Using Picturebooks for Discussion and Critical Thinking

A longtime advocate for using picture books to create discussions with children, Mary Roche‘s key text, Developing Critical Thinking through Picturebooks (Routledge 2015) explores the use of picturebooks to develop language, comprehension, a love of reading, critical and visual literacy. Here, in an article, she explains the usefulness of read-alouds in the classroom. 

Note: parts of this article were previously published in Reading News, (Autumn 2010, Literacy Association of Ireland) and are reproduced here with permission.

A readaloud can be a powerful entry point into classroom dialogue and discussion. As a literacy strategy, listening to a book being read well is probably one of the most valuable and pleasurable experiences beginning readers and writers can have. I would argue that readalouds should be part of every child’s day – either at home or at school. However, while standalone readalouds are beneficial, it is through the interaction around the book that oral language and meaning-making will be enhanced. I use picturebooks to stimulate dialogue and critical thinking with all age-groups in the education system. My approach is called ‘Critical Thinking and Book Talk’ (Roche 2010).

‘…an approach to literacy that emphasises what I consider to be some of the neglected aspects of the field. These neglected aspects include, among others, the development of oral language, critical thinking, love of reading, and the development of the ability to respond to literature in an authentic fashion through dialogue and discussion’ (Roche 2015 p3).

The concept of ‘Critical Thinking and Book Talk’ is grounded in ideas about democratic practice and the social construction of knowledge, and underpinned by values of care and respect for others’ views. No conclusions are sought; children are expected to listen to each other with attention, contribute to the discussion if they wish, and provide reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with others. The teacher’s guiding hand is light during the discussion; her role is to be a participant. When her turn comes to speak she may try to change the direction of the discussion by asking a new question or by introducing a new idea, but the participants, irrespective of age, control the discussion. They must come to their own understandings of the book by agreeing/disagreeing with each other, providing reasons for their utterances, building on each other’s contributions or introducing new ideas themselves. Each group will vary in the sophistication or otherwise of their contributions.

It takes time and patience to build up a safe talking atmosphere, but it is well worth the effort. For a ‘Critical Thinking and Book Talk’ session in a classroom, read a picturebook aloud with participants seated in a semicircle initially, ensuring that all can see the images clearly. Visual literacy – decoding images – is as important as decoding text. Serafini (2012 p28) suggests that ‘navigating multimodal texts requires readers to attend to the grammars of visual design, in addition to the structures, typography, and graphic elements associated with written language’. These skills, he argues, are too often missing from reading comprehension strategy lessons.

Ensuring that all participants can see the images may involve beaming the scanned illustrations onto the whiteboard using a visualiser. When the book has been thoroughly scrutinised from front cover through endpapers and front matter to back, turn off the projector, ‘close’ the circle and begin by asking a simple question: Has anyone got something to say? Then sit back and listen to what the children say. Wait your turn to talk.

Donnelly (1994) advocates the use of a ‘tip-around’ to allow all children to participate in the discussion. A child volunteers to begin the discussion, and then ‘tips’ the next child lightly on the shoulder. The ‘starting’ child has the power to choose in which direction the discussion goes. I usually remind the participants at the end, that if the discussion had started somewhere else, or had gone in the opposite direction, we would have had a completely different discussion – and completely new knowledge would have been created. This idea of the creation of new knowledge, of thinking thoughts that no-one has thought before, of connecting new ideas with old, and building up insights from listening to others, is a very powerful experience for children. It could also precede the discussion. Having the power to speak or not is hugely liberating. Listening and thinking is paramount. Generally in classrooms silence, in response to a question, can be problematic: here, in this dialogical setting, it can mean ‘I’m still thinking’ or ‘I’m happy to just listen’. When the ‘tip’ reaches the first speaker again, those who didn’t speak are offered an opportunity. After a few such discussions, perhaps the group could negotiate some ‘discussion rules’ – good listening, eye contact, respectful disagreement etc. These rules might be revisited briefly before each session. Participants helping to decide the rules is a key part of the democratic process. Sitting in a circle with a ‘tip-around’ ensures that dominant children learn to participate fairly – another democratic aspect.

