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Children’s picture books are defined by their illustrations. A story may be read aloud or retold using text alone, but without the accompanying illustrations, the meaning is different. Sometimes, careful examination of the illustrations reveals that there are more stories going on in a book than just the one told through the words! In a children’s picture book, much of the story is actually in the pictures themselves.

Because illustrations in a children’s book are integral to the story, as children makes sense of a book, they must also consider the pictures. It is only through seeing the work as a whole, words and illustrations, that picture books can be truly read. In her exploration of art in children’s books, Lee Galda writes :

Picture books offer a unique opportunity for children to develop visual literacy because they are able to return to the visual images in books to explore, reflect, and critique those images. As children explore illustrations and develop the ability to read images, they will attain deeper meanings from literature and an awareness of how visual images are used in their own meaning making.

With some guidance, children will learn that illustrations can be “seen” in different ways. The following are ideas for helping children to build visual literacy by reading illustrations carefully and critically.

The picture walk

On the most basic level, someone reading a picture book to a child encourages him or her to observe the objects, people, and scenes depicted in a picture book. Working with young students who do not yet read, an adult may use a simple exercise called a picture walk before reading aloud to encourage students to anticipate what might happen in the story through the illustrations.

Taking a picture walk

In a picture walk, the reader shows the students the book’s cover and browses through the pages in order. He encourages the students to talk about what they see, what may be happening in an illustration, and what various elements such as light, color, perspective, and placement of objects may indicate about the story. Students draw upon background experiences as they interpret the illustrations.

At the conclusion of this exercise, the adult reader has a better sense of what (if any) experience the students have with various elements of the story. In addition, the students become engaged in the story through their glimpse of the pictures and are anxious to find out what really happens. Are their predictions, based upon the illustrations, actually true?

Picture walking with English language learners

Picture walks are also valuable when you are working with English language learners or any group of students from varied backgrounds who bring different experiences to the discussion.

For example, a child who has not yet built a broad academic vocabulary in English might tell an adult reader that the lion in the picture is a “boy lion” because “he has that hair all around his face.” He knows what a mane is and what it signifies; he just doesn’t know the word. This is a perfect opportunity to assess content-area vocabulary and build the student’s academic language capacity.

In the same way, the reader can detect which students are unfamiliar with the setting of a book by their responses in the initial discussion. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and have had a variety of experiences; some have traveled and some have not. Students who are unfamiliar with aspects of a beach setting, for example, may have never been to the coast. The process of making snowballs, the wetness of snow, and even the size of snowflakes are surprising to students who live in places where snow never falls. The picture walk can help an adult reader to meet students where they are, and she can also use the illustrations to help students learn vocabulary and visualize experiences they have not yet had themselves.

STW: What do I See? What do I Think? What do I Wonder?

Many people use the tried-and-true KWL chart as a whole-class activity to find out what students Know, Want to know, and Learned. This strategy helps students activate prior knowledge; it also helps a teacher to assess students’ understanding and to meet her students where they are in their learning. In the same way that the KWL can be used to launch a science or social studies unit, STW can be used to help students focus on illustrations by asking What do I See? What do I Think? and What do I Wonder? This strategy will enable students to fully experience picture books.

Introduced in The Reading Teacher, STW was developed by Janet C. Richards and Nancy A. Anderson in response to their observations of students’ reactions to picture books. Illustrations convey a message, yet students often miss subtle aspects of the illustrations or become preoccupied with details and miss the message of the whole picture. STW encourages a more full visual experience which, like the picture walk described above, promotes critical thinking, encourages thoughtful prediction, and stimulates curiosity.

book cover for Smoky Night

Using the STW strategy encourages students to go beyond simple observation. A student may report, for example, that he sees a boy and a cat on the cover of Bunting’s Smoky Night, but then goes on to say “I think the cat belongs to the boy because he has his hand around the cat” and then “I wonder why they are out at night in the dark?” This process encourages students to think carefully about the characters, their facial expressions, how they are positioned, and even the setting in which they are placed. In this way the reading experience is enhanced as the student takes full advantage of the messages conveyed in illustrations.


  • Anderson, Nancy A. and Janet C. Richards. “What do I See? What do I Think? What do I Wonder? (STW): A visual literacy strategy to help emergent readers focus on storybook illustrations.” The Reading Teacher, February 2003 (Vol. 56, No. 5), pp. 442-443. (Available online through NCLIVE; ask at your public library for more information.)
  • Galda, Lee. “Visual Literacy: Exploring Art and Illustration in Children’s Books” The Reading Teacher, March 1993 (Vol. 46, No. 6), pp. 506-516.