]…was a lot of variability and misconceptions in children’s knowledge. You’d have a kindergartner who knew a ton and an older student who had misconceptions about the difference between a president and a king. Picture books could be a good way to start conversations about those topics that can be difficult to discuss or for kids to get information on topics their parents aren’t discussing.” (2019)

As reading teachers, we know the value of reading that spans a wide breadth and is high-volume. This idea of volume not only means we read several of the same kind of book, but also means that we have the opportunity to brush up on the full range of what literature has to offer. Another memory from Jason’s classroom is the sheer amount of time that it takes to read an entire prose novel as part of instruction.

To put it simply, picture books do much work in minimal time, and can convey ideas that may otherwise be left out as we rush to the next class period. Moreover, these books fit neatly at the beginning, middle, or end of a lesson. They are excellent additions to your literacy toolbox.


► University of Kansas. “How picture books introduce kids to politics: Analysis details how messages of democracy, leaders, issues presented to young readers.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 July 2019.

 Feature image: YouTube. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. Read by Monica Wyatt.


( Read Part 1 / Read Part 3 )

Jennifer Sniadecki is a school librarian, teacher, and professional development presenter in South Bend, Indiana. She is an avid reader and will read anything her colleagues recommend. Jennifer’s current passion is promoting her favorite authors’ upcoming books via social media. Check out her posts on Twitter (@jdsniadecki) or follow her blog, www.readingteacherwrites.com.

Jason D. DeHart is an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. He taught 8th grade language arts for eight years in Cleveland, Tennessee. DeHart’s research interests include multimodal literacy, film and graphic novels, and literacy instruction with adolescents. His work has recently appeared in SIGNAL Journal, English Journal, and The Social Studies.

NOTE: Since this article was published, Jason has returned to his first love, the secondary classroom. See all of his MiddleWeb articles here.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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