An example from practice

‘Yellow Bird Black Spider’ by Dosh and Mike Archer, although somewhat dated now, is a great book to read aloud and discuss with all ages. The yellow bird is a free spirit, a bit of a radical, who plays a red guitar with an amplifier dial that goes up to 11. (Spinal Tap fans take note!) The black spider is conservative, anxious to maintain the status quo. Let the children roam through the issues raised. Resist the temptation to say ‘This book is about choice, or lifestyle, or freedom’ or whatever. That would constitute imposition of your ideas and your thoughts on the discussion. Instead ask open-ended questions: ‘Now that we’ve read the book, I’m wondering what the authors might want us to think’ for which there may be no ‘right’ answer, or several ‘right’ answers. Be prepared to be amazed at the philosophical turn the discussion might take.

Look at what 8 year old Paul said after I read this book aloud to his class (bear in mind that these children had been doing classroom discussions since age 4).

I disagree with some people and I agree with others who said that freedom is doing whatever you want, but only in a way. You can only have freedom if you’re alone. Because if you were really free to think what you like and say what you like and do what you like, and there were other people around, it could be the baddest thing ever for them because you might want to do all bad things with your freedom… Freedom could be sometimes good but sometimes it could be the baddest thing ever. (07-02-06, Roche 2007)

Other children said:  

  • Freedom could be thinking and saying what you like. I agree with Ts and with A too. You can think what you like but you can’t always say what you think….freedom would mean being free to do everything even if it is killing …

You can be free and not free in lots of other ways too…like if you’re a child you’re free to play on the grass but not on the road.  So the road stops your freedom if you’re a child.  But a road can be a freedom to someone else …like if someone was driving going away on their holidays…

I think you’ll agree that some children demonstrate that they have grasped fundamental aspects of freedom, and they have begun to be aware of the development of their own ideas. Like Berlin (2002), Paul has come to see for himself that total positive freedom could be ‘the baddest thing ever’. The children recognise the difference between freedom from and freedom to. They see that freedom means having choices, but that one person’s freedom should not impinge or take from another’s. But I did not tell them that the book was about freedom. This is really important. I used this book with several classes – only one group discussed freedom (see also Roche 2007)

I learned from listening to the children. One class thought the book was about rights. They mostly agreed that the yellow bird had the right to be ‘himself’, but one girl suggested that the black spider also had the right to be himself – and a discussion ensued as to whether it was a ‘contest of two rights’.  (Note the pronoun – the book does not specify a gender for either creature. This assumption of maleness would merit a discussion too.) Another class, in true black spider mode, generally considered it a ‘stupid story cos birds don’t wear stripy socks’.

Sipe (2008 p3) suggests that …literary understanding is not a matter of being able to parrot back details from the story, or being able to answer a barrage of questions from the teacher or a test. It’s a matter of engaging in literary meaning-making, of passionately interpreting stories with increasing sophistication, cognitive power, and delight.

Over several decades of research on using picturebooks in my classroom I saw that Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ books are excellent for critical discussion on abstract concepts such as truth, beauty, honour, courage etc. Watt’s ‘Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend’ is a wonderful pathway into a talking about friendship, relationships and fear of new situations. Munsch’s ‘The Paper Bag Princess’; Child’s ‘The Princess and the Pea’; and Cole’s ‘Prince Cinders’ allowed us to explore gender. McKee’s ‘Tusk, Tusk’ and ‘The Conquerors’; Popov’s ‘Why’; Fox and Wilton’s ‘Feathers and Fools’ promoted discussion on the futility and morality of war, and ‘Something Else’ by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell engendered empathy, helped children make connections with prior learning from history lessons on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Anne Frank, and opened up questions about marginalisation and otherness. More recently Sanna’s ‘The Journey’ and Greder’s ‘The Island’ prompted deep discussion about why people might flee their own land and the response a caring society should make. Carry out your own research on current picturebooks: there is a huge supportive community of picturebook lovers on Twitter. Follow me @marygtroche and check out the hashtags #picturebooks and #bookrichwalletempty for starters!

