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«CLELEjournal, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2016 25 Picturebooks in the Primary EFL Classroom: Authentic Literature for an Authentic Response Sandie Mourão ...»

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CLELEjournal, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2016 25


Picturebooks in the Primary EFL Classroom: Authentic Literature for

an Authentic Response

Sandie Mourão


This article begins by discussing the term ‘picturebook’, followed by a definition which

centres on the picture-word dynamic, the social and cultural implications of using

picturebooks and an explanation of picturebook peritext. This is followed by a section that discusses response and its relevance to teachers who want to (re)consider picturebooks in an EFL classroom. A category of responses is then suggested as a way to support EFL teachers to understand their learners’ responses to picturebooks and help them recognize the relevance of response to the storytelling experience. The final section describes two picturebooks with concrete examples of the different ways picturebooks enable and promote authentic responses through both the pictures and the words.

Keywords: pre-primary, primary, foreign language, picturebooks, reader response, authentic responses Sandie Mourão (PhD) is an invited assistant professor at Universidade Nova, Lisbon, where she teaches on the MA for primary English teachers. She has research interests in in early years language education, using picturebooks in language education, and classroom based research. She is co-editor of the CLELEjournal.


ISSN 2195-5212 Children’s Literature in English Language Education clelejournal.org CLELEjournal, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2016 26 ________________________________________________________________________________________

Introduction Over the years I have worked with dozens of EFL teachers in professional development sessions about storytelling and picturebooks. I have noticed a propensity for many to focus almost entirely on selecting a picturebook for the words it contains and for the purpose of contextualizing lexical items around a particular topic, such as clothes, colours, food etc.

(Mourão, 2015). This is a natural tendency as we are teaching a language and the written word in particular is seen as the governing system of meaning, especially in educational contexts (Serafini, 2009). This article makes a stand for moving beyond using picturebooks to contextualize the learners’ understanding of words, expressions and concepts in English, to understanding the potential of picturebooks for providing authentic reasons for language use, discussion and above all for prompting thinking through response in English.

Picturebooks in ELT: A Brief History and a Definition According to Ghosn (2013), authentic children’s literature has been used in primary ELT methodologies for over four decades. She is referring to a form of literature which in the academic field of children’s literature is known as a picturebook. Nevertheless, in ELT these books can be called ‘storybooks’ (Ellis & Brewster, 2014; Ghosn, 2013), ‘real books’, (e.g. Machura, 1991) or ‘real picture books’ (Dunn, 2003). The use of the word ‘real’ aids our understanding of these very special books, for they are authentic in every way – the words (if they exist, for some picturebooks are wordless) have not been abridged or altered for language learning purposes and the illustrations are created by illustrators who use their art creatively with neither a care for, nor an interest in, the confines of language learning.

Over the last decade, there has been a gradual move in ELT towards the use of a metalanguage that demonstrates the influence of the field of children’s literature. The term ‘picture book’ (e.g. Enever & Schmid-Schönbein, 2006) or ‘picturebook’ is now more prevalent, the latter written as a compound noun, which according to Lewis (2001a) reflects the ‘compound nature of the artefact’ (xiv).

A definition

The definition of a picturebook most often cited comes from Barbara Bader (1976):


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A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a [reader]. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page. (p. 1) (Bold not in the original) This definition goes a long way toward showing just how complex a picturebook is.

In the following sections, I try to expand on this definition in relation to foreign language teaching.

The pictures and words A picturebook is a multimodal text (Kress, 2003), it is dependent upon pictures and words together to create meaning and it is the interdependence of what the pictures show and the words tell (Lewis 2001b) that makes a picturebook so special – for example, a picturebook ‘could not be read over the radio and be understood fully’ (Shulevitz, 1985:15). The visual text is essential to the understanding of the message: it can clarify, complement, enhance, or even contradict the verbal text (Nikolajeva & Scott, 2006; Nodelman, 1988). The relationship between pictures and words has been discussed at length by picturebook scholars (e.g. Doonan, 1993; Lewis, 2001a; Nikolajeva & Scott, 2006; Nodelman, 1988;

Serafini, 2013; Sipe, 1998). However, in the context of English language teaching, Mourão (2012) has referred to this interdependence as ranging along a continuum from a simple showing and telling of the same information to a more complex showing and telling of different, even contradicting information. In ELT contexts, picturebooks are selected that contain a simple picture-word relationship, with illustrations that synchronize (Ellis & Brewster, 2014) with the text providing a secure, supportive learning context. These picturebooks are often concept books that contain predictable and repetitive (Linse, 2007), sometimes cumulative refrains, and pictures that please the eye but give little extra information. Children look at the illustrations and the meaning is immediately apparent: an example would be the well-used Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Marin Jr & Carle, 1995), which shows the animals in the illustrations and tells us what they are in the words. This supportive context is important in language learning, especially with very ____________________________________________________________________

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small children: it allows them to gain confidence in their learning experience, but they are not being encouraged to be active learners, as meaning is apparent immediately.

