As we’ve been working to unpack shift four of the Common Core, which calls for students to cite specific evidence to support their points and opinions about text, teachers who use picture books as “text” are wondering, “Must we transcribe the text and look only at the words, or is it okay to let them see the pictures too?”
To explore this question, we invite you to locate a copy of Peggy Rathman’s Good Night, Gorilla, or watch this teaser to get a sense of the illustrations and story. Good Night, Gorilla is about a gorilla who mischievously lets himself out of his cage at the zoo and proceeds to free the other animals from their cages. The gorilla and the other animals follow the zookeeper into the house where they make themselves comfortable until the zookeeper’s wife realizes what has happened and returns the animals to the zoo. The gorilla escapes again, this time alone with his mouse friend, and returns to the bedroom in the house to fall asleep between the zookeeper and his wife.
If you read only the 47 words of text in this book, it sounds like the closing scene of The Waltons television show from the 1970s. “Good night, Elephant. Good night, Hyena. Good night, Giraffe… .” Formulating questions that prompt children to think deeply about just these words would border on ridiculous. While we might be able to think of a question or two that would elicit an answer (What time of day is this story taking place? How many animals are at the zoo?), coming up with questions that give students a lot to think and talk about, would feel nearly impossible.
However, if you use the pictures in conjunction with the words, the work of reading closely and thinking deeply becomes infinitely more cognitively challenging. On the cover of this book you see that the gorilla has his finger to his lips indicating to the reader that perhaps he has a secret. If primary aged readers were asked, “What is the gorilla’s secret?” they might begin with an answer like “The gorilla is letting the animals out of the cages and the zookeeper doesn’t know!” If they were then asked to look again and see if they could find another secret, they’d be forced to scrutinize each page of the story looking for clues that reveal another secret. Perhaps they’d linger on the page when the animals enter the house and notice the photographs hanging on the wall of the zookeeper’s house, one of which depicts the zookeeper’s wife holding a baby gorilla. Is this the same gorilla from the story? If it is, why?
In Good Night, Gorilla, and picture books in general, the illustrations are, by definition, integral to the story. Removing the illustrations eliminates the occasion for children to practice the process of deep understanding thereby eliminating teachers’ possibilities for emphasizing multiple layers of meaning and the need to read closely. When wondering about the role of picture books and the need to transcribe stories to provide a text-only reading experience, wonder no more. The pictures aren’t an obstacle, they’re an opportunity.