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Hooked on Books: Picturebooks in ELT with Sandie Mourão

June 16, 2016 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

Sandie + blog
Sandie Mourão

This month we talk to Sandie MourãoShe is the author of the blog Picturebooks in ELT, editor of the CLELE Journal, and Invited Associate Professor at the Department of Modern Languages, Cultures and Literatures at the Nova University in Lisbon, Portugal. We asked her about the unique world of picturebooks, and she recommends not only titles, but suggests practices to use them in your classroom.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did your passion for children’s literature begin?

I have a passion for picturebooks, which is a form of children’s literature – I’m certainly not a specialist in children’s literature, but I know a lot about picturebooks! I had small children of my own when I began working in pre-primary and using picturebooks, and so I discovered picturebooks as a mother and as a teacher at the same time. Of course as a parent there is something very special, and hugely important about sharing picturebooks with our children, but I soon realized how magical they could be in the classroom as well. I tried them out with pre-primary and primary learners and found similar results, only later when studying picturebooks at an academic level did I realise they could be brought into a classroom of older learners too.

HRB: What do you think is special about picturebooks?

For me the magic of picturebooks is their authenticity in relation to both the pictures and the words, and the opportunities both these codes provide language learners for authentic response and language use. Picturebooks bring so much to the language classroom – amazing illustrations in a range of styles, media and techniques and beautiful language using words and expressions rarely encountered in a coursebook or a reader. However it’s more than that – picturebooks need both the illustrations and the words to create meaning, and this means that learners need to read the illustrations as well as read (or listen to) the words, they have to put the two together and interpret what they mean as a whole. I like to encourage teachers to use 1 + 1 = 3 picturebooks - these are picturebooks where the pictures and the words come together to create something which is greater than the sum of the two parts. This enriches the language learning experience and fosters an active learner who has to think about what they read (and listen to).

HRB: You’ve been running your blog, PICTUREBOOKS IN ELT since 2010. What gave you the idea to start writing it?

Well, recently I wouldn’t say I’ve been running it! I keep it … and have plans to put what’s there onto my website in alphabetical order – I just need a bit of time! I started my blog in 2010, when I was half way through my PhD researching picturebook illustrations and language development. It seemed the logical thing to do. I was discovering loads of things about picturebooks and no one else in ELT seemed to know, so I thought I’d share. I loved the experience. The posts would take as long as a week to write, but I took a huge amount of pleasure from analyzing the different picturebooks I blogged about – many were unknown to English teachers in the ELT world, which is very separate from the world of children’s literature. What I also enjoyed about blogging was discovering other children’s literature blogs. WOW! It’s a world of its own, and I did a lot of networking, which of course meant I discovered more and more about picturebooks and the variety that was available to me. I completed my PhD in 2012 and so my full-time research grant ended too and I have had so much work since then that it’s been really difficult to keep up the blogging. I miss it and I think a number of colleagues do too. It had loads of followers! I keep telling myself: Sandie, it’s still a useful tool! After all, there are over 100 picturebooks there for people to discover or rediscover!

HRB: What age and interest groups have you taught? How do your students respond to picturebooks?

I began my career in ELT as a typical language school teacher, so I taught the whole range back then, but I quickly began specializing and have been teaching pre-primary and primary learners (and their teachers) since 1993 - as a teacher educator I work with both pre-service and in-service teachers. All these learners respond in their own ways to picturebooks, usually very positively. Younger children are very spontaneous and will see things in the illustrations that I haven’t noticed, or comment on things I hadn’t thought about. I love that, and learn loads when I share a new picturebook. Response at this level is varied and there’s lots to take into consideration. I’ve just published an article on this, which may be of interest to readers. Primary learners enjoy a picturebook experience enormously and get a real kick from understanding a piece of real literature. I love surprising teachers with information about peritext - see my blog post - they never look at a picturebook in the same way again! I also surprise many teachers when I share my work with picturebooks and older learners.

HRB: We often recommend picturebooks and illustrated readers for teen and adult readers as we think they have a lot of potential, and not only for young learners. What do you think of this?

Absolutely! If you are selecting picturebooks for teenagers there are some amazing titles which take learners far beyond the usual confines of the language classroom. There are picturebooks about drugs, colonization, loneliness, war, male chauvinism, worrying, death, old age, xenophobia… oh my, the list is endless. These are all excellent topics to take into a teenage classroom and prompt discussion, providing real reasons for learners to talk to each other as they make their own personal interpretations of a picturebook. I’ve worked closely with a teacher in upper secondary education in Portugal, who has used picturebooks with her learners and I’ve seen first hand how teenagers soon get the hang of talking through their thoughts and actively looking for answers to the visual verbal puzzle the picturebook poses them. You can read an article I wrote about one such experience for the CLELE Journal.

HRB: What is the key to a successful language programme based on picturebooks?

Variety! With younger learners take care not to select books that only have animal characters, ensure children appear in some books. Look for books that suit both girls and boys. It’s easy to forget and go for those ‘fluffy pink stories’, which may even put boys off – something we don’t want! Include fiction and non-fiction and even consider wordless picturebooks.

I think I’ve made it quite clear that the illustrations are as important as the words, so these must be taken into consideration when selecting and using picturebooks that have both words and illustrations. There should be an understanding that books are not just for the words they might contain, but also for the pleasure of sharing a good story. I’m not sure that many teachers develop whole programmes around picturebooks, especially if they are working in mainstream schools with a programme to complete. However I think that all teachers should include picturebooks as a part of their language programme, even if it’s only one a term – they provide variety and as I have already hinted at, access to topics that don’t usually appear in a coursebook.

HRB: What principles do you follow when you choose texts for your students? What kind of genres work well?

I’ve already mentioned the importance of the picture-word interaction and recognizing that each code provides information which may or may not be the same. So selecting picturebooks with a variety of picture-word interactions is important. You ask about genres… this is a tricky term to use! I’d like to think that picturebooks afford access to a number of literary genres: comedy, non-fiction, biography, tragedy, crime, fantasy, romance… they are all possible as picturebooks are so versatile. This is why they are so useful for the teenage classroom.

HRB: Can you recommend three authors (or picturebooks) all English teachers should carry in their schoolbag?

Careful! If I was to recommend an author, I would have to say who illustrated their book as well! Picturebooks can have an author and an illustrator or just an illustrator who is talented enough to write the words (if they exist) as well. Emily Gravett, Anthony Browne and Shaun Tan would be excellent choices – they are all illustrators and amazing picturebook creators! Emily Gravett tends to create picturebooks for younger learners, but not always! Anthony Browne would suit older primary early secondary and Shaun Tan would wow the teenage learner. They are three of my favourite picturebook creators and if you don’t know their work … shame on you!

Thank you for the interview, Sandie!