Developing Childrens Critical Thinking Through Picturebooks

Designed for university-level children’s literature and literacy courses, Mary Roche has written an accessible text on using literature to engage in critical thinking practices with readers from the very young to grown adults. In the introduction, she notes the book is a guide to “introduce children to good literature, big ideas, critical engagement, and the notion of making meaning together through thinking and discussion” (3). Roche emphasizes the value she places on books and nurturing a love of reading in young children. She adopts an active reading stance, encouraging a form of pedagogy that situates readers—both students and educators—as reflective and agentive. Her goals parallel others’ contributions to the field, especially those of Lawrence R. Sipe, who encouraged a wider exploration of the connection between literary understanding and literacy learning. Sipe envisioned picturebooks as a means to “imagine a different society” offering readers an “ability to [End Page 256] impose a new narrative construction on the social facts at our disposal” (246). Like Sipe’s scholarship, Roche draws on literary and critical literacy theories and then grounds her work in children’s responses to literature. She gives equal weight to the literature and these responses; the children’s voices provide rich insight into the value of literary engagement in the classroom. She also reminds us of the pleasures of reading “good” books and the benefit of this positive engagement. This book should appeal to those fortunate enough to teach children’s literature and literacy classes as well as those who are curious about ways children navigate their encounters with children’s literature.

Roche believes the path to developing language and critical thinking skills is through literature, preferably high quality literature. The purpose of her text is to deconstruct the idea of reading books and to reveal subjective positioning of readers and books in classrooms and children’s lives more generally. Roche’s big idea is “critical thinking and book talks” (CT&BT), a form of engagement with picturebooks that addresses literacy practices that Roche claims are shunted in favor of measurable skills like decoding and encoding. She defines literacy widely. It is more than discrete skill building; she emphasizes “oral language, critical thinking, love of reading, and … the ability to respond to literature in an authentic fashion through dialogue and discussion” (3). Roche promotes critical thinking and reflective practice in order to raise awareness of picturebooks’ potential to engage students as cocreators of meaning both in texts and in daily experiences: “critical thinking is necessary for making sense and meaning of our lives and our world” (11). Drawing from Paulo Freire, she critiques a banking or transmission model of education, which perceives learners as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge given by teachers. For her, picturebooks are a medium to resist this model and engage in critical thinking, or “thinking for oneself rather than passively receiving the ideas and thoughts of others” (25). For Roche, picturebook read-alouds are an ideal starting point for dialogical and critical thinking.

The book is divided into two sections: the first section (chapters 1–5) maps out the theoretical and conceptual frameworks; the second section (chapters 6 and 7) provides guidelines for enacting CT&BT in the classroom. The chapters in this conceptually sound book are easy to follow and navigate as the concise writing carries readers along like a canoe floating down a calm stream on a warm summer’s day. Peppered throughout each chapter are children’s voices and numerous examples from picturebooks. In addition to a thoughtful bibliography [End Page 257] and an extensive list of children’s literature, Roche provides suggested reading at the end of each chapter. These suggestions are diverse and complement each chapter; they should be a welcome resource for those interested in picturebooks as well as university students seeking additional sources for term papers.

The first chapters offer a critique of predominating trends in literacy education and establish the theoretical framework for adopting CT&BT. In chapter 1, Roche argues that literacy education has been winnowed down to discrete skills at the expense of dialogic pedagogies, which she feels can engage readers to see how “texts work to position their readers” (6). Roche uses critical literacy theory to frame her argument, drawing on Hilary Jank’s definitions of ideal and resistant readers who respectively read with and against the text. Roche encourages readers to be resistant, to read against texts, in order to become active readers—readers who are able to think about how texts underpin values and assumptions. In chapter 2, the focus shifts to comprehension and meaning making; Roche outlines how picturebooks offer opportunities to expand reading to include visual and critical literacies. By focusing on paratext and design elements of picturebooks, readers come to see the book as cultural product. In doing so, the process of deconstructing texts begins and ideological implications of books (and books as cultural products) become translucent. Roche’s students, whose voices echo throughout the book, also reveal assumptions readers bring to readings. Roche adeptly narrates these exchanges to demonstrate comprehension and its evolution through discussions and dialogue, the focus of chapter 3. Authentic language and dialogue, according to Roche, exist when we are engaged in exchanges that are not bound by definitive skills or outcomes. CT&BT require participants to enact different roles—as reader, listener, questioner, author, etc.—to be “literate enquirers” (49). Interactive, or dialogic, reading aloud shifts the focus from the explicit or didactic goals of a teacher toward an engagement among readers. This allows participants to bring their own collective resources to the literary experience. According to Roche, this experience can be enhanced further by the quality of literature, which models idealized talk, maximizes pleasure of reading, and offers rich material for discussion.

Chapter 4 focuses on oral language development. Roche emphasizes dialogic inquiry as a critical step to individual oral language development, a skill she decries as passively taught in contemporary classrooms. Speaking opportunities, particularly in dialogical interactions that require [End Page 258] both talk and listening, are essential to “know how to use language appropriately” (67). In order to benefit from these rich engagements with literature, Roche proposes that the quality of the book matters. In the last chapter of the first section (chapter 5), we are introduced to picturebook theory. She notes that this chapter “may help us choose picturebooks for discussion and interpretation with children” (99) but adds that knowing picturebook theory is not a requirement “to have wonderful discussions with children about picturebooks” (99).

