How to Use Wordless Picture Books


A book without words?  It seems like an oxymoron, right?  If there are no words on the pages, is it still a book?  Can it be "read?"  Will children be challenged to think deeply when they're only looking at pictures?

Yes.  Yes to everything.

I think some teachers look past wordless books because, well, there are no words. They seem like books for little kids... for "kids who can't read yet."  And they are great for children who aren't yet reading words, but they can also be very challenging for older children who are reading and learning how to think deeply about stories.  

They're ageless.

For the little ones (ages 3-6), wordless books give children the chance to actually process and understand a book all by themselves.  They learn about sequence and about how stories are structured.  They learn early on that clues for understanding can be found in the pictures, which is a critical reading strategy to know as they begin reading text in later years.  Learning how to be a storyteller, especially when supported by an adult, is a great way to develop a rich vocabulary, and because the books are not defined by words, there are multiple opportunities to elevate language skills while building the story.  And I love how wordless picture books take time. Because there are no words, there are also no cues as to when to turn the page. Readers can take their time on each page, studying the illustrations to make sense of the story.

But how can we use them in meaningful ways with older children?  I'm talking about children in grades 1-5.  Yes, 5th grade... kids who are ten.

Interestingly, wordless books tend to level the playing field.  Text can be intimidating for a struggling reader at any grade level, yet many standards and strategies can be taught using a book without words.  In fact, you don't always need text to create higher-order questions and engage in rich literacy discussions.  Often, less proficient readers will shine during the discussions surrounding a wordless book because more competent, conventional readers tend to put a greater emphasis on the text vs. the illustrations.  It takes a great deal of questioning, inferring, and synthesis to comprehend a book without words.  (Frankly, that's why I used to be scared of them.)

These ideas are packed with the language of rigorous standards and I've watched teams of older students work hard to process a wordless book.  Read through these, grab a wordless book that appeals to you, and give it a try.  I think you'll be amazed at the cognitive load it requires and the thoughtful discussions that will take place.


Reading Ideas
  • As with any book, have the children make predictions and anticipate events of the story by reading the title and studying the cover illustrations.
  • Students can understand different perspectives as each reader (or group of readers) constructs their own storyline.  They can compare and contrast different versions, justifying and explaining their decisions.  There is no one "right way" to read a wordless book.  This makes it perfect for developing the understanding that different people will have different opinions and perspectives based on their different types of background knowledge.
  • There is an element of close reading that can occur with a wordless book because there's much discovery that takes place after repeated experiences with the book.  On the first look, just enjoy the pictures and get a sense of what the book is about.  On the second and third visits to the book, really study the pictures and notice the details the illustrator uses... notice how the pages go together... how does one page "fit" with the one just before it?  Through collaborative discussions and a close study of the book, students will rearrange their own thinking and likely have new a-ha moments, leading to a deeper understanding of the story.
  • Give children sticky notes because they will have many questions as they work to understand the story.  This is an important comprehension strategy and is in the language of many standards.  I often see more questions generated from our time with a wordless book than a book with words.  A wordless book is like a mystery... and students will likely have a lot of questions.
  • Copy the pages of a wordless book and divide the class into three groups. Give one group the beginning pages, one group the middle pages, and the other group the final pages.  Challenge each group to sequence their own pages by studying the illustrations and discussing how the pictures go together.  Then, challenge the whole class to work together to put their parts in order.  Can they tell which group has the beginning of the story? Ask, "How do you know?  What clues are you using?"  Continue, working to find the middle and the end of the story.  (This can be harder than it sounds, depending on the book you choose.)
  • And plan to talk about synthesis at some point.  Wordless books often lead readers to change their minds... sometimes more than once.
Writing Ideas
  • