Friday / June 14

Teaching Your English Learners with the Perfect Picture Books

Picture books are a multidimensional medium that is a rich resource for a broad range of instructional situations. But finding the right picture book can be tricky. Most book lists focus on the static text and do not incorporate the visual and experiential dimensions of picture books. We just assume that teachers will mediate a difficult text orally. But this is difficult when we teach beginner English Language Learners (ELLs) because normal on-the-spot oral language is also too difficult. The result is ELLs cannot successfully participate.

I used ‘tellability’ to find the right books for ELLs (Lado, 2012). Tellability was coined by Labov in 1972 as a way to describe the dimensions of successful conversational stories. It has made a world of difference to my ELLs because I am using a book that models the English they need to successfully participate. I have outlined below the three basic dimensions of tellability that I applied to organizing books into categories based on the needs of ELLs.

  1. Content

First, a book’s content must be accessible because without comprehension the ELL cannot access the new English. The right content of the text, visuals, or experience required me to select books about concrete subjects according to students’ ages. My list is organized by themes and by age group. For example, a counting book about numbers up to 10 is perfect for early elementary grades while one with numbers to a hundred is accessible for ELs in higher grades.

  1. Language

Second, a book’s language must be within the ELs English oral and written proficiency. I organize picture books by the amount and complexity of English not just written English. With a picture book, it might not matter if text is one 400 word sentence. The folktale, This is the House that Jack Built, is a long complex sentence but can be easy for ELs when it is presented with each new word appearing on a new page, with a concrete illustration of its meaning, and with lots of repetition. We want books with the right content to also be further selected for the right language difficulty.

  1. Style

Third, a book’s style must model the English needed for participation. English speakers seamlessly transfer between written and oral language. But ELLs need time to develop this ability. So, of the books with the right content, and right language level, I also find those with the right style. A book with tellability has contains the language that ELs need to participate. For example, a poem prompts recitation, a book with action verbs prompts Simon Says, a rich dialogue prompts reader’s theater, and so on.  I have organized books to match a dozen language teaching strategies.

Books with tellability have freed me from having to develop extra mediation activities to help ELs participate. I love teaching with them. My ELs love them, too.


Labov, W. (1972). Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English vernacular (Vol. 3). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lado, A. (2012). Teaching beginner ELLs with picture books: Tellability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. [companion web page with annotated book list]

Written by

Ana Lado is a professor at Marymount University. She taught reading in a bilingual kindergarten. She also works on a project in Pakistan that reaches remote school through radio, Broad Class-Listen to Learn. She is the author of Teaching Beginner ELLs Using Picture Books.

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