The Power of Wordless Picture Books

The Power of Wordless Picture Books

A few months ago, I was at home perusing a stack of books that I was planning to share with the students in my 2nd/3rd grade classroom.  My kindergarten daughter peeked over my shoulder and nonchalantly said, “Mommy, is that a think book?” The question confused me, but I knew I needed to dig a little deeper because I could see her wheels spinning.  So I asked her to explain what she meant by think book.  She replied, “Well, because you have to think about what’s happening.” My first thought was yes, you have to think about what’s happening every time you read a book. It was then that I glanced down and realized I was reading a wordless picture book.  Now it was starting to make sense.  In her mind, reading a wordless book meant some serious thinking must be involved.  After all, there was no text to relay a message or in essence tell the story. This three-minute exchange with my daughter got me thinking about the power of wordless picture books.

Over the years, I have had many students tell me that wordless books are for children who cannot yet read. Their exact words are usually something like this: “those books are for babies because they don’t have any words.” So clearly, parents and educators have a responsibility to set the record straight and show students the beauty, and power, of wordless picture books. Perhaps my daughter can also help spread the message about these think books.   

In my opinion, wordless picture books are even more difficult to “read” than other picture books. In order to comprehend a book in this genre, children must be thorough observers and read with a very careful and thoughtful eye. Wordless picture books push the reader to summarize, make inferences, interpret and evaluate visual information, ask questions, and make connections without any support from the written word.

Young readers (pre-emergent, emergent, and early readers) can use wordless picture books to learn how the illustrations support and often drive a story. They can learn how to retell a story in their own words, which encourages creativity, imagination, language play, and vocabulary development. Wordless books also provide an easy entry for young readers to be the authors and illustrators of their very own stories. So many times we, as adults, forget just how vital pictures are to a story. Wordless books become a perfect model for explaining the significance of creating high quality illustrations and for inspiring young artists.

Older readers (fluent and transitional readers) learn how to think more deeply and critically about plot elements, the interaction among characters, cause and effect, the tone of the story, and the intended theme. These readers can add words to support the illustrations and author their own version of the story. The illustrations can become engaging writing prompts or a vehicle for making precise observations and perceptive inferences. Again, all of this learning happens without any textual support from the book.

As I was writing this post, I began browsing my own bookshelves to see which titles I might like to recommend to all of you. What I realized was this: I own A LOT of wordless picture books! I pulled all of them off the shelves and laid them out in front of me.  Then I took a moment to reflect why, over the years, I have been drawn to these books. I picked up Bluebird and remembered how my heart ached for the little boy when the other children were teasing him.  I reread Journey and remembered how it took my breath away when I turned the page and saw the little girl sailing toward that immense castle in the sky. I opened the pages of Flora and the Flamingo and giggled watching Flora mimic the movements of the flamingo – she so badly wanted to be friends. These books create true, heartfelt moments for the reader. They make us laugh, and cry, and sometimes feel at peace. All without one… single… word.  I think that’s pretty powerful.

Teaching with wordless picture books will:

  • Develop vocabulary and oral language development
  • Foster observation and critical thinking skills
  • Improve writing skills
  • Build reading comprehension skills
  • Enhance understanding of story elements (character, setting, plot, theme)
  • Promote creativity and imagination
  • Model the importance of high quality, detailed, and meaningful illustrations
  • Serve as an inspiration for a child’s own art work

Check out these wordless picture books (they’re some my personal favorites):

Looking for something to do with these books?  Try these fun activities!

  • For early readers, draw speech/thought bubbles on post it notes and write down what characters might be thinking or saying in the story.  Place the post it notes directly on the pages of the book as you read.
  • Use Post It notes to enhance observation and critical thinking skills as well as teach your students how to ask questions and make inferences.  Copy and enlarge key illustrations in the story.  Before you read the book, display these illustrations or hand them out to pairs of students.  Encourage students to use the post it notes to make observations (I see), ask questions (I wonder) and make inferences (I think) about what is happening in the illustration. As you read the book, students will naturally be drawn to these particular pages and will begin piecing together the story, asking questions, and building comprehension.
  • Ask readers to look through the illustrations and write down the story in their words.  Depending on their age and ability, have students draft strong leads, introduce characters, describe the setting, relay the sequence of events, use transition words, and consider word choice.

I’d love to hear how you use wordless picture books in your homes and classrooms!

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