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Why Picture Books Matter (Mat Tobin)

Why Picturebooks matter

to read the original and fully illustrated version of this blog entry, click here:


This blog was born out of two events: a Mocksted visit to my previous school and a rereading of Judith Graham’sPictures on the Page for my very first seminar at Oxford Brookes’ School of Education. What I share here are my own thoughts but I cannot deny that they have been steered by Graham’s. Published back in ’91 her words still ring true and her text should be considered as the first stepping stone into understanding the power of picturebooks. I’d like to share the Mocksted incident first as it might ring true for many teachers who have had to tackle with those who don’t ‘get’ picturebooks and may not be applicable to those who read this blog but have nothing to do with state education. If that’s you, then please feel free to start at Accessibility.

A straw upon the camel’s back.

We had decided, as an Academy, to have a Mocksted. Our Head had moved on and we wanted to see where the gaps were before we received the soon-to-happen phone call.  As part of the SMT, I’d already taken part in several Mocksteds and found them useful: asking experts who inspect on a regular basis to offer guidance makes a lot of sense.

The Inspectors were polite and offered clear advice but one comment was made that got my back up. I was sat at the conference table in the Head’s office with the Inspectors, Executive Head, Acting Head and Heads from other schools in the partnership and our own SMT when the Lead Inspector said:

“Reading throughout the school was generally good but poor in Year 6 where some pupils were reading books that were too short.”

Being the English Coordinator, and Assistant Head, I asked what he meant.

“I saw a boy in Year 6 reading a picturebook. He should be reading something thicker.”

The rest of my SMT could see me getting angry (I never get angry) and one of them had begun to firmly kick me under the table to stop me speaking but I felt duty-bound to correct him. His comment became a reason for me leaving the school and moving into Higher Education. It is my hope that I can stop other training teachers thinking the same way he did.

I explained that the child was probably reading Anthony Browne’sVoices in the Park since it was part of our Anthony Browne Week (our precursor to World Book Day involving each yeargroup from Nursery to Year 6) in which critical thinking and talk around the texts had been a central to the planning. By the way, Mary Roche’s Developing Children’s Critical Thinkingthrough Picturebooks is a wonderful text for anyone who wants to adopt a critical thinking approach to the teaching of reading through picturebooks.

The Inspector did not back down and said that the child would not become a better reader through reading picture books. I asked him if he had picked up the book and read it or if he had read anything by Anthony Browne or even Shaun Tan because no matter how ‘thin’ the book was, the ideas they explored were greater than many novels. The Executive Head subtly steered the discussion on and I was left seething.


I have spent my entire teaching career championing the importance of picture-books in education: from Pre-School all the way up to Year 6 and beyond. I have worked hard at dissolving the myth that picturebooks are only for younger children. It’s an understandable mistake to make; they don’t have many words and the pictures can appear simplistic. Here’s an example (click here ).


Taken from Browne’s The Tunnel, it shows an illustration of a young girl fleeing through a wood. A quick glance shows her caught in mid-run wearing a red coat and, fearfully, casting her gaze behind back – possibly to check that she is not being followed. There are no words. Not because it’s a book for early readers who are yet to handle decoding but because the picture is doing all the talking. The picture could be read as simply as that, it’s what almost every reader will be able to pick up from the scene but there are greater things afoot: things that novels cannot do but picturebooks can.

We learn early on in the book The Tunnel that Rose (the young girl) has a fascination for fairy tales. When she goes through the tunnel to save her older brother, Jack, she finds herself in a world in which many fairy tale tropes related to danger are projected. Even the least-skilled observer could spot the cottage in the background which might contain a witch but would they notice that the curtains are pulled aside leaving the shape of a witch’s hat in its space? Yes, Browne did this on purpose; it’s a nod to his version of Hansel and Gretel.


How about the clothed bear in the tree to the far left, or the boar’s head beneath it? In fact, the boar’s head and the wolf in the tree just behind Rose are both duplicates of Victorian artist, Walter Crane’s work.


There are other things hidden in the woods including a reference to Dali but I think the point I wanted to make has been made. What might appear simple and easy is, with the best picturebooks, very complex: the pictures are often doing far more than we might give them credit for. There are things going on within them that affect our reading and interpretation of the text in a way far deeper than the superficial level that many perceive picturebooks to be working at. These images of wolves, witch’s houses, boars and bears are Rose’s fears come to life. She is running through the forest of her mind. Whatever you think, it cannot be denied that the picture now asks for a deeper response that goes beyond what a novel could without losing its senses.

Pictures can bring greater comprehension to what is written and can often illustrate far more of what is going on than words can. Here they allow us an insight into Rose’s thoughts and feelings in a more immediate and metaphorical manner to the text: they become a powerfully accessible introduction to symbolism.
The same can be said of  images from Browne’s Voices in the Park. We don’t need to read a single word to know that the youngster in the image is looking back with a sense of longing. Yet there is a conflict of interest as the broad and firm arm of the adult with him steers him onwards. Her red hat is a dominant colour in the scene and a repeating image to be found at the top of the gate-columns as well as her neck-scarf and shadow. Is he off to a happy place? Perhaps, but look at the path ahead and you’ll see troubled waters (literally).