Titles that move towards the complex end of the picture-word dynamic leave a gap between what the illustrations show and the words tell. For example, in Wolves (Gravett, 2006), the words tell us, in a textbook-like fashion, about wolves, (how they live, where they live, what they look like and what they eat), but the illustrations show us the journey a little rabbit makes from the library as he reads the description – and we see the wolf in the book become a real-life wolf and the rabbit become his real-life dinner. This gap ‘challenges young learners to search for, and in the classroom negotiate for, understanding and meaning’ (Bland 2013, p. 32), providing what Halliwell (1992, p. 5) calls ‘realistic opportunities for interaction and talk, instinctive in children at this age’. These picturebooks go beyond the typical thematic language of our primary classes, and can cover more challenging topics, or provide opportunities to approach topics from a different perspective. These picturebooks are also more suitable for older primary children and encourage a more active learner who is able to make sense of what the pictures show and the words tell.

The design The design of a picturebook, taken for granted in most literature, is deliberately put to use in picturebooks so that it becomes an integrated whole (Shulavitz, 1985). The format of the book and its peritextual features – those parts of a text which ‘surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it’ (Genette, 1997, p. 1) are often part of the visual narrative, this includes the front and back covers, the endpapers, title pages, and copyright and dedication pages. Endpapers have been analysed for their narrative significance (e.g.

Bosch & Duran, 2011; Sipe & McGuire, 2009) and more recently so have title pages (Sotto Mayor, 2016); and in an ELT context, Mourão (2013a; 2013b) has discussed the importance of different peritextual features in the foreign language classroom. Two

picturebooks widely known in ELT have very prominent and useful peritextual features:

for pre-primary learners the endpapers in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

(Martin Jr & Carle, 1995), provide visual information that supports retelling the picturebook, as they are strips of coloured tissue paper depicting the sequence of the ____________________________________________________________________

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animals as they appear in the story. When retelling this picturebook, it is impossible to leave out these pages, as children want to chant the colours and together recall which animals they represent.

For older primary learners in an EFL context, the endpapers in picturebooks can be used as prompts for discussion, ‘What colour are they?’ ‘What do they show?’ ‘Why do you think this is?’ This results in children taking notice of what they see and being critical about it. The endpapers in The Gruffalo (Donaldson & Scheffler, 1999) show a forest. It is possible to ask, ‘Why is that?’, and discuss the importance of setting for the story, for the endpapers show the forest where the story takes place. In the same picturebook, the title page has an illustration of the main character, the mouse, walking through the wood. If we look carefully we will see that this is actually the beginning of the narrative, for the opening spread reads, ‘A mouse took a stroll through a deep dark wood.’ These examples afford fairly easy connections, but some picturebooks leave readers wondering, and learners can make a number of suggestions, all of which are valid, for there is no right answer.

Revisiting a picturebook, browsing through it in a book corner or hearing it read several times, provides opportunities for making these connections between the different parts. Thus, by disregarding picturebook peritext in our classes, we may be omitting information that contributes to the meaning-making process we engage in while reading and sharing a picturebook. This in turn will lead to ignoring the metalanguage for talking about and discussing these parts (Mourão, 2013a). EFL teachers should comment and model noticing as they share a picturebook, with the objective of developing students’ curiosity to look and then use the metalanguage to talk about the connections they are making. While developing the learners’ ability to look, understand and be critical about visuals they encounter, by ‘deepening understanding and critical appreciation through [their] active engagement in the interpretive process’ (Arizpe, Colomer & MartínezRoldán, 2014, p. 13), we are developing their visual literacy skills.

A social, cultural, historic document Picturebooks reflect the times as well as their author’s and illustrator’s cultures. This can be evident through both the illustrations and the language that is used, bringing the cultures ____________________________________________________________________

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of many Englishes into our classrooms. Silly Billy (Browne, 2006), for example, is the story of a boy who worries; his grandma gives him some worry dolls and this, in a roundabout way, solves his problem. This is a beautifully illustrated story, which incorporates the bright colours of Central America where worry dolls originated, and brings a different culture to the children through English, as well as simultaneously enabling them to talk about their own worries and concerns in life.

Yo! Yes? (Raschka, 2007) is a story of two boys who meet and eventually make friends. The verbal text is minimal, but contains the colloquial American greeting ‘Yo!’ The illustrations show us two very different-looking boys, an African American in his sneakers, shorts and loose T-shirt, and a Caucasian child with long trousers, lace-up shoes and a formally collared shirt. These two boys represent different cultural groups, so that the discussion round the story can help children understand what friendship is. These thought-provoking picturebooks are for older primary children learning EFL and have been referenced to encourage readers to consider picturebooks with slightly older learners as well (see Lazar, 2015; Mourão, 2011; 2013c).

Overall, picturebooks are not just authentic texts because of the words they contain, for they enable language use through the learners’ interpretation of the pictures, words and design, as these elements come together to produce a visual-verbal narrative which is disregarded when there is a focus on the words only. Taking the stance that picturebooks provide authentic opportunities for learners to interpret and respond to in English, it is important to acknowledge the different responses to be encouraged in EFL classes with pre-primary and primary children. The next section looks at response with a view to situating its role in an EFL context.

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