Using Children’s Picture Books with Adults

Children’s picture books are great resources in the language classroom. The stories are usually fairly short and simple, and the pictures can help increase students’ comprehension of the story. They’re also a good way to introduce students to books and to the idea of reading for fun and enjoyment.

The main drawback, however, is that, even in children’s books, the language is likely to be pretty difficult for most language learners. Children’s books are written for children who are growing up in that language environment, who, although they have a low reading ability, have had LOTS of exposure to oral language. They already have a large vocabulary—much larger than most of our language students.

However, you can still make the stories comprehensible and enjoyable for your students, even if the books are too challenging for them to read on their own. Here are some of the ways I’ve used them:

Four different ways to use children’s picture books in class:

  • Tell the story while holding up the book or displaying the pictures. You can point to the pictures in the book while you talk. You don’t even need to use the words printed on the page; you can just look at the pictures and tell the story yourself, using language that your students can understand. If you have a small class, you might be able to just use the book to show the pictures. But for a larger class, it might be too hard for all the students in the room to see the pictures. In this case, you could display the pictures on a document camera or you could scan the pictures and put them on PowerPoint slides. That way, everyone can see the pictures easily, and you can point to things in the pictures as you talk about them, increasing students’ comprehension. If you want, you could also pause while telling the story and invite students to talk about what they see in the pictures.
  • Tell it in Story Listening style. I like to use Beniko Mason’s Story Listening technique to tell the story of the book while drawing pictures on the board. You don’t even need to show the students the actual book at all. Or, you could use a combination—draw your own pictures on the board and supplement by showing just one or two pictures from the book.
  • Co-create a story with your students. This technique works well with wordless picture books. You show the pictures from the book and elicit from your students what they think is happening in the story. You can write out the story as you talk about it together, and then you could give them copies of the story to read. Claire Walter explains this technique on her blog here.
  • After telling the story, offer the book as an option for students during free reading time. I do this on occasion with my intermediate-level students. Although the books are often fairly challenging for my students, they become much more comprehensible to the students due to the fact that: 1) they’ve already heard me tell the story in simpler language, 2) my telling of the story introduced them to some of the important vocabulary words used in the book, and 3) they can look at the pictures.


Choosing Appropriate Books

The other problem with a lot of children’s books is that they are not appropriate for the maturity level of adults. If the stories are overly childish, adults won’t find them very engaging. And in some cases, some students could potentially be somewhat offended if they are presented with an overly childish book.

But not all children’s books are too childish for adults. There are definitely some books out there that adults can enjoy, too. When I’m looking for books, I try to find stories that have themes and a subject matter that can appeal to people of all ages. If possible, I try to find books that have adults as the main characters (though, of course, children as the main characters are okay, too, sometimes).

This is a list of children’s picture books that I’ve used successfully in class. These books are all written in English, but even if you teach a different language, you could probably use them in any language class—just show the pictures and tell the story using your own words.

Picture books I’ve used successfully with my adult ESL students:

  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein—A touching story about the relationship between a boy and a tree, which can also be viewed as a metaphor for a parent-child relationship. When I used this book with my intermediate-level students, I also had them listen to this “Giving Tree” song by Plain White T’s.
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss—This is a fun story to use around Christmas time and could also be used to talk about cultural traditions surrounding the holiday.
  • Socks for Supper by Jack Kent—A funny, cute story about a couple who starts an exchange with their neighbors to get milk and cheese.
  • The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein—Based on the true story of Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker who walked between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974.
  • There’s Going to be a Baby by John Burningham—A funny story about a young boy who imagines what job his baby brother will have in the future.
  • Classic fairy tale/folktale/fable books—These stories often have universal lessons and themes that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Of course, most of these stories can be found online, but I think it’s nice sometimes to have a physical book with high-quality illustrations.

The following books are ones that I have not yet used in my class, but I think they could potentially work, and I’m planning to use them at some point in the future:

Feel free to comment below if you have other ideas for picture books that are good for adults. And I’ll try to continue updating my list as I find other good book ideas.

One more tip: If you’re considering buying a book but aren’t sure if it will work well for your students, first see if it’s available at your public library so you can preview it. You can also find a lot of read-alouds of children’s picture books on YouTube. I constantly use YouTube and my local library to preview books, and I only buy the ones that I know will be good for my students.

One thought on “Using Children’s Picture Books with Adults

  1. Pingback: More Picture Books for ESL Class – Allison Lewis

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