Keeping real books alive – their place at the heart of reading.

With the ‘galloping advancement in the fashion of phonics’ and now the pressures of SpAG, I’m seeing that some schools are finding it difficult to include real books into their teaching sessions.


Reading schemes and phonic programmes seem to be squeezing curriculum time and the place for beautiful, engaging lively books is getting lost.  It doesn’t have to be so.

To my mind phonics, grammar, reading strategies and real books go together  - like fish and chips.  (There are a few digraphs here already ‘ph’ ‘ch’ ‘sh’)


I understand that schools invest considerable amounts of their budgets in reading schemes to provide a structure and framework for the progression of reading.

But why not supplement this with real books as well?


Grammar, reading strategies, inference, comprehension, deduction and all the other objectives that have to covered can be taught through real books.  (You can also cover a great deal of the Spiritual, Moral, Social & Cultural development strands too.)


Let’s take picture books; a rich resource that will enrich any shared or guided reading session.

The themes and layers of meaning, the depth and beauty of the illustrations will spark more thinking, debate and higher order reading skills than most reading scheme books. They can also be read fairly quickly in 20 minute sessions.



three-robbers         the tunnel


















Hand on heart – if you were to observe your children in a guided reading session, run in a similar way day in day out, with scheme books that are ‘ok’ but aren’t going to speak to the real experiences in a child’s life – what would you see?

I’m not criticising - but I am saying it is easy to get into a rut where children’s diet of reading material becomes a bit predictable and ‘samey’ – maybe even dull.


With well-chosen picture books we are more likely to see children demonstrating a passion for reading, wanting to be involved with the text and eager to give an opinion to thought provoking questions; questions that occur more naturally from a book that is rich in layers and meaning.


Picture books can be used in any year group - we can easily differentiate:

  • Change the level of support needed to actually read the text – adult scaffolds where required.
  • The depth and sophistication of the questions might depend on the age of children – but we shouldn’t be afraid of ‘deep’ questions at any age – children usually surprise use.
  • How much structured discussion is expected of children – or demanding a greater level of independent thinking / paired work.
  • The level of any follow up activities and/or pieces of writing would obviously be different.


With some reading schemes I find that the ‘comprehension questions’ given in the scheme aren’t always appropriate, interesting or relevant. With picture books we might have to do a bit more thinking and planning around the questions to ask - but it is worth it to make the book really ‘speak’ to our life experiences: get the heart of being a reader.


Here are a few examples of picture books with rich themes and illustrations that you could use with most children:


Michael by Tony Bradman / Tony Ross


Is there hope for such a child as Michael?  Doesn’t fit in at school, adults find him cheeky disruptive and ‘unlikely to succeed’ until the day he invents and launches his own rocket.

Big questions about being different, conformity, behaviour, ‘genius’, adults and children’s relationships and how you can stay true to yourself.

Funny detailed illustrations that can spark discussion and questions




Tusk Tusk  by David McKee

tusk tusk

A lesson in tolerance and difference - with really ingenious illustrations

Has links with race and colour – handled sensitively of course. Big themes of hate (what is it, can we control it? living in harmony with other people, consequences of our behaviour and the futility of fighting and war.

Deep themes for what looks like a simple picture book and very relevant to playground / school life.





Another good one on this theme is Conquerors – also   by David McKee



Whadaymean  by John Burningham




Opens up thoughts about what God might think of what humans are doing to the planet. God asks two children to go and talk to the grownups who have spoiled the world.


BIG themes arising from this one – mostly without answers but providing many thought provoking questions and the opportunity for children to articulate their thoughts from within and beyond the text.

No matter how old you are these are things we wonder about.


I’ve also done a quick overview of a few more picture books, initially intended for P4C sessions but they would lend themselves to a guided reading session.

Ideas for using picture books for thinking and writing

More resources are also available on the Thinking Child Network - it's  Free to Register if you haven’t already joined.


Let’s not lose the power of the picture book for all children at all ages and stages. Learning to read without them is surely unimaginable.

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