Like the previous image, the picture is saying a lot more than we first may have given it credit for. You missed the watery pathway, right? It’s okay, so did I and I’ve read this book dozens of times. That’s what’s wonderful about picturebooks: they encourage us to return over and over again in the hope that we find new meaning with each reading.

Are picture books written for children with weaker imaginations? No, of course not. Are they only for younger children? I hope I’ve convinced you differently. Yes, books with pictures can open minds and experiences to children with limited imagination. Pictures can also help readers tackle unfamiliar words by supporting them to use clues from the picture to identify unfamiliar words. Pictures are also easier symbols to read than letters and words – we start reading them years before we do the latter. They are simpler to decode because it is easier for us to see what they represent. But this is not their only function.

I’m often asked by students and parents to elaborate on what I mean when I say ‘it’s not a quality picturebook’ or even ‘it’s not a picturebook’. In answer, I always call on Maurice Sendak who said: ‘I wanted at all costs to avoid the serious pitfall of illustrating with pictures what the author has already illustrated with words’. A great picturebook is one in which the words and the pictures work together to tell the story but they never say the same thing. Here is an example from Pat Hutchins’ Rosie’s Walk. I use this because it was the very first picturebook shared with me as a student and it illustrated brilliantly how, when reading a picturebook, you don’t just enter one world, but two.


The text tells us that Rosie the hen is going for a walk, but the picture? Well, that tells a different story doesn’t it.

Reader Rewards

I have spent years battling teachers and parents who see reading schemes as the premier reading tool in school. Although I have seen real progress in early readers who read using fully decodable texts, I also see how little attention those readers pay to the accompanying image. That’s because they know that the story is told just as well through the words: there is no symbiotic, fruitful relationship. A deep and meaningful reader-response experience which is so abundant in quality picture books is absent from any scheme and that’s fine. That’s not their function. The reward of reading these schemes comes from mastering the art of decoding print off the page.

Great picturebooks ask the reader to think, question, delve into worlds and ideas that may often be beyond the realms of their experience and imagination. They encourage the reader to think and build meaning, to play and imagine, to reflect and enrich. They are the first steps into exploring our place in the world whilst discovering the lives of others. Why wait until you’re a fluent reader devouring novels to get to that point when picturebooks offer you a way in much, much earlier?

Wednesday lunch Time Seminar Series

Beginning on 27th November 2013, the School of Education will be hosting a weekly lunchtime research seminar on Wednesdays, 12-1pm, in the Glasgow Room. The intention of the seminar series is to provide an informal space for discussion and dialogue in which staff can present and share on-going research activities. This is a free and open platform for discussing research, and colleagues are encouraged to bring any research items to the meeting, from raising initial exploratory questions, to seeking advice about developing conceptual ideas, to on-going methodological questions, to fully-formed research presentations. Each session will begin with a short (10-25 minute) presentation from a member of academic staff, followed by discussion. Feel free to bring your lunch!

More information here.

Engaged Reading


How much do you read? What do you read? What is your experience of reading?

How does reading for pleasure differ from academic reading? Does the experience of higher education take the pleasure out of reading?

What are the barriers to academic reading? Is reading an uncomfortable experience?

How much do you read for modules? How valuable are module reading lists?

What is your perception of the importance of reading for learning in Higher Education? How do you perceive the connection between reading and academic success?

Does academic literature have the power to transform the reader? What would this mean?


The ‘Engaged Reading’ project aims to investigate these questions in collaboration with students at Oxford Brookes University. We want to work with you to develop course materials and approaches that explore the transformational potential of reading.


If you are interested in becoming involved in the project, please email David Aldridge:

Funded Research Scholarship, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University

The School of Education at Oxford Brookes Universty is looking for strong candidates to apply for one three-year, full-time PhD studentship. The studentship is intended for a candidate who will pursue a PhD project that falls broadly within one of the School’s key thematic research areas:

Learning, Identity and Culture
Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment
Childhood, Families and Community
Educational Purposes, Ethics and Beliefs
Partnership, Policy and Leadership

The closing date for applications is 17.00 on Monday 25th November 2013, with interviews being held during the week of 9th December 2013. The start date for the studentship is January 2014.

Further Details

Global Citizenship as Personal and Pedagogical Practice

5th International Conference in association with CAPRI, the
internationalisation stream of the Centre for Social and Educational
Research across the Life course (SERL)
Hosted by Centre for Curriculum Internationalisation (CCI)

Date: Friday 7 June and Saturday 8 June 2013.
Venue: Harcourt Hill Campus, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.

Early bird rates apply until 3 May 2013, normal rates from 4 May 2013.

