Picture books aren't just for children

NIE educator hopes teachers will make more use of them for students' emotional growth

Assistant Professor Myra Garces-Bacsal with her collection of picture books at the National Institute of Education.
Assistant Professor Myra Garces-Bacsal with her collection of picture books at the National Institute of Education. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and Assistant Professor Myra Garces-Bacsal thinks we have a lot to learn from books with pictures. She hopes teachers can pay more attention to how such books can be used to help students in their emotional development.

"We often think that picture books are just for children," said Prof Myra of the National Institute of Education's (NIE's) early childhood and special needs education academic group. "But these books have potential to engage readers of all ages in a visual and emotional way. They tell stories and people identify with good stories."

She is an international research fellow at the International Youth Library in Munich, the world's first and largest library of international children's literature.

Multicultural and international picture books in particular can play a significant role in helping the young in their social-emotional learning, said Prof Myra. These reading materials go beyond diversity in race and ethnicity, and include differences in religion, ability, gender and identity, for instance.

International picture books are those translated into English from original languages. They cover a range of topics such as death, family violence, immigration and pain.

A growing movement in education worldwide, social-emotional learning refers to teaching children how to manage emotions, build empathy and relationships, and make responsible decisions. Even for subjects such as maths and science, students are encouraged to use social-emotional concepts like setting goals or perseverance.

Prof Myra, a trained clinical psychologist, earlier this year completed a two-year study on teachers' reading habits. "Most of them are not aware of multicultural picture books. In fact, reading is not a priority for many."

Nearly half of the 345 respondents could not find time to read for pleasure. Prof Myra said: "We need to build a community of readers and reading spaces."

Teachers' reading habits and attitudes have an impact on how they teach. Those who read more for pleasure were more than two times more likely than others who do not read to provide students with similar reading materials in class.

"The concern is always where do we find the time? But the question is whether teachers find reading of enough value to include it in school and set aside time for it," said Prof Myra. She has compiled a database of 500 picture books, which has been shared with the National Library Board and schools.

Some of these books have had an immense impact on students in her NIE classes. "It can be very emotional sometimes. They will be in tears as they read and share their thoughts."

For instance, a picture book one of her teachers used in class was Desmond And The Very Mean Word, a story of how South African archbishop Desmond Tutu learnt to forgive others who insulted him.

Another teacher, Ms Nurul Ain Samsuri of Yumin Primary, who took Prof Myra's course last year, sets aside 10 minutes per week to share with pupils reading materials, including picture books, graphic novels and comics.

The English language and art teacher said this helps to kick-start discussions or introduce themes. She crafted a guide for teachers to talk about disabilities and overcoming obstacles with picture books.

Said Ms Ain, 31: "Before pupils can participate in meaningful conversations about self, identity, diversity, community... teachers themselves need to be competent in planting these seeds of conversation."

Prof Myra said: "There are so many layers you can unpack from a picture book... More than educating the mind, we have to educate hearts."

SEE Picture books with social and emotional learning themes

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline Picture books aren't just for children. Subscribe