Picture Books Help with Standards and Mastery


By Jennifer Sniadecki and Jason DeHart


We introduced our 3-part series by showing why and how picture books are perfect for engaging middle school learners, and we discussed the ways that picture books provide accessible texts for content lessons.

( Read Part 1 / Read Part 2 )

In this segment, we dive deeper into texts, using picture books in upper level classrooms to meet state standards and ensure student success. Along the way, we’ll share stories from our own teaching experiences, as well as research on the use of picture books in instruction.


Consider the overlapping standards for English class, for example. In grades 5 through 8, each year’s standards require identification and analysis of theme or central idea.

The Common Core State Standards build on “determining a theme or central idea of a text and analyz(ing) its development over the course of the text…” (p. 36) Each state has its own version of this standard, and “identifying theme” is an English standard found in curriculum guides from sixth through twelfth grades.

Understanding theme with a picture book assist

Theme is a critical standard, meaning that students must be able to grasp the central idea of a story, play, or even a nonfiction text, and track a theme, beginning in the early middle school years all the way through high school. While theme is an essential point of study, it can also be challenging to teach.

Jennifer starts teaching with picture books, such as The Rough Patch by Brian Lies. In this complex picture book, we find Evan, the main character, struggling with loss. At the turn of each page, Jennifer asks students to track a theme using knowledge of how stories go (introduction, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution).

They consider how the colorful artwork of the book is used to portray the mood and how that relates to the theme, and they analyze the specific vocabulary Mr. Lies uses to bring the reader a greater understanding of the message.

Read by Jamey Evans

As we have learned, picture books are engaging (students and their teachers feel for Evan and want the best for him) and the texts provide much reading work with the minimal class time available.

Picturing the Hero Cycle

Using picture books, teachers can enhance reading instruction by guiding students toward understanding of story structures (as noted above) such as the Hero Cycle.

In Around the Reading Workshop in 180 Days, Dr. Frank Serafini wrote that novice readers  “have been asked to retell or sequence events rather than focus on the overall structure of a story. Using examples where the structure is quite apparent helps readers attend to stories where the structure is more nuanced and complex.” (p. 95)

Read by Alexis Lampley

The Hero Cycle, at the basic level, is a story structure where a main character leaves home on a quest or a mission, only to learn the lesson, “There’s no place like home.” Dr. Serafini used Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak to teach the Hero Cycle before students read The Odyssey by Homer. Jennifer likes to preface The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum with the picture book Truman by Jean Reidy or the wordless picture book Stormy: A Story About Finding a Forever Home by Guojing.

Knowledge of the way stories work helps students to dive deeper into more difficult, longer texts later. Picture books provide a foundation to build this knowledge and can do so in timely and time-efficient ways.

Stimulating research topics

As Jason wrote in a previous segment, using picture books alongside textbooks and other books helps to supplement content area teaching, such as using Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting to parallel the study of that terrible time in history class.

So many picture books carry information students need to know, and the learning outcomes extend well past high school for many students. When Jason asked what they remembered about school, several college students reminisced about the days when teachers presented picture books in class to advance learning.

The possibilities for using picture books as resources to stimulate research topics relates not only to historical time periods, as is the case with Bunting’s book, but can be extended to biographies as well. As one of Jason’s teacher friends has suggested, there is a story for every historical person that extends beyond the common classroom posters that show surface knowledge.

In his middle school teaching days, Jason routinely worked with his school librarians to pull a range of books (including poetry, picture books, and graphic novels) for students to use to meet ever-daunting research standards.

Picture books have often been regarded as text that is too simple, but as conversation starters, storytelling exemplars, and multimodal texts that offer both words and pictures, their power is great.

In the book Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter author Leonard S. Marcus relates a story from picture book creator Mitsumasa Anno’s journey as a teacher, drawing on the power of images for exploring nonfiction topics.

Anno recounts the joy of incorporating drawing as part of science instruction on the parts of a flower. In this example, Anno used what could be considered a simplistic medium to leverage engaging instruction with children in a shared drawing experience. What could have been a routine exercise in copying the terms into a diagram, or looking up words to write down definitions, became an interactive lesson. (See an Anno math example.)

Seeing vocabulary rappel down the page

As another example of using picture books to meet rigorous learning targets, we note the CCSS Craft and Structure standards ask students to “Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.” (p. 35)

Vocabulary development has always been a part of English lessons, previously presenting word lists where students would look up definitions in the dictionary, study the words, and take a quiz at the end of the week. Modern classrooms have discarded this prosaic method of learning vocabulary in favor of reading activities, including reading picture books aloud, and writing exercises where students actually use the vocabulary in their daily lives.

Josh Funk, author of Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast, told the story of a discussion with his editor about keeping the words, “as Pancake rappelled down a rope of linguini.” (p.9) Josh maintained that the word rappelled was more effective for the rhythm of the page, as well as the fact that children wouldn’t be distracted by the text – the words paired well with the illustration and supported understanding.

In middle school, his book provides several vocabulary words that students can include in their own specific writing work: Brie (cheese), conversed (replied), slathered (soaked), and a favorite line, “Battered and soggy, exhausted and crumbling, too tired to push, they were limping and stumbling.” (p.22) Jennifer uses this particular picture book each year to promote word study and writing with details in middle school.

Read by  Rebekah Wall.  Watch for the aforementioned linguini…

Addressing SEL standards

Speaking of standards, social-emotional literacy and well-being of students and families is now at the forefront of our concerns in education, and rightly so. We would like to persuade schools to view picture books as valuable resources to be used daily in classrooms. All texts matter and have possibilities for instruction – just as all voices matter in the classroom.

Titles such as Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham and Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard can help communities come together around common reading texts and help bring about the changes we need in thinking and growing as humans during our current (but not new) racial injustice crisis.

Mr. Fred Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” Picture books can help us as we work together towards new common goals in our schools.

Read by the authors

Meeting state and local standards in middle school is a complex (and often daunting) initiative, and teachers continually search for new and engaging ways to help their middle school and high school students succeed. As we have found in our own classrooms and learning spaces, reading picture books is an effective use of precious instructional time.

Picture books are motivational, accessible, and powerful texts that students and teachers can and should use widely. Plan to include a picture book or two in your next unit of study and discover how “picture books are perfect” for you.

For more information about using picture books in the middle school classrooms, please feel free to contact Jennifer at @jdsniadecki or Jason at @JasonDDeHart1.

Books and Resources Mentioned

► Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2020). Retrieved July 09, 2020, from http://www.corestandards.org.

► Marcus, L.S. (2012). Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

► Serafini, F. and Youngs. S. (2006) Around the Reading Workshop in 180 Days. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Feature image: YouTube, Magination Press Story Time – Celano, Collins and Hazzard Read Something Happened in Our Town.

( Read Part 1 / Read Part 2 )

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.


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