3 Ways to Teach Close Reading With Picture Books

Use illustrations to inspire!

When we think of close reading, we most often think about dense passages that, at first glance, seem like they require a magnifying glass, if not a sturdy pair of reading glasses, to analyze. But, the goal of close reading is not to read and analyze as many words as possible, but to engage in critical thinking about a text and its ideas. And, particularly in elementary school, that includes illustrations.

Illustrators make many of the same choices authors make. They draw with purpose and create scenes and images that convey the arc of a narrative as well as the story’s deeper meaning. Their choices reveal emotion, energy, detail, and theme. (One important note: just like choosing text to read, picture books for close reading should be chosen carefully; look for books that have powerful, memorable illustrations.)

Here’s how to engage your students in close reading with illustrations:

Pictures with a Purpose

When you’re using a picture book, the purpose is still paramount. Setting a purpose puts students in the driver’s seat, so to speak, and shapes what they notice and focus on during the reading. For example, reading Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, you may set the purpose to look at how Sendak communicates emotion through the pictures.


Questions are King

The key to close reading is still questions—this time questions based on the illustrations and that connect the story and illustration. Some types of questions you can ask about illustration, using The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton:

  • Initiation Questions ask students to identify the key features or details in a picture:
    • Where is the Little House in each picture?
    • What does each picture show about how people feel about the Little House?
  • Message and Linking Questions ask students to dig deeper, make inferences, and draw conclusions:
    • How does the illustrator show time passing through the illustrations?
    • How much attention do people pay to the Little House? How does the illustrator show this?
    • What emotions does the Little House have? How does the illustrator personify the Little House?
  • Illustration-Specific Questions ask students to analyze the unique elements of image. For example:
    • Lines: How do the lines in the illustrations change? What does this show?
    • Colors: What are the dominant colors at the beginning and end of the book? What impact does this have on the reader?
    • Composition: The Little House is at the same place on most of the pages in the book. Why do you think the illustrator chose to do this? What does it help the reader understand about the little house?


Cite Image Evidence

Encourage students to refer to the evidence from the pictures and the illustrator when talking about the illustrations, just as they refer to text evidence and the author. Another conversation you can engage students in is analyzing the specific illustrator’s style, and how the story would be different if another illustrator had drawn the pictures. How might The Little House have been different if Maurice Sendak had drawn the illustrations?

What picture books have you used for close reading? Which illustrations are the most fun for your students to analyze?