You probably have a couple of wordless picture books in your primary classroom library. I’m betting that they are not the books you reach for in a pinch when you want to do a read-aloud, or when you need a great mentor text to share with your students. I’d like to suggest that you take another look at those wordless books. Don’t be afraid! You can use them to support literacy in your classroom at all levels, and your students will benefit in a myriad of ways.


What are wordless books?

Wordless books are picture books that rely entirely on illustrations to tell a story. Labeled books also fall into this category. These are books that are almost wordless— having one word, phrase, or sentence per page. Wordless books can be fiction or nonfiction.


Why wordless books?

Wordless books can be enjoyed by all levels of emergent readers. Most of them are designed for primary-aged children. They encourage children to apply critical visual literacy skills, which are important for today’s focus on visual images. Wordless books provide scaffolds for storytelling, vocabulary use and fluency, and language learning. Opportunities for creative dialogue and characterization abound when children “read” these stories.

Navigating a wordless book reinforces many of the behaviors necessary for reading one with words, such as identifying the front and back, page turning, reading left to right and top to bottom, and enjoying the page-to-page unfolding of the story. Judith Lysaker and Elizabeth Hopper, in their 2015 article in The Reading Teacher, suggest that children’s emergent reading of wordless books provides a context for practicing strategies very much like what they will use when they begin to read print. These strategies may include searching, cross-checking, self-correction, and rereading.


How should I use wordless books?

Introducing the Book

Your emergent readers will be entertained and interested as you model “reading” a wordless book. It will serve your students well if you help them differentiate between a description and a “reading” of the book. Starting with a prompt like “What do you see?” will lead to discussions of the images that will help students outline the story and identify the characters and actions. For the second reading, model going through all of the pictures and inventing a narrative and/or dialogue. Use the point of view that you want your students to use in their retells.


Interpret Character’s Feelings

Since there is limited, or no textual support for students to use when interpreting the characters’ feelings in wordless books, modeling close “reading” of the character’s facial expressions, gestures, and actions is important. Thinking aloud as you interpret character’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions will give your students a strategy to emulate as they infer the characters’ motivations from the images, which is an important skill for becoming visually literate.


Vocabulary and Word Study

A lack of words doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce vocabulary or word study into your lessons. Create anchor charts that students can refer to when discussing or writing about a book. For example: character descriptions from your students, dialogue from retellings, event sequences, questions students have about the story, or lists of words that students might want to use during retellings such as settings or words for identifying items found in the images. These anchor charts will certainly provide you with plenty of vocabulary for phonological awareness, sight word, and academic word study.


Comprehension Strategies

Any comprehension strategy that you can teach using a book with words you can teach with a wordless book. The lack of text does not negate the need for students to navigate story sequence and structure, interpret elements of plot, characterization, and author’s purpose, and use inferencing and prediction to actively engage with the story. Have students use sentence frames such as “I wonder _____” to orally delve into who, what, when, where, and why questions about the story.


Storytelling

Perhaps the most intuitive activity to accompany wordless books is to have students tell the stories. A permanent record of a story retell is useful for assessment purposes, as well as gratifying for the students. The sense of authorship and the reading experiences that can be gleaned from a transcripted retelling are both positive and useful. This can be facilitated with primary students in several ways. Students can dictate their renditions of the stories to a teacher or volunteer. They can record themselves on tablets, computers, or video.

These retellings can be written on post-its and directly put in the books, or word-processed and illustrated to become new books. For emergent readers and writers, using Cloze sentences for students to fill-in on written retellings gives them opportunities to participate in the transcription process without the expectation that they will be writing the entire thing.


Imagination

Imagination is an important part of the process when students interpret visual narratives. There is really no right or wrong to reading a wordless book. Emergent readers will tell a wordless story based on their levels of understanding of story structure and countless other variables. Allow students to construct their own interpretations, and give them the freedom to return to wordless books and completely change or add to their retellings.


You Can Do It!

Begin with the skills necessary to tell a story or narrative. Add a second layer of visual literacy. Sprinkle in comprehension elements such as inferencing, setting, sequencing, characterization, plot, and author’s purpose. Mix this up with book handling behaviors and word study, and you have a literary dish that will delight your students and help you authentically reach your reading objectives.


References

Lysaker, Judith, and Elizabeth Hopper. 2015. “A Kindergartner’s Emergent Strategy Use During Wordless Picture Book Reading.” The Reading Teacher 68(8): 649-657.