Using picture books with English language learners

Many picture books offer opportunities for children, and even adults, new to English to explore both the written and spoken language they are acquiring. How picture books are put to this purpose requires sensitivity to potential learners and wise choices of books to use.

English language learners represent a wide range of ages, life experiences, literacy levels in their home languages, and–just as important–linguistic and cultural histories. Many speakers of Latin American Spanish dialects, for example, may indeed be learning English as a second language. However, those coming to North American English from the Indian subcontinent and some Northern African cultures probably are conversant in multiple languages already and thus have a different skill set to use when learning yet another–third, fourth, fifth–language.  Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 10.01.10 AM

Working with English language learners who are present in classes with native speakers also draws attention to the need to be inclusive, rather than focusing attention on the use of specific books as a means of gaining English fluency. With these varying potential student needs in mind, how and why can picture books become part of the learning experience?

A number of the Book-based Activities we develop for this site address the potential uses of titles with English learners. What do these books share?

  • They offer content that makes use of general life experience that is not culturally bound
  • They provide opportunities for relatively sophisticated discussions of the theme, plot technique, character development, or art presented
  • They introduce culturally specific tall tales or geography information that builds out the English language learner’s general acquisition of idiomatic expressions, local history and/or physical environment, and vocabulary used in a contextually engaging manner

One example of how such picture books can expand upon the English language learner’s current strengths is the Neighborhood Map activity described for Detective Gordon: The First Case. This activity works well for the English language learner who is mainstreamed with native speakers and can even allow her to excel in undertaking the exercise, which is based on observation and documentation through drawing.

A group of English language learners, who may within the group share no language other than beginning English, may find that the What If…? activity, suggested for The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic, provides the opportunity for sharing information about their own experiences with earthquakes, work together to create a model that expresses possibilities, and expand their academic understanding both of STEM-related content and articulating ideas in their new language.

Building empathy into the experience of sharing picture books in a group that includes English language learners and native speakers can also expand everyone’s horizons. Inhabit Media, a wholly owned Inuit publisher, includes titles that are published in Inuit as well as English. The written language is unlikely to be familiar to anyone in the group, giving all a level playing field for understanding how an old language may be new to this reader.

What activities do you find comfortable for new English speakers and readers when you share and expand their reading choices? We’d love to hear from you!

Acclaim from USBBY

The United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) released its annual list during the opening of the 2015 Midwinter meeting of the American Library Association. Among the books touted on the new list are several from our own publishers:

  • Gecko’s The Day My Father Became a Bush, written and illustrated by Joke Van Leeuwen
  • Pajama Press’ Graffiti Knight, by Karen Bass
  • Kids Can’s Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin, by Chieri Uegaki and  illustrated by Qin Leng
  • Kids Can’s If…: A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers, by David J. Smith, with illustrations by Steve Adams
  • Gecko’s My Heart Is Laughing, by Rose Lagercrantz and illustrated by Eva Eriksson
  • Lemniscaat’s Surprise, written and illustrated by Mies Van Hout
  • Inhabit Media’s Sweetest Kulu, by Celina Kalluk, with illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis

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