Using picture books in adult ESL classes

One of the challenges in teaching reading skills to learners in adult ESL and literacy classes is the lack of engaging material that provides examples of rich language. Much of the material produced specifically for these audiences uses language that is stripped down to its bare essentials. While undoubtedly useful, these materials are rarely more than utilitarian. It is difficult to find books that hold layers of meaning, but are still accessible to ESL students.

Picture books are a cheap and easily available source of reading material, and are often overlooked by adult ESL/literacy instructors. Many teachers worry that their students will find the books childish, or that they will feel uncomfortable reading books designed for children. However, if chosen with consideration for the interests of the students, and used in ways that are appropriate for adult learners, picture books can provide valuable opportunities for language-rich experiences and interactions.

Some of the many advantages of incorporating picture books into adult ESL / literacy classes include:

Cost and ease of access
Libraries, thrift shops, and yard sales are great sources for good quality picture books. It is easy to build a decent library for very little outlay, or borrow books for free.

Rich language
Picture books often contain examples of word play and rhyming that are missing in adapted materials. Students are exposed to a richer range of language.

Thematic variety
Themes are often universal. It is possible to find stories from different cultures, or variations of well-known stories and folktales.

The quality of illustrations in many picture books is superb, and adults often enjoy the opportunity to look at them in addition to reading or hearing the stories.

Cultural information
Cultural information is often conveyed indirectly, but can provide a starting point for conversations around a wide range of issues. Very popular stories are often frequently referenced, so being familiar with them can help learners understand these references.

Shared literacy experiences
Many learners may not have had the opportunity to be read to when they were young, or may not have had access to good quality books. Having the opportunity to share the experience of a good book with other people is an experience that can foster a deeper connection to language, and help learners build confidence.

Tips for using picture books with adult learners

  • Create a class library with a variety of picture books that students can access voluntarily. Create space in the program for free reading so that students have an opportunity to engage with the books without pressure.
  • Choose books carefully. Find books with themes that are relevant to your learners, or that you have a strong connection to. Avoid books that may appear overly childish to adult learners.
  • Read to students. Many adults enjoy being read to, and teachers who enjoy reading aloud have an opportunity to share their love and enthusiasm for words and stories.
  • Give time for reflection. Picture books often touch on topics or themes that resonate strongly with adults. Provide opportunities for discussion or other forms of reflection and during reading.
  • Encourage students to share books they have read. Talking about books and reading helps build students’ identities as readers.
  • Explain why you are using the books. Let students know that picture books are not just for children.
  • Have fun. Picture books provide opportunities for language and learning that many teachers take for granted. Sharing those opportunities with students may help open new doors to learning.

Book suggestions

“Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch” – This quirky book provides a touching look at the bonds between parents and children through their lifespans.

“Yertle the Turtle” by Dr Seuss” – With classic Seuss rhyming, this book addresses issues of rights within a political system.

“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein” – A quietly beautiful story about the nature of love, with simple line drawings that echo the spirit of the book.

“The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats” – Captures the excitement of the first snow day of the season from a child’s point of view.

“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” by William Steig – A touching story about how getting what you wished for isn’t always what you’d thought it would be.

“Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse” by Leo Leoni – A poignant tale of loyalty accompanied by Leoni’s lovely textured illustrations.