The best picture books for ESL young learners, and what to do with them
Summary: The top children's books for practising typical EFL language points, with interactive classroom activities for each picture book.
After around 20 years and hundreds of hours using picture books with students from two to ten, I have a collection of a couple of hundred picture books, of which there are about 100 which I would probably use in my ESL classes again. This article is a list of the books in that collection which I use most often, with my preferred activities for each one. Language points that you can teach with the books and activities below include:
- actions/ movements
- body parts
- character/ personality
- days of the week
- first conditional
- furniture/ household vocabulary
- nature vocabulary/ natural world vocabulary
- past tenses (Past Simple and Past Continuous)
- personal questions
- polite language
- possessives (possessive S and possessive adjectives)
- prepositions of movement
- prepositions of position/ prepositions of location
If you can’t get hold of a copy of the book below, you can often find YouTube videos of them being read by someone else, or you can do the activities described below with different books. This list should also serve as a more general guide to how picture books can be used in the ESL classroom.
The top 40 picture books for ESL classes
Where’s Spot by Eric Hill (a great interactive way of introducing or practising prepositions of position, household vocabulary such as furniture, and animals, opening flaps to look for puppy who is hiding)
Elicit where Spot’s mother should look on each page (e.g. “under the bed”), elicit if the animal in that place is Spot the Dog or not, and elicit what animal is actually there. After reading the whole book, you can hide a little photocopied Spot the Dog elsewhere in the book such as in the piano to search for in the same way.
Blue Hat Green Hat by Sandra Boynton (a really simple and amusing intro to clothes and colours as one character wears the wrong clothes or clothes the wrong way on each page)
Get students to describe and/ or point at the clothes, say “Oops” when they have described clothes that are using in the wrong way, and then perhaps explain why the clothes are wrong.
Me Myself by Mikiko Nakamoto and Hideko Kakegawa (basic personal information such as name, age, family and hometown, feelings opposites, and character opposites, all used as an eight-year old girl introduces herself)
Get students to give the same personal information about name, age, family and hometown about themselves after the girl in the book does so. In the body of the book, elicit and/ or get students to mime the “Sometimes I’m…, sometimes I’m…” opposites sentences from the pictures on each pair of pages, then get them to mime the same things into the mirror on the last page.
Opposites by Robert Crowther (nice pop up practice of opposites, with both opposites produced by the same picture at the wheel is turned, tag is pulled, etc)
Get students to guess the opposites as they open the flaps etc that make the pictures change.
From Head to Toe by Eric Carle (body parts, animals and movements, great for TPR as each animal has its own action)
Get students to do the actions for each animal so far each time, with names of actions and/ or names of animals as prompts, until they are acting out a huge chain of animal actions by the end of the book (perhaps skipping some pages if the whole lot would be too many).
What’s Inside? The Alphabet Book by Satoshi Kimura (alphabet and phonics, with great picture hints of what the object for the next letter will be, which give enough of a hint but aren’t too obvious)
Get students to guess the two letters and objects starting with those letters on the next two pages, then find those things when you turn the page.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (days of the week and food, following a caterpillar as it eats everything in preparation for making a cocoon and turning into a butterfly, with holes through each page to show where the caterpillar has eaten)
Get students to say the next day of the week, perhaps guess what food the caterpillar might eat next and then describe the food being eaten, perhaps putting their finger through or threading something through the hole in each food.
Brrr by Mariam Lim (a really amusing and easy intro to clothes vocabulary, plus some weather vocabulary such as “cold” and “hot”, where a boy who is feeling cold puts on more and more clothes until he suddenly feels hot)
Get students to say each “I’m still cold” and “Put on your…” line from the picture prompts. After reading, perhaps make up similar stories with different clothes vocabulary such as “jacket”, “mittens” and “cap” and/ or do the same story backwards with the mother telling the boy to take off more and more clothes until he feels cold again.
A Beautiful Butterfly by Mikiko Nakamoto (colours and food, like a simplified version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with the caterpillar eating one food for each colour that they will have on their butterfly wings)
Get students to guess which colours of foods the caterpillar might eat and/ or what food the caterpillar will eat for each colour, then find all the colours its wings when it becomes a butterfly. After reading, students could make up a similar story with different colours and/ or foods.
A Teddy Bear by Mikiko Nakamoto and Hideko Kakegawa (a nice simple story for body parts and maybe prepositions, as an abandoned teddy on a rubbish tip is put back together)
Get students to say which body parts are where when the bear is lying broken up in the rubbish dump, which body parts have been put back on in each picture, and where the tail should go and/ or if the tail is in the right place in the last picture.
Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley (facial body parts, colours and some shapes, as the face of scary monster is put together and then taken away bit by bit)
Get students to describe the colour, shape and/ or body part that appear as the face comes together and then say goodbye to each part of the monster’s face as they disappear in the second half of the book (as full sentences like “Goodbye white teeth”).
