National Writing Project

Book Review: Using Picture Books to Teach Writing with the Traits: K-2

By: Janet Bassett
Date: June 10, 2010

Summary: Janet Basset, a teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma State Writing Project, discusses how this book's 150 annotations of new and classic picture books can be used with teacher-tested lesson plans to teach seven writing traits.


The publication in 1902 of Beatrix Potter's beloved The Tale of Peter Rabbit marked the inception of the modern picture story book that weds text and illustration. From that time on, picture books have grown in popularity and gained a broader audience.

With picture books becoming so prolific and so readily available for purchase, it is not an easy job to determine which titles actually represent high-quality literature.

Ruth Culham and Raymond Coutu, the authors of Using Picture Books to Teach Writing with the Traits , have assisted in this task by gathering a collection of picture books that not only are good reading but can be effectively used to teach specific writing skills to young children.

Finding Just the Right Book

As a former teacher of children in kindergarten through second grade—and currently a teacher of children's literature classes at the university level—I can relate to the arduous task of searching for and locating just the right piece of literature to not only capture the attention of the students, but also highlight a particular skill or literary element that I want to present.

Culham and Coutu have simplified this job for teachers who desire to teach the traits of ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation to young children while engaging them in a delightful experience.

Their successful efforts in selecting mentor texts to represent each of the aforementioned traits provide teachers with a variety of picture books to choose from when clarifying the process of writing for young students.

Enticing Models for the Very Young

This book demonstrates the potential for using high-quality picture books to "model the writer's craft" and "see firsthand how writing works." The authors present an annotated bibliography of over 150 children's books, complete with interesting and often humorous story summaries and ideas of how each book can be used to teach a particular writing trait, and 18 step-by-step teacher-tested lesson plans.

When helping children expand word choice, the teacher is encouraged to help the children fall in love with words.

Each lesson plan focuses on a featured picture book that highlights the uniqueness of a specific trait, and includes materials needed, instructions for teaching, and follow-up activities involving a related book that can be read and enjoyed. The annotated bibliography alone would be a worthwhile addition to any primary teacher's collection.

Reading the story summaries made me want to go out and purchase every book mentioned that I do not currently own. The bibliography is also visually pleasing, including a photo of each book jacket and candid and endearing photographs of children engaged in the writing process. I also appreciated the author and title indexes in the back of the book, which make it easy to locate favorite pieces.

Each chapter begins by succinctly describing ways in which the teacher can support young writers in developing the identified trait. For instance, when helping children expand word choice, the teacher is encouraged to help them "fall in love with words, choose precise words, and select words with color, variety, and sparkle."

The authors then give a simple definition of the qualities the students should be exhibiting if they are applying that skill in their writing efforts. This feature is a valuable tool for teachers when assessing the progress of individual children's writing and of the class as a whole.

Culham and Coutu's text is well organized, easy to read, and attractively laid out. More important, it is full of ideas to inspire, books to enjoy, and creative ways to painlessly teach writing to our youngest authors. I believe that these competent educators indeed accomplish their goal of giving teachers a resource that supports their enjoyment of high-quality literature and informs writing instruction. You won't regret adding this practical and encouraging guide to your own collection.

. . . And for the Older Kids Too

Also, don't miss Ruth Culham's companion book, Using Picture Books to Teach Writing with the Traits: Grades 3 & Up . This book is similar to the guide for K-2, expanding on the same seven traits to accommodate young authors in the upper grades. It contains more than 200 annotations of quality picture books and over 25 teacher-tested lesson plans.

According to Culham, "After adding picture books to my toolbox [for middle-school students], my students' writing improved . . . and they had a lot more fun creating it."

What in the world of young writers could be better than this?

About the Author Janet Basset, a teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, taught grades K, 1, and 2 for sixteen years, was a curriculum consultant for two years, then a principal for fifteen years. She currently teaches children's literature at the university level.

Related Resource Topics

© 2023 National Writing Project