Our Insights

Picture Books throughout Early Childhood

As we approach Thanksgiving our thoughts naturally turn to family. This week, NIEER’s blog is directed more toward parents, grandparents, and others who read with young children, though policy makers will find it helps them understand good early childhood education practice, as well.   Literacy expert Dr. Shannon Riley-Ayers offers advice about picture book reading from infancy through grade school.

Take a moment and think about your experiences with picture books.  I expect that this will invoke warm memories for most, if not all, adults.  Perhaps it is the memory of sitting on a relative’s lap reading, perhaps it is a favorite book that you can still recite by heart, maybe it is a recollection of attending story hour at the local library, or it could be the thought of a favorite teacher reading aloud.

Picture books provide children a visual experience, where the story develops and is supported by rich illustrations. They are a wonderful tool to generate excitement about books and reading and to provide the opportunities for discussions about the story and the illustrations.  The evidence is strong in showing that rich language and literacy experiences early on are related to later learning.  Reading (and re-reading) picture books contributes to these important early experiences. 


Infants and toddlers enjoy books that have bright colors and big pictures.  Consider offering sturdy books that can be handled by their small hands, but don’t make other books off-limits.  Even young toddlers can learn proper book handling and caring for books.   Include books that encourage active participation from the young child such as “touch and feel” books and lift-the-flap books.  Be sure to read books with large pictures to talk about and books that have rhyming and repetition.  Make the experience warm and inviting by holding the child on your lap and looking at the book together.  Allow the child to handle the book and to help turn pages.  Be comfortable in re-reading books and also in veering from the printed words.  Engage in conversation about the book by telling the child more about the pictures or elaborating on the printed words.  Youngsters will come to learn that reading is a pleasurable experience and that books are just as interesting as toys.  Therefore, be sure to have a multitude of books available for them to explore independently as well.



Preschoolers actively construct literacy knowledge through texts such as picture books.  They begin to see that the print holds meaning and they can quickly become adept at print concepts such as holding the book properly, turning the pages, and even tracking the print as they “read.”  Children this age can also begin to engage in meaningful conversations about picture books.  For instance, children can make personal connections to a story or talk about their favorite part and why they like or don’t like a particular story or character.

Kindergarten and Grade 1

Reading picture books aloud at this age offers children the opportunity to enjoy literature and see value and beauty in reading.  Children can actively participate in read-alouds by asking and answering questions about the text and retelling stories.  Comparing and contrasting stories is also a great use of picture books at this age level.  Children can make connections between similar stories, similar characters, and similar genres or authors.  Additionally, picture books can be used as models for generating writing from young children, such as texts with a pattern or a cumulative storyline.

Grades 2 and 3  

Picture books offer a great opportunity for close reading.  This is where the text is read and re-read several times to consider the author’s purpose, the structure, and the flow of the text.  Reading picture books aloud can provide the modeling and scaffolding of this close reading.   Children can recount the stories to determine their central message, lesson, or moral.  Picture books can be used to study characters, and how their motivations and feelings contribute to the story.  They also provide shorter text to practice comparing and contrasting themes, plots, and characters across stories.

Beyond Grade 3

Sometimes we think that as children get older and begin reading on their own that there is little reason to read pictures books with them.  Not so. Beyond the early years, picture books are great vehicles to teach literary elements.  Literary devices such as imagery, voice, theme, satire, and personification can be identified and discussed using carefully selected picture books.    These can be valuable understandings for older children to then apply to reading chapter books, and also to apply to their own narrative writing.

As National Picture Book Month draws to a close, I ask you to use picture books to support literacy skills, enjoying texts, and enhancing motivation to read with children of all ages.  You may choose books that were favorites from your childhood and share the memories you have around the book.  You can look to national award winners such as the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.  And don’t forget to allow the child some choice by going the local library to select some of his or her favorites. NIEER and CEELO staff members have also compiled a Pinterest board full of picture book recommendations and our personal favorites.

Be sure to include books in your home language, and some that have characters that are just like the child or children you are reading to, and some that show different cultures. Vary the genre you read to include folktales, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.  Above all, select books that will allow you to enjoy the special moments you are creating with the child or children you are reading with!

– Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.