Using a Picture Book to Teach Core Vocabulary, Concepts and Routines


How to Select the “Right” Picture Book:

If you are looking for a book to prepare your child for an upcoming holiday, you are in luck! At just about every change of season or approaching holiday, our local bookstores will graciously re-arrange their children’s section to highlight picture books associated with the “in” theme. And to them, I say “thank you!” This is a great opportunity for you to go spend some time looking through theme-related books. On a personal note, I first felt my first baby’s kick while perusing Valentine’s Day theme books at a Barnes & Noble!

In choosing the “right” picture book for your child, you should:

  • Look for books without too many busy pictures or distractions from the vocabulary or concepts you are targeting.
  • If your child has a favorite character from books or TV, this would be a great time to harness your child’s inherent interest in that character to help them learn a new concept.
  • Pay attention to the sequence of events depicted in the book. For instance, if you are trying to set expectations for an egg hunt, look for a book that shows an egg hunt and the key steps you’ll be trying to teach.
  • Don’t worry too much about the words the author wrote; you’re going to be re-writing them later.
  • Don’t worry if the book covers more than you’d like. You can always tape or paper clip pages together and skip over them in your reading.

Ok, you did it! Step 1: complete! Now, it’s time to head home and re-write the book.

How to Re-write a Picture Book to Meet Your Needs:

I mean no disrespect to the hard-working and extremely talented authors who write books for preschoolers. They are amazing. So many have painted beautiful and fanciful tales in our minds for generations…but the vast majority of books targeted at preschoolers these days are either too wordy or too complicated for many young children (neurotypical or with autism) to understand. In these cases, we parents as educators get to take artistic liberties to help our children understand the concepts and stories the illustrator has so lovingly depicted.

In re-writing books for young children with autism, I utilize the following core rationale:

  • Use simple language targeting *developmentally appropriate core vocabulary.
  • Use repeated phrases (see definition below) to catch children’s attention. Repetition also facilitates comprehension.
  • Embed new language forms/target words within repeated phrases to promote increased comprehension and attention.
  • Reinforce routines and concepts.

– From Facilitating Early Social Communication: From Theory to Practice, Chapter 5, by McFarlin, Rollins, Trautman, and Kerr. ***

* I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you need help identifying which words are appropriate to your child’s developmental level, please ask your child’s speech-language pathologist for help—and if they need help, send ‘em to me! You and your child’s speech-language pathologist and teachers know your child best. Choosing a core vocabulary should be an individualized decision!

A quick note on “repeated phrases”:

A “repeated phrase” is a two- to three-word chunk of language that you use on every page of the book. For example, you might begin every page of a book on egg hunts with the phrase, “It’s time for the egg hunt…”. The phrases might be repeated at each stage of the sequence.

Here’s the book I’m inventing in my mind:

It’s time for the egg hunt. Get your basket.
It’s time for the egg hunt. Look for eggs.
It’s time for the egg hunt. Eggs in the basket.
The egg hunt is finished. No more eggs.

If you find the storybook that goes with my imaginary book, I’d love to hear about it!

As I said in my previous blog post, even if your child’s typical language ability exceeds what I’ve listed above, remember that they are learning something new. Learning something new is hard for all of us. When teaching something new, your language must be simple! Repeated phrases give the child the opportunity to hear the new vocabulary words repeated over and over in a consistent fashion.

It’s Finally Time to Read the Book!

Rules of Thumb for Book Writing and Sharing:

  • Keep it simple!— use 3 to 5 words per page
  • Let them SEE it and HEAR the language—point to the picture you are talking about when you speak the vocabulary words
  • Read the book the SAME WAY every time—gluing picture symbols onto the page, or simply writing notes for yourself will help you to remember what to say
  • Skip over any pages in the book that are unnecessary to the vocabulary or concepts you want to focus on.
  • Speak slowly and pause frequently—this gives your child the chance to process, as well as the chance to talk about the pictures, if he’d like
  • Read the book during times when your child is relaxed and happy, when they are in a “good place” for quiet listening and calm reflection, when they are ready and able to learn.
  • Read the book at least 5 times before a “different” day or event

If you are using your picture book to get your child ready for an upcoming event or holiday, I recommend introducing your book about a week before. This will allow enough repetitions for your child to learn the words and digest the concepts before the “different day” is upon them.

Enjoy being the author of your child’s own story!

***Note: Many of the concepts explained above may be found in Facilitating Social Communication: From Theory to Practice by Pamela Rollins, MS, CCC/SLP, Ed.D. Chapter 5, which I am the first author of, contains example curriculum units for a variety of themes. Each curriculum unit provides an example book written in language appropriate to an emerging communicator, picture symbols for the book, and example activities associated with the book and theme.

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