We see this conference as a shared adventure that will allow us all to
come out of it with something that matters. For this reason there are
deliberately few papers, all offering quite unconventional and
challenging perspectives on global citizenship and
internationalisation. The purpose of this is to provide intellectual
space to articulate participants’ voices – their perspectives, issues,
concerns and ideas – within the context of local institutions,
communities and wider social, economic and historical forces. A
distinctive feature of the conference is therefore collaborative
endeavour designed to capture the layers of contested meaning emerging
from creative and imaginative engagement with the discourses and key
messages articulated by individual contributors.

The papers offered all present different perspectives on discourses of
internationalisation and global citizenship. Common threads that are
developed include:

Questioning the meaning of the global in local contexts
Student engagement as critical to becoming citizens of the world
Tensions around space, place and identity
Writing as a performative dimension of global citizenship

Our critical reflection on the complexity of the process of new
knowledge production will allow us to listen closely to and
consolidate the diverse, situated perspectives of the conference
community. It will also enable us to foreground how we see power,
context, historical and structural forces playing out in our local

Full details:

Conference Flyer

Call for Papers – Annual Research Conference

School of Education
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Call for Papers
Annual Research Conference
What Counts as Educational Research :
What could it be and what is it for?

Friday July 12th 2013
9 – 4 pm

We are expecting a range of presentations from those who might be just setting out on their research journey (and are therefore still in dilemma over ‘what’ and ‘how’) as well as those who will be experienced (and able to share final outcomes and recommendations of a rigorous study or well justified ‘thought’ piece).

If you have any queries about whether your paper would be appropriate or not please contact one of the conference committee.

The conference committee also welcomes symposia from research groups (that is a collection of short papers taking juxtaposed views on a particular issue).

All paper presentations should be 20 mins (with up to 10 minutes for Q & A).
Symposiums should last a total of 1 hour.

Please send in a document with the following information (below) if you intend to present.

It is intended that all papers presented will be collated as a collection and published through the SoE.

Deadline for submission : June 10th (to be emailed to Christine Gahan

Further Information

Learning Culture and Identity/ CCI announcements

Learning, Culture and Identity links up with CCI (Centre for Curriculum Internationalisation) with the following two announcements:

The special CCI guest-edited issue of BeJLT is now live on the link below:

Internationalised University Curricula and Education for Global Citizenship
Volume 4, Issue 3

The issue is now live.

Save the dates for the CCI conference:
Global Citizenship as personal and pedagogic practice June 7th and 8th 2013,
For further information please follow the following link:

Seminar Event: Writing English language materials and Global English

You are warmly invited to a Learning, Culture and Identity event:

Tuesday Feb. 12th 3.30 – 4.30 Writing English language materials and Global English
Amanda Jeffries Harcourt Hill Room F1/15

This session will look at the challenges and implications of embedding a ‘global’ approach to the English language in teaching materials. What does this mean in practice? and what opportunities and compromises does this present to the materials writer?

Amanda Jeffries is a teacher, teacher educator and author specialising in teaching advanced learners. She has taught in Chile and in the UK, was a founding writer and teacher on the Oxford Brookes MA in ELT, and is currently working with university students and teachers at Oxford University. She has contributed to the Straightforward and New Inside Out series for Macmillan, and has written Clockwise Advanced for OUP. She has also contributed writing, review and study skills sections to the Global series and is co-author of Global Advanced.

Global (published by Macmillan) is a six level course that takes students from Beginner through to Advanced level. It aims to engage adult readers with texts on global, non-trivial topics as well as extracts from contemporary literature, and also has a focus on critical thinking and creative tasks.

Culture in English Language Coursebooks

Learning, Culture and Identity research event

Wednesday March 6th 12.15 – 1.0 Room AG/09

Culture in English language coursebooks
Vicky Palli

Vicky Palli is a former MA student as well as an experienced and inspiring TESOL teacher who will be talking about her distinction level dissertation research.

In the context of an increasingly globalised world Intercultural communicative seen as integral to competences in second and foreign languages. English is used as a medium of international communication and lack of cultural awareness may raise barriers to communication. This presentation seeks to explore the presence of cultural elements in English language coursebooks, curriculum artefacts as well as publishing products that address diversified markets around the world. Defining the nature of culture and its role in English language teaching will enable us to evaluate and interpret research findings about coursebooks. Questions may arise regarding the cultural component of language teaching and the discussion will aim to engage both TESOL practitioners and teachers interested in the language needs of their learners, in reflection upon their own practice.

Funded Research Scholarship, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University

The School of Education at Oxford Brookes Universty is looking for strong candidates to apply for one three-year, full-time PhD studentship. The studentship is intended for a candidate who will pursue a PhD project that falls broadly within one of the School’s key thematic research areas:
Learning, Identity and Culture
Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment
Childhood, Families and Community
Educational Purposes, Ethics and Beliefs
Partnership, Policy and Leadership
The closing date for applications is 17.00 on Monday 4th March 2013, with interviews being held during the week of 25th March 2013.

For further details, please see the further information.