Using Picture Books with Adult ESL Learners

Apart from root canals, jury duty, and that whole overrated earn-a-living thing, what’s the worst part of adulthood? No more children’s books!

I loved reading as a child, as I would guess many of us language folks did. Later I read my favorite children’s books to my daughter and enjoyed them again that way. But she grew up, so I need another excuse to revisit the magic world of children’s literature.

Enter my ESL students.

Plenty of research affirms the value of children’s books, especially picture books, for adults learning English. With their spare text and lavish illustrations, picture books facilitate comprehension, ease anxiety in the classroom, give students a sense of mastery (they can read a whole book in English), and provide a window on American culture, or another culture.

I decided to test out that theory with my 3A class last week. That evening, the students were exhausted: several had been at work since 5 or 6 o’clock that morning. I was tired too. The assigned Ventures lesson droned on about going to a museum art exhibit in one’s leisure time — time that must have seemed like an unimaginable luxury to my students.

At 8:30 we finished the lesson and I brought out several library copies of Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, by Eileen Christelow. I wasn’t sure how this would go over. Would they be insulted by a baby book? Think anthropomorphized animals were stupid? (The book features mama monkey in a bathrobe, helping five little monkeys in polka-dot pajamas brush their teeth. You don’t get more anthropomorphized than that.) My worries were allayed when my oldest student, a studious, middle-aged Mexican man, broke into a grin. “It’s good!” he exclaimed.

Actually, the selection of the book was not random. Its text, besides being simple, is rhyming, rhythmic, and repetitious — perfect for reading aloud:

Five little monkeys jumped on the bed.
One fell off and bumped his head.
The mama called the doctor.
The doctor said,
No more monkeys jumping on the bed!

So four little monkeys jumped on the bed.
One fell off and bumped her head …

… and so on, until the last little monkey has fallen off and all have been bandaged up and tucked into bed.

Repeated, predictable language patterns are one of the features that make a book good for ESL, according to Betty Smallwood of the Center for Applied Linguistics. Other questions to ask in choosing a book:

  • Does it relate to your curriculum in terms of topic, vocabulary, or grammar?
  • Are there clear illustrations that help tell the story?
  • Does it address mature themes or convey universal messages?
  • Does it use language that is slightly beyond the level of the learners, in terms of the amount and complexity of the text?
  • Is there authentic cultural content? (Obviously, one wants to avoid cultural stereotyping, which is found in some children’s books. It’s also a good idea to avoid dialect speech, which may confuse new learners of English.)

Not every book will meet all those criteria; I can’t say that monkeys jumping on the bed conveys a universal message. It was just fun. We first read the story aloud together, then each student read a page. Afterward, we picked out some verbs from the text and talked about their regular or irregular past-tense forms (jump/jumped, fall/fell, call/called, say/said). Everyone went home in a light mood.

I’ve used children’s books with ESL adults on a couple of other occasions. In a beginning class, not at LETC, I had several construction workers with very little English. I brought in picture books of construction machinery and had each of them “read” the book to the class, pointing to each picture and telling us the name of the machine and how it works.

Clear illustrations in picture books help tell the story, as in this page from Robert McCloskey's classic "Make Way for Ducklings."

More recently, I used Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings with three young women I tutor together at LETC. The adorable ducklings won their hearts. The book was challenging for them, but it’s rich in vocabulary and has a strong story line. Afterward, one of them announced: “This book is not for children. It’s for us!”

Have you ever used children’s books with your students? What titles have worked well? Some others I’d like to try are Caps for Sale, Millions of Cats, The Story of Ferdinand, and everyone’s favorite easy reader, The Cat in the Hat.


Book Bridges for ESL Students: Using Young Adult and Children’s Literature to Teach ESL, by Suzanne Reid (Scarecrow Press, 2002)

Children’s Literature for Adult ESL Literacy, by Betty Ansin Smallwood (National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education, 1992)

This entry was posted in Using Supplemental Materials. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Using Picture Books with Adult ESL Learners

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for this article I found it really useful. I also will have a read of the resources you used to put this article together.

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