Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words: Using Photo Books to Increase Vocabulary, Grammar, and Narrative Skills

Making photo books with your kids is a fabulous way to help increase their language skills. It matters not if you are a mom simply looking for  creative ways to provide your toddler with a language-rich environment or a dad looking for ways to help your kindergartener learn to tell stories-- photo books are a flexible tool than can be used in a huge variety of ways.

How to use picture books? The general idea goes a little something like this:
  • Take pictures during a fun event such as a trip to the zoo or the beach,
  • Capture key moments in the pictures,
  • Print the pictures that highlight the key moments from the event,
  • Spend a few afternoons gluing the pictures onto construction paper, letting your children help cut, glue and color around the pictures; if your child is old enough, help him to write captions for the pictures, and
  • Laminate the pages and have them bound into a book that can be read over and over.
One you've done this, you're all set up to use the books to help increase language.  Kids love these books because they are based in experiences that they had; this makes the books both meaningful and fun. And children usually want to read the books over and over again-- as annoying as this can be, it makes picture books the perfect vehicle for developing language.

With toddlers, you can use the pictures to build on language.  Most toddlers love to start looking at pictures of themselves around 12-24 months, right when they are starting to rapidly increase their vocabulary and move from one-word phrases to two-word phrases. Photo books create excellent opportunities for using parallel talk, description, and expansion to help toddlers develop new vocabulary and help them make the jump from one to two words. They can be especially helpful for late-talkers.

Check out the video below.  I use expansion with my daughter, who is looking at a picture of herself riding a toy motorcycle with her brother, James.  First, I wait for her to say something ("ride!"). Then I build on her words by putting them into short phrases, two different times. As a result, she comes back with a two-word phrase of her own ("James riding")! Using simple techniques like this, repeatedly and consistently with late-talkers has been shown to increase their language. (Although I should also mention it doesn't always work this quickly....I've been using parallel talk, description and expansion with my daughter for the past year and it's only really starting to pay off now!)

Toddlers aren't the only ones who benefit from photo books, though. Using these books with preschoolers and early elementary age children can be great way to work on a whole variety of language-related skills. You can:
  • Work on sequencing by having your child lay out the pictures in the right order as you make the book,
  • Work on pre-writing and writing skills by having your child trace words you write or write his own words and sentences as you make the book,
  • Work on vocabulary by defining new words and integrating those words into the story and by using time words such as first, next, then and finally,
  • Work on language by using indirect correction, in which you correct errors in your child's grammar by restating what he said, correctly and conversationally (e.g. Your child: "I runned really fast!" You: "You did. You ran so fast!"), and
  • Work on memory by having your child practice telling the story with and without the picture book in front of him.
Finally, photo books are a fantastic way to work on narrative (story) development. Developing an understanding of narrative structure (the typical flow of stories) is essential to being able to engage in conversations, tell others about things that have happened, and understand academic texts later in the elementary years. Enhancing narrative development is an asset for any child; I work on it with my son, often. It's also a skill that can be very hard for children with language delays and specific diagnoses such as autism, so working on it with these children is essential.  Using photo books to visually show stories in which children actually participated helps make narrative structure more concrete and easier to understand.   At first, you can use photo books to help your child understand that the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Later, during the early elementary age years, you can help your child form a story that has the following elements:
  • Setting ("We were at the zoo")
  • Goal ("We wanted to see the animals,")
  • Problem ("But Sally was scared of the lion.")
  • Feelings ("I was so mad, because I wanted to see the lion.")
  • Attempt to solve the problem ("So we went to see the owls instead. Then Sally was ready to see the lion. Mom just covered her eyes.")
  • Conclusion ("After that, we had a really fun day.")
It doesn't have to be perfect, of course. Stories are messy, just like life. They won't fit perfectly into those elements, nor should they. But telling stories in a way that wraps loosely around those story elements, over and over and over again, will help your child begin to internalize the flow of stories.

There is so much to do with picture books that the possibilities seem endless.  What's more, at the end of the day, you also have a book full of memories that your children will cherish for years to come.  And that's just priceless.


  1. Great ideas!! I will do this with Cash, as he is now starting to put a couple or three words together, and saying a lot of obeservational things. Thanks for the idea Becca!

  2. shared this on fb and twitter. love it!

  3. I am bookmarking this and your blog right now, what a wonderful resource!

  4. We love using pictures in our activities!

    Coming thru from Link & Learn