/ 12 December 2018

Picture books: A great way to encourage children to read

The power of picture books is evident in the multiple options they offer a child.
The power of picture books is evident in the multiple options they offer a child. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Win mini-libraries

Nal’ibali, South Africa’s reading-for-enjoyment campaign, is giving away 20 mini-libraries containing 30 to 40 books for primary school children. To enter, email in[email protected] by December 21 with your name, physical address, contact number and the languages you’d like to receive your books in. The first 20 entries will receive their libraries in early 2019.


The power of picture books is evident in the multiple options they offer a child. There are five ways children can use them, in effect, making a picture book five books in one. These include children reading on their own and interacting with others.

First, children can focus only on the pictures in the book. This is a powerful way for a child to ignite their imagination. For children too young to read or those learning to read, going through the pictures allows them to develop their own story or piece together their best guess at the story of the book, even imagining the ­dialogue.

The developmental benefits of exercising their imagination helps children to become active readers and thinkers. Picture-reading develops children’s ability to formulate their own stories and to structure and organise their thinking and communication. The pictures can be valuable to children struggling to read, including those with learning difficulties or learning to read in a new language. The pictures help them to grow in confidence because they can still appreciate the story, which in turn promotes inclusivity in the classroom.

A second way that picture books can be used is for a child to read the text only with little focus on the ­pictures. These might be children who don’t feel the need for ­pictures or older children, although few ­children can resist indulging in bright colourful illustrations, even if only for a few seconds.

Third, a child could combine the reading of the text with the pictures. Often the child is attracted first by the illustrations on the page. In this way, the pictures either augment the text, or the text is seen to ­augment the pictures.

The combination of pictures and text helps to accelerate reading ability and com­prehension because it enables the child to ­associate the visuals of the pictures with the words and sounds of the text.

The fourth way a picture book comes to life is when the book is read aloud to a child. This way the child actively participates in the reading of the story. Having the pictures offers the parent the opportunity to interact with the child about what they see and how they connect what has been read with the pictures. This interaction serves not only to help the child read, but is also a way to strengthen the parent-child relationship.

Pictures books are valuable in the classroom where the teacher can read aloud while showing the illustrations to the children, which brings the text alive. Children often observe fine detail in pictures that help to connect them to the story, and often they will conjure up stories from the pictures that are not present in the text, thus adding greater richness to the ­reading experience for both child and parent or teacher.

A fifth use of picture books is shared reading among children. Sharing the same book among a few children who cannot yet read allows them to create their own stories and to learn from each other while doing so. Often children build on each other’s stories, sparking new ideas and imaginary creations, and enhancing their vocabulary.

Athol Williams is the chairperson of Read to Rise and author of the Oaky series of children’s books. He is a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town