Picture Books: Helping reluctant readers since 1658

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash Father reading to a baby

Margaret Atwood once wrote “Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well”.

We are living in unprecedented times, a time when staying home with a good book is not just a way for us to look after ourselves but a way for us to look after the world. We have been living, for quite a while now, in times where #raisingreaders is a trending hashtag. Contrary to the panic that ‘no one reads anymore’, there has never been a better time to be a reader. On the other hand, if you find yourself raising a reluctant reader, the pressure to raise a reader can be overwhelming. It can also feel terribly isolating as others around you discuss how Little Johnny has been reading out loud from Spot the Dog at eighteen months old before skipping Roald Dahl completely and graduating onto Kipling by the age of four…

In Switzerland, we are blessed by a system that understands that from a cognitive point of view, the act of learning to read can wait until 1st grade when children are 6+. However, expat parents might continue to battle with their own expectations because it is very likely that ‘back home’, children are taught to read much earlier.

Reading is more than just the ability to segment, decode and blend. The act of reading encompasses the gradual building up of textual awareness, adding to a library of vocabulary, comprehension, visual literacy. The wonderful thing is that pre-reading skills are just as important as technical reading skills and as it happens these can be dispensed in virtually all picture books that you might have to hand. Raising a reader, reluctant or otherwise doesn’t have to be a solemn business at all.

Ever since the Orbis Sensualium Pictum emerged in 1658, picture books have been a part of the landscape of childhood. Now, while it may appear counterintuitive to suggest that in order to cultivate a culture of reading at home, you should begin with wordless picture books ( After all, when we want to raise readers, surely, we need books with words)…Nevertheless, it is my strongest recommendation.

Research shows that wordless picture books can benefit a wide range of would-be readers, readers, reluctant readers, and their families.  A large body of research has indicated that children respond to wordless picture books with many of the same skills that they would use to make sense of picture books with words. They made sense of the story that they read using intertextuality, self-talk, storytelling, and play. Two of the keywords here are ‘talk’ and ‘play’. Wordless picture books promote interactive behavior and that is at the heart of why they play such an important role in pre-reading skills. For reluctant readers as well, who might find the act of reading passive, they allow caregivers to create room for discussion and debate which tends to appeal to active learners. The only downside is that parents or caregivers, the onus is on to provide cues for self-talk. We must engage too. But once we do, the rewards speak for themselves.  

It is true what they say about readers being raised on the laps of their parents. Parents play an influential role in ensuring that their children have access to books but irrespective of the innate privilege of being able to afford books or being in an area with easy access to a library, parental interactions also matter. Arguably, they matter the most. Studies that have delved into how parents' interactions with first-grade children during shared reading correlated with their reading proficiency, explored the role of nonimmediate talk in developing reading proficiency.  Not surprisingly – given our society’s stress on decoding - results indicated that parents spent considerable time helping their child to decode words rather than talking about the content of the story.

Talk is neglected, yet talk is central in the academic discussions that abound about picture-books and reading development.

A study of low-income parents in the US which differentiated between the roles that fathers and mothers play in engaging their children with picture books demonstrated that there were distinct differences between how a father engaged with their child while reading in comparison to mothers because they talked around the topic.  The mothers represented in this study tended to remain more focused on the content itself (additional research also indicates that mothers engage in socially-encoded behaviors as motherhood itself is so codified) because they were acting in a way that they believed was the right way to act. The mothers enjoyed less free interaction while reading with their children.  The fathers in this study, on the other hand, tried to relate the content to aspects of their children’s own lives. This extended the children’s vocabulary which in turn had a positive impact on their children’s growth as readers.

But why picture books? Why, indeed, wordless picture books?

This is because the text to picture relationship in a picture book is at the crux of the conversation we must have as the words and pictures come together to help children make meaning. Research into a diverse range of picture books for both younger and older children revealed that while picture books for younger children rely on illustrations to carry the weight of their plot,  illustrations in picture books for older children tended to dwell more on highlighting subtler elements. This suggests that picture books can be used to scaffold different levels of age-appropriate reading, from story-making through to inference, deduction, and comprehension. For example, an older child could be asked about how, in the book that is being read, color is deployed to indicate mood and setting. A conversation such as this lays the foundations for later learning about how symbolism, motifs, and imagery are used in books. Visual literacy is also a pre-reading skill and one which has a broader appeal to emergent readers. For older readers, reluctant or otherwise, I would strongly suggest graphic novels as a good place to start. The visual appeal coupled with their almost cinematic structures engages readers at multiple levels. Indeed, much of the best practice that we enact when helping emergent readers develop a love for reading can be utilized again when it comes to helping older reluctant readers rediscover the world of books for themselves.

Top Tips

  • Encourage the reading of wordless picture books
  • Invite children to play using the elements of a story (DIY story stones are brilliant as are popsicle stick and sock puppets)
  • Listen to songs and audiobooks  
  • Play memory games
  • Read aloud at home to both younger and older children.  Some books that I would really recommend reading aloud to older children are ‘Mr. Cleghorn’s Seal’ by Judith Kerr, almost everything by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Fortunately The Milk’ (they contain pictures)
  • Talk: talk about the story; talk about how the story relates to your own lives; talk about the pictures…The possibilities are endless

In order to create a healthy and nurturing environment for emergent readers, it is important that we give the role of pre-reading skills their due. It is important that we make the distinction between reading as opposed to decoding, segmenting and blending sounds to make words. The latter will happen by and by. The enjoyment of books is different from the physical act of reading. I believe that children are readers long before they can read because reading encompasses a wider spectrum of skills: listening, singing, playing, storytelling, self-talk, story-making. By offering young children the chance to browse through and talk through wordless picture books, we offer them the opportunity to practice pre-reading skills. For older reluctant readers we can always return to the best practice of the younger years. Pictures do tell a thousand words; visual literacy is an important skill and thus we can offer older reluctant readers the chance to read graphic novels and listen to audiobooks.  At the end of the day, we need to remember that reading is a spectrum and every individual will find their own place on that spectrum.


Nayana Chakrabarti-Bhattacharya is a teacher of English who has taught in the UK, India, and Switzerland. She has worked closely with children aged eighteen months to eighteen years. After obtaining a Tripos from the University of Cambridge and a MA in Twentieth-Century Studies from King’s College London, she returned to the Faculty of Education in Cambridge to train as a teacher of secondary English. However, since then Nayana has diversified her skills to include teaching phonics as well as primary literacy. She is a passionate advocate of reading, storytelling and creative writing. She is currently working towards an M.Ed from the University of Exeter. In parallel to her work as a teacher and freelance tutor in Zurich, Nayana also edits a newsletter for third culture kids in Switzerland. She has created a creative writing course for children aged 7-18. Nayana is a writer herself who has had her short stories published in collections, online magazines, and journals. She is currently working on a volume of short stories and a novel. Nayana is best reached at nayana.cambridge.english@gmail or theindoswisskidschronicle@gmail.com . You can also find her on Instagram where she has a microblog under the handle, @themigratorymum.