Colours by Robert Crowther (colours and many different objects, with many different flaps etc on each page)
Get the students to brainstorm as many things as they can of each colour and then identify the things that appear as they open the flaps, pull the tags, etc.
Excuse Me! by Karen Katz (basic polite functional language like “Please” and “Sorry”, also useful for classroom language)
Get students to answer the questions about what polite language is suitable in the situation on each page before you turn the page and check. After reading, students could make up similar questions and answers with the same or different polite functional language like “Bless you”.
Pal the Parrot by Mikiko Nakamoto and Hideko Kakegawa (basic personal information, name etc, with a nice natural context for getting students to sometimes repeat what you say and sometimes actually answer the questions, as a parrot repeats everything instead of answering the questions properly)
Get students to guess what the parrot will say by repeating what the boy says each time. After reading, you could read again and get the students to answer the questions properly and/ or play a repeating game such as listening carefully and repeating statements but answering questions (like a kind of Simon Says).
Fast-Slow High-Low by Peter Spier (opposites and lots of vocabulary)
Elicit the opposites on each two-page spread, then get students to say and/ or point at combinations between those words and the objects on the pages (“long tail”, etc). After some time on that, get students to identify what is wrong on the last page where the monkey has a short tail etc.
Harold’s ABC by Crockett Johnson (alphabet and phonics, as Harold draws objects through the alphabet to go on an adventure and then to get back home)
Elicit the next letter of the alphabet and what Harold will and does draw, then perhaps make up a different story with different objects for each letter of the alphabet.
I Spy A to Z by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick (alphabet and phonics, with a few objects for each letter of the alphabet mixed up with lots of distractors)
Cover the pictures and maybe words on the left-hand page before you start. Get students to find objects for each letter of the alphabet in the mix of things in the picture on the right-hand page, revealing the words and perhaps pictures on the left-hand page if they need help.
Ketchup on your Cornflakes by Nick Sharratt (nice interactive book for Do you like? and some prepositions, as students turn the upper and lower halves of the page to make good and bad combinations like rubber duck in the bath and ketchup on your head)
Get students to turn the upper and lower halves of the pages to make nice or disgusting combinations and ask each other “Do you like… on/ in your…?”, then make similar questions with their own ideas, perhaps also with pictures.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond (first conditional, with a nice round story of the consequences of giving a mouse a cookie)
Elicit the endings to the “If you… the mouse…, he will…” sentences, probably using the pictures to help. Students can then make a similar story with the same situation, different situations (“If you give a mouse your roller skates” etc), and/ or different animals (“If you give a rhino…”). If you choose the situation of one of the other stories in this series (e.g. “If you give a cat a cupcake”), you can then look at that story.
Opposites 1 by Ariko Hirose (opposites, with very simple presentation pages but then two nice revision pages with lots of examples to find in a detailed – but not too detailed – picture)
Ask students to find pairs of all the opposites presented so far in the complex pictures on the review pages.
Is it Dark? Is it Light? by Mary D. Lankford (opposites, with negative answers and opposites used to give more and more clues about what is being described until the moon is revealed on the last page)
Students answer “Is it…?” questions with “No, it’s…” and the opposite adjective, reading from the book if they can’t guess the opposite, then finally guess what is being described.
Our Sweet Home by Mikiko Nakamoto (animals and prepositions of position, with small creatures explaining where they live hidden in the landscape, with a nice simple environmental message)
Students guess where the animal is and what kind of animal it is, then describe where it actually is and what it actually is in the picture on the next page.
Ten Beads Tall by Pam Adams (numbers 1 to 10 and dimensions such as “high” and “wide” – and maybe “higher” and “widest” – with a nice variety of things to measure with the beads given, some of which are more difficult to guess than others)
Students guess how big the things in the book are or guess which things are each size, then measure with the attached beads to check.
Ten Seeds by Ruth Brown (numbers 1 to 10 backwards, with a nice circular plot as the seeds are eaten etc but the plant which grows from the last seed makes ten new seeds)
Students identify what is making the seeds disappear on each page, count the remaining seeds, then maybe guess what will happen on the next page.
The Grumpy Ladybird/ The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle (times and animals, with a bad-tempered ladybird threatening bigger and bigger animals until a whale teaches him a lesson and sends him back to where he started)
Students say what time it is and who the ladybird is challenging to a fight on each page, plus maybe repeat the ladybird’s “Do you want a fight?” line and the other animals’ replies.
What's the Time Mr Wolf? by Annie Kubler (times, with a finger puppet wolf to say the traditional “It’s… o’clock” and “It’s dinner time” lines and/ or try to eat the people listening)
Students identify the time, chant “What’s the time Mr Wolf?” and the answer on each page, and maybe take turns using the finger puppet, leading onto playing the real “What’s the Time Mr Wolf?” chasing game if you have enough room in your school.
Suddenly by Colin McNaughton (Past Continuous, with the story of a pig who is nearly eaten by a wolf in each situation but escapes through sheer luck and without even realising he’s in danger)
Students identify what suddenly happened in each situation. After reading, they could match the two halves of “He was… ing” + “when suddenly…” sentences on a worksheet and/ or make up similar stories.
Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett (clothes and animals, with odd and amusing combinations such as a giraffe with too many ties)
Students identify the animal and clothes on each page, and maybe make a comment on the unsuitability of each combination – maybe just answering “No” to “Is that okay?” or actually making or reading sentences explaining the problems with each one. After reading the book, they could make their own similar pictures and/ or stories with different unsuitable combinations of clothes and animals.
The Secret Birthday Message by Eric Carle (shapes, with a boy reading a mysterious message with black shapes in the place of some words and then following the instructions to find a puppy)
You will need to change the text a little to make more shapes vocabulary, as you read it out or beforehand, but can elicit first the shapes and then what each one really is, get students to guess what boy’s gift is at the end of the book, then maybe make up similar stories.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury (prepositions of movement “over”, “under” and “through” and nature words such as “mud”, with a surprisingly good plot for such a simple story and an accompanying chant)
Elicit the thing that is in the way on each page, get students to chant the “We can’t go…” parts, then do the actions and make sound effects as the family go through each thing.
Now I Eat My ABC’s by Pam Abrams or Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert (alphabet, phonics and food, with food for each letter from A to Z)
Maybe cover all the words in the book with Post-It notes before you start, elicit food names for each letter of the alphabet, show the page for more ideas, then uncover the names on the page to help, perhaps skipping the more difficult and obscure vocabulary. After reading, students could make more foods on Post It notes to add to the book, make a similar whole book together with topics such as food more generally or animals, and/ or play a guessing game where the first letter is the first clue to what is being described.
Naughty Little Monkeys by Jim Aylesworth (alphabet and phonics, with 26 badly behaved monkeys doing something naughty starting with the first letter of their name)
Elicit what the monkey is doing and/ or the monkey’s name for the letter of the alphabet on each page, then perhaps elicit different naughty things or good behaviour for each letter of the alphabet.
Fortunately by Remy Charlip (Past Simple, with a nice simple repetitive structure of good and bad things happening, and a satisfyingly unexpected ending)
Elicit “Fortunately” or “Unfortunately” on each page depending on whether the situation is good or bad, perhaps get them to guess what happens next, and elicit key words to help describe what happens such as the Past Simple verb in each sentence. Then perhaps give them similar sentences to complete on a worksheet after finishing the book.
Whose Mouse are You? by Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego (basic family words and possessives, both possessive S and possessive adjectives, with a simple but satisfying story of a mouse seeking out his missing family)
During reading elicit how the mouse is feeling and where the family members are in the first half of the book, and who each person is in the second half of the book. Then after reading elicit missing possessive forms such as “mother’s” from “My _______ mouse, she loves me so”.
Polar Bear Polar Bear What Do You Hear? (animals and animal noises, with each animal being asked what other animal it hears, which is revealed on the next page)
Get students to guess the next animal from the sound that the teacher makes before turning the page to check, then get students to chant “animal name, animal name, what do you hear?” with the name of the animal on that page before the teacher makes the next sound.
Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow (numbers 1 to 5, counting down backwards, based on the well-known children’s song but with a nice surprise ending as mother also jumps on the bed)
Sing the Five Little Bears Jumping on the Bed song together with “monkey” instead of “bear”, perhaps doing actions with that many fingers of your right hand jumping up and down on the palm of your left hand, as you read the book.
Bear and Tutter’s Big and Little ABCs (alphabet and phonics, with both small and large pages to turn with little things like “bead” with the lower case letters and big things like “elephant” with the upper case ones)
Elicit little things starting with each letter to go with each lower case letter and big things to go with each upper case letter, then turn the little and large page to check. To add more variety and make guessing more challenging, you can mix up which version of each letter you do first and/ or do a few letters of one version before going back and doing the other version of each of those letters (e.g. “a”, “b” and “c”, then “A”, “B” and “C”). After reading, you can get students to match lower and upper case letters on a worksheet with each other and with names of big and little objects, or you can get them to add more pictures to the book by drawing on Post It notes and sticking them to the right pages.
Giant Pop-Out Shapes from Chronicle Books (shapes and objects, without any guessing element but with very impressive pop out shapes that stick make opening the flaps satisfying for students)
Elicit the names of the objects on a page and what shape they all are, then let a student who said the right thing open the flap to reveal the shape. You can then do the whole book again the opposite way, starting with each flap open and eliciting objects with that shape, then closing the flap so that they can see the pictures that the flap was blocking and check. You could also get students to draw pictures on Post It notes which are the same shapes to stick to the left-hand pages.
One Green Island by Charlotte Hard (numbers 1 to 10 and animals, with more and more animals on the island on each page)
Cover the pictures and numbers on the left-hand side of the pages before you start, then on each page elicit which animal they can see which wasn’t on the last page and how many of that animal there is, and ask students to count all the animals mentioned on previous pages as they find them in the jungle and point at them.
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