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5 Ways To Use Book Illustrations

5 Ways To Use Book Illustrations

When we think about reading, the first thing that comes to mind is text.  That is, after all, what reading is, decoding text, or written symbols, to decipher meaning.  However when we read to children, their books are filled with bright, colourful illustrations to accompany all that text.  And that is significant. It is significant because all that visual information supports reading by helping children to make sense of what the words are saying.

But how can you use that visual information to support your child’s learning?  Below, we share 5 tips for using the illustrations in a book to help your child develop their comprehension skills, their pre-reading skills, and a lifelong love of reading.

1. Before you start reading a book, discuss the illustration on the front cover.

This is a good way to strengthen comprehension and prediction skills.  Sit with the book closed and spend time with your reader looking at and discussing the images on the cover.  Ask your reader what they think the book might be about based on these pictures.  Why do they think that?

If it’s an old favourite, ask them what the story is about and then ask them to show you “what on the front cover helps show you what the story might be about” (i.e., it's about a bunny moving and I can see the bunny rabbit and his suitcase).  The familiarity of the story means they are more likely to connect the image with the known interpretation, boosting their confidence as well as their visual comprehension.  Then when they come to an unfamiliar story, they are then more likely to have a go predicting what the book might be about.

Be sure to round this discussion out by checking back in at the end of the book. Was their prediction right?  Knowing what happens in the story, does the cover illustration make more sense now? It doesn’t matter if they don’t get it spot on.  Be positive and focus on any correct predictions or their effort in having a go.  It’s a skill that will be developed with consistent practice. And let's face it some book covers don’t give much away!

2. Whilst reading, point out something interesting in the illustrations and ask your reader “What else can you see?”

This is a fun way to help strengthen the building blocks your reader needs to develop their visual processing skills.  The ability to focus on a single object in a busy image, to identify an object based on its name or description and to identify an object from a partial or incomplete image are all important early reading skills.

Find an illustration that has a bit going on in it.  I tend to favour illustrations of my boys favourite parts of a story, as that’s when I find they’re most engaged.  Pause your reading and point out something reasonably obvious in the picture.  Encourage them to show you something they can see and to tell you what it is.  If they point out something they don’t know the name of, identify it for them.  Don’t be afraid to stay with an illustration for some time, if your child is engaging with it.  Let them show you what they can see and what they know.  

Don’t be discouraged if they don’t engage.  Point out two or three things you can see, and continue with the story.  Or pick an obvious illustration that clearly depicts the scene. Read the start of the sentence and pause, ask your reader “what do you think is going to happen?” Point to the illustration that is demonstrating what is happening. 

3. When introducing new words to your reader, show them the meaning of the words using the illustrations where you can.

Never shy away from teaching your reader new words.  Reading is a fabulous way to do this, as the illustrations often provide the perfect example to help your child link the word with the item or action.  When you come across a word your reader doesn’t know, read the whole sentence before pausing to look at the illustration.  Repeat the sentence, this time pointing out the relevant illustration to your reader.  Place emphasis on the new word and focus on the part of the illustration depicting it.  Don’t be surprised if it takes a few repetitions before they fully understand the meaning of a new word or phrase.

And this isn’t just helpful for learning new words. Pointing out illustrations of words your reader already knows helps cement their understanding of the word and its connection to the world.  The stronger their understanding of what they already know, the greater their capacity will be for learning something new.

4. Look at the illustrations and ask your child, “Where is the…?”

This is a great question to ask your reader.  It helps strengthen their connection between words and objects, building their comprehension, and helps develop their visual processing skills.  Both of these are important pre-reading skills.

When first incorporating this question into your reading routine, start with something obvious and central to the story.  Something that is going to be reasonably easy to find.  One of the characters or an everyday object they are closely familiar with are good ideas.  As your reader becomes more confident, move to more obscure items that may only appear once in the book.

You don’t have to limit this to after you’ve finished reading.  I like to make this a bit of a game with my boys.  If we’ve stopped to have a look at an illustration, I’ll often say “I can’t see a … here”, or “there’s no …”.  My boys love being able to teach or correct their mum about something.

5. After reading a book, ask your reader which was the best illustration and why?

This question provides so much insight into how your reader is understanding and interpreting the story.  It’s also a great way to start a conversation about the book, as your reader gets to talk about their opinions, rather than having to answer with facts.  Allow your reader to provide as much explanation as they want.

Flip back through the book to have another look at the illustrations.  If they like more than one, compare the different pages and decide which one you like more and why.  If they don’t know or can’t put their thoughts into words, show them yours and explain why you like it.  If they’re still not ready to share, try again another time with a different book.

Providing your reader the opportunity to voice their opinions will empower them to feel involved and interested in the reading experience, making it an enjoyable time for them, and something they are more likely to want to continue doing.

Bonus Tip

If your little reader isn’t ready to answer your questions, answer for them with what you think and why, using the illustrations in your explanation.  They will eventually start to answer your questions themselves, so by providing them with examples of how those back and forth conversations go, you’re helping build their early comprehension and visual processing skills from the very beginning. As they say children learn from watching and listening to you. 

Illustrations and visual imagery are a key part of children’s literature for a variety of reasons.  Yes, the brightly coloured illustrations help grab and retain the interest of young children for whom the words may have little meaning.  But they have an important role in helping develop key pre-reading skills in all readers.  From comprehension to visual processing to pure enjoyment, use those illustrations as part of your reading time to help your child grow into a keen and curious book-lover.


Do you love spending time looking at the illustrations when you read to your kids?  We'd love to hear how you incorporate these in your reading time!

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