Picturebooks are ideal for many reasons – they rarely having more than 32 pages which make them ‘easy’ to use in a lesson. However the main feature of a picturebook – the one that distinguishes the discussion from one about a chapter book – is that just as much attention (or more) is focused on the images as on the text. In a good picturebook the image and text complement and inform each other, and for fuller meaning of the narrative to emerge, we need to examine both, for nothing is there by accident. (For a broader discussion on this point, see Chapter Two of Roche 2015).

Critical engagement with both text and illustrations incorporates several different levels of comprehension and meaning making. For it to work well the teacher needs to be knowledgeable about the book she is using; critically aware, willing to listen to, and open to learning from, her pupils; enthusiastic and committed to creating a community of enquiry in her classroom… The questions she asks herself, and the questions she gives her pupils opportunities to ask, and to answer, really do matter (Roche 2015 p47).

Critical thinking is all about thinking for one’s-self, challenging assumptions and stereotypes, asking questions and questioning answers. Philosophising is about pondering alternatives, asking ‘what if’, and ‘I wonder why’ and offering ideas such as ‘well I think…because’. Try it out, the ‘readaloud’ factor alone makes it worthwhile. Remember that picturebooks are not solely for early years’ classrooms – properly chosen books can provide a stimulus for discussion to senior primary – and even, as Buzz Lightyear says, BEYOND.


Berlin I. (2002) Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. London, Chatto & Windus

Donnelly, P. (1994) Thinking Time, Philosophy with Children: the educational, psychological and philosophical rationale for doing philosophy with primary school children. Open University, M Ed. Milton Keynes. Unpublished thesis

Roche, M. (2007) Towards a Living Theory of Caring Pedagogy: interrogating my practice to nurture a critical, emancipatory and just community of enquiry. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Limerick.

Roche, M. (2010) ‘Critical Thinking and Book Talk’ Using Picturebooks to Promote Discussion and Critical Thinking in the Classroom. Reading News, Autumn 2010. Literacy Association of Ireland

Roche, M. (2015) Developing Children’s Critical Thinking through Picturebooks: a guide for primary and early years students and teachers. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge.

Serafini, F. (2012) Reading Multimodal Texts in the 21st Century. Mid-South Educational Research Association 2012, Vol. 19, No. 1, 26-32

Sipe, L. (2008) Storytime: Young Children’s Literary Understanding in the Classroom. New York and London. Teacher’s College, Columbia University

Children’s Books
Archer, D. & M. (2004) Yellow Bird, Black Spider. London. Bloomsbury
Cave, K. & Riddell, C. (1995) Something Else. London & New York. Picture Puffins
Child, L. (2005) The Princess and the Pea. London. Penguin
Cole, B. (1997) Prince Cinders. London. Puffin
Fox, M. & Wilton, N. (2000) Feathers and Fools. HMH Books for Young Readers
Greder, A. (2007) The Island. Dusseldorf. Verlag
Lobel, A. (1971) Frog & Toad are Friends. London. Harper Collins
McKee, D. (2006) Tusk Tusk. (2004) The Conquerors. (2010) Denver. London. Anderson Press
Munsch, R. (1980) The Paper Bag Princess. London. Scholastic
Popov, N. (1998) Why? London, North South Books
Sanna, F. (2016) The Journey. London. Flying Eye Book
Watt, M. (2008) Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend. London. Happy Cat Books

Bio: Dr Mary Roche taught in primary schools for many years. She has worked in MIC and UCC and is currently a lecturer in Education Studies in MIC St Patrick’s Campus, Ireland. Mary has a special interest in dialogical pedagogy and critical literacy. She is the author of Developing Critical Thinking through Picturebooks (Routledge 2015) 

2 responses to “Using Picturebooks for Discussion and Critical Thinking”

  1. Mary says:

    Try it. Be patient. It takes time to build up confidence and competence. Contact me via @marygtroche (twitter)

  2. Jane Rew says:

    I found this article really interesting and it’s prompted me to think again about my Year 6 reading group who have been struggling with Aquila magazine as a focus for reading and discussion. Nothing wrong with the magazine, but it often fails to capture their imagination or generate an enthusiastic response. Reading picture books might be a different, more fruitful, approach. Thank you.