Resources for Teaching Languages to Children


How to Develop a Theme from a Picture Book Step by Step

PICTURE BOOKS ARE A WONDERFUL WAY TO INTEGRATE LANGUAGE IN CONTEXT in our foreign language classes while being engaging and fun at the same time! I also like that they are forms of literature, meaning they are not a story designed specifically for language learning, but rather are created to delight the reader, make them think, reinforce morals and social mores, etc (something I also try to do when I write my mini books!). This inherent aspect of a picture book (or poem!) gives it additional oomph in my opinion, and a deeper purpose beyond the language learning process.... one of the first filters I pass a book through. The challenging part, of course, is in how to take a picture book and turn it into a quality lesson and/or theme that both harnesses it's inherent value and is comprehensible for your students. Here are the steps I take when adapting a picture book to my elementary Spanish classes:

How to Develop a Theme from a Picture Book in FLES classes Step by Step

1) CHOOSING A BOOK: The primary consideration, of course, is the book. When considering books, I first look to those inherent qualities mentioned above-does it have a larger message? does it open a perspective on culture? does it inform on non fiction content? These are not final criteria, but they definitely weigh in my decision. I am also considering language goals- I typically look for books that feature repetition and/or a concrete story line. Repetition helps keep the new word count down, thereby increasing the comprehensibility of the story. I'm not looking to overwhelm my students with new words, but rather give them easy access to enjoying the story. A concrete storyline, one with simple actions, also provides greater entry as these are more easily acted out/ mimed by you as you read the book. Since I teach 90% in the target language, I am looking for a lesser need to translate as opposed to a greater one. Again, these are features of my mini books, also- the more accessible you can make a story, the better, especially for novice learners!

2) BACKWARDS PLANNING: Once I have a book in mind, I need to decide what my end goals are for the theme itself. This includes skills and culture that I want my students to acquire by the end of the theme. This also helps me hone in on the key words & phrases I will be highlighting during the theme. See my post on Identifying Key Vocabulary here! For the above book, Abejoso (link here), my learning goals are (for a Multiage class Kinder-2nd grade):
-Students will identify the onomatopeya bees make in Spanish. (culture)
-Students will be able to describe main characters in book using simple, learnt phrases (Norman the bear, Amelia the bee, the Queen bee, and the scary bear) (speaking)
-Students will be able to match key emotions phrases with illustrations (listening comprehension)
-Students will be able to match main storyline phrases with illustrations (listening comprehension)

And, here is a refined framing of these goals for kids' consumption:

-DISCOVER: Do all bees say 'buzz buzz'?
-SHARE: We all have feelings. How does Norman feel? How do the bees feel? How do I feel when ____?

It doesn't seem like a lot at first blush, or at least not to me, until you remember the theme will last approximately 6 weeks, or 6 hours total. I will not be assessing all of the above, and not for all grade levels in the multiage classroom (Kindergarten is only assessed on Work Habits)

3) ALTERING THE TEXT: Now I go through the book and determine whether and where I need to alter the text. It is rare that I use the text of a picture book unchanged; too often the text is more complicated than my students can understand, or paring down the text just makes sense to be able to provide a concrete storyline. I try hard not to lose the essence of the story, however! The little details that make a picture so enjoyable to read are integral to the motivational factor of your students, and contribute to that emotional connection that comes along with a good read. I am also keeping my end goals in mind as I pare down the language.

One way to simplify the language is to turn it from 3rd person to 1st person. This eliminates the extra narrative vocabulary that might be more challenging for a novice learner to understand, and allows you (and the students) to act out the lines more easily. You can see in the photos below how I took lines from the book 'Abejoso' and changed them to 1st person, along with other examples. I even changed my mind half way through on one of them! NOTE: I use stickie notes to begin with, but create a 'master script' once I have all the lines I want.

Altering Picture Book Text to Make it more Comprehensible for Foreign Language Class

4) CREATING PROPS: I really like to have props to go along with any story, so with a picture book I use a color copier to copy the key illustrations from the story and turn them into stick puppets. This allows us to do a number of activities related to the story, including listening comprehension checks, acting out and retelling. (Before the advent of a readily available color printer, I used to buy multiple copies of a book and take apart the extra ones to make into props- sacrilegious, I know, but man, it works!)

5) SEEK OUT RESOURCES: Since I anticipate doing a variety of activities related to the story, but not about the story itself, such as songs, games, etc, I like to seek out additional resources to support my overall goals. For example, I found a song featuring a bee and the onomatopeya 'zu zu', perfect for reinforcing this cultural component. I also found a math activity using Tangram hexagons which work perfectly as the cells of a hive. We will also be planting flowers in my classroom with the intention of providing food for the bees on our playground once the weather warms, because of course they would say 'Tengo hambre' (I'm hungry)....a tie in with the emotions phrases we will be practicing. :)

6) TIME TO READ!: From this point onward, I've prepared the book,props and other activities, so it is a matter of teaching the theme, starting with the book. I usually begin with a picture walk, though I don't want to give away too much of the story, so I might only do a walk with the first few pages, highlighting key characters and the "problem" presented- in this case, Norman the bear, the bees, and Norman's love of honey that is very hard to get. Using yes/no, either/or questions I can build on vocabulary they already know prior to reading the whole story. Typically I will read a story multiple times over the course of a theme, allowing for practice and also for kids to take turns being various characters (a subtle way to get more practice in!). Once I've read the story, I go back and answer comprehension questions, again starting with yes/no, either/or type, adding in more complex questions for the 2nd graders in the group (What color is __?, What size is he/it? Do you like ___? and so on, again to build on what they know). I pass out the props and read through again, having kids raise their part when we get to it. We also use the props to order the story, and to associate key phrases with the parts represented. In this particular book, the emotions phrases are not originally part of the storyline, so I have copied those pages which work well with the phrases I want to highlight, and we will match talking bubbles to the pictures so the characters are "saying" them.

7) TYING IT ALL TOGETHER: Every theme needs a wrap up, an activity or a debrief that brings it to a close. In this instance, I would like my students to extract the bigger message of the story, which is related to friendship:

-BRIGHTEN: Who can be a friend? What makes a friend?

What are your favorite picture books to use in class? Here's a short list of some others I have used in my Spanish and Russian classes:

-La Oruga Muy Hambrienta (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) by Eric Carle
-Oso pardo, oso pardo, ¿Qué ves ahí? (Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?) by Eric Carle
-Salta, ranita, salta (Jump, frog, jump) by Robert Kalan
-En aquel prado (Over in the meadow) -a traditional rhyme
-Un alce, 20 ratones (One moose, 20 mice)- Barefoot Books
-El gato gordinflón (Fat Cat)
-Nico y los lobos feroces (Nico and the ferocious wolves)- Valery Gorbachev
-Репка (The turnip)-traditional Russian folktale
-Колобок (The pancake)- traditional Russian folktale
-Курочка ряба (Speckled Hen)- traditional Russian folktale


  1. Great post, Julie! I love using picture books as the basis for a unit, and I love how you've laid out your process here. My favorites are definitely The Very Busy Spider (animals! action words! so much repetition!), Bears on Chairs (my favorite for the very first unit with new learners - sharing! friendship! numbers! colors! sizes!), and The Other Bears (culture! empathy! global mindset! friendship! likes/dislikes!).

  2. Thanks Sara! I don't know Bears on Chairs, so thank you so much for the recommendation, I will have to check it out!! ~Julie