The second section of the book shifts from theory to an application of enacting CT&BT in the classroom. In chapter 6, Roche establishes the value of making room for children’s voices and thinking, citing Jerome Bruner: “obeying uncritically denies children the opportunity to voice their uniqueness as thinkers” (111). The importance of book quality is reinforced in this chapter and Roche stresses the importance of scaffolding literary events for children. She models CT&BT, providing ample examples with a wide range of students, from preschoolers to in-service teachers. As Roche demonstrates, successful CT&BT do not rely on formulaic lesson plans but on a pedagogical approach founded on “reciprocity, care and respect and a generous selection of picturebooks” (126). Chapter 7 builds on that and includes steps for selecting books for different groups as well as setting up discussions and activities to teach students to participate in different ways that will extend and expand conversations. Roche stresses the value of post assessment and self-evaluation to ensure that power asymmetries are not occurring in the classroom. Reflection and open-mindedness are essential for teachers, librarians, and other adults who wish to shift read-alouds from unidirectional events toward conversational ones. In the conclusion, Roche reiterates the value of this approach, particularly the importance of narratives found in picturebooks. We use narratives to “make sense of the books for ourselves” and “to explain our understanding to others” (147). The dialectical relationship between literature and experience informs our understanding of the worlds in which we live. Roche closes the book with a cautionary note about the teaching side-effects of adopting CT&BT: disequilibrium. She encourages us to embrace this discomfort if we are to come to see the story and ourselves differently.

Overall, Roche delivers on her promise that “this book is not for people who want templates and reproducibles and ‘truths’ about how to teach” (3). The book’s strengths, and there are many, include her theoretical framing and integration of student and teacher voices [End Page 259] throughout the text. In a seminar on picturebooks and the practice of literacy, my students, a collection of pre- and in-service teachers, appreciated these voices, noting that they grounded the abundant theory from which Roche draws. The extensive list of picturebooks also is a valuable resource. Since many of these books are still in print, it is possible to bring copies to class for discussions, thus allowing deeper immersion in her ideas. Moreover, the framework that Roche proposes using with picturebooks can also be transferred to academic texts, including hers.

Reflecting her critical framework onto this text reveals one weakness in Roche’s book: a lack of definitions for particular terms and ideas. For example, Roche writes, “when we are using picturebooks to stimulate dialogue and critical thinking we need to be aware, however, that there are particular skills and dispositions we are seeking to develop and nurture in children” (107). Roche does not expand or define what “particular skills and dispositions we are seeking,” so this may belie an assumption that we readers are bound in a unified vision of teaching literacy with “high quality literature.” Unpacking these terms and naming particularities would have been an interesting exercise in Roche’s own self-reflection and may have revealed bias toward certain types of literature, reading, and readers. Roche also privileges reading books without questioning the social and cultural values that are reinforced by adopting this probook stance. These generalizations and assumptions overlook the complexity of identity and may limit ways to consider how categories of difference, especially around race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality are taken up and appropriated in literature. The book teeters on the brink of white privilege including the blonde-haired child on the front cover, but perhaps this final critique is an example of situational and contextualized responses to literature: Roche lives in Thurles, Ireland, a very different world from my location in Philadelphia, PA.

On the whole, the book lives up to its promise to be an accessible text to “show students and class teachers how they can enable their pupils to become critical thinkers through the medium of picturebooks” (backcover), and it is a potential catalyst for any classroom. Roche has assembled an abounding collection of resources on critical theory, literacy instruction, and picturebooks, and she provides children’s literature and literacy educators at all levels with tools to integrate critical literacy practices into their practice. [End Page 260]

Developing Children S Critical Thinking Through Picturebooks: A Guide for Primary and Early Years Students and Teachers4.45 · Rating details ·  11 Ratings  ·  5 Reviews

This accessible text will show students and class teachers how they can enable their pupils to become critical thinkers through the medium of picturebooks. By introducing children to the notion of making-meaning together through thinking and discussion, Roche focuses on carefully chosen picturebooks as a stimulus for discussion, and shows how they can constitute an accessiThis accessible text will show students and class teachers how they can enable their pupils to become critical thinkers through the medium of picturebooks. By introducing children to the notion of making-meaning together through thinking and discussion, Roche focuses on carefully chosen picturebooks as a stimulus for discussion, and shows how they can constitute an accessible, multimodal resource for adding to literacy skills, while at the same time developing in pupils a far wider range of literary understanding.

By allowing time for thinking about and digesting the pictures as well as the text, and then engaging pupils in classroom discussion, this book highlights a powerful means of developing children s oral language ability, critical thinking, and visual literacy, while also acting as a rich resource for developing children s literary understanding. Throughout, Roche provides rich data and examples from real classroom practice.

This book also provides an overview of recent international research on doing interactive read alouds, on what critical literacy means, on what critical thinking means and on picturebooks themselves.

Lecturers on teacher education courses for early years or primary levels, classroom teachers, pre-service education students, and all those interested in promoting critical engagement and dialogue about literature will find this an engaging and very insightful text.


Paperback, 210 pages

Published August 6th 2014 by Routledge (first published January 1st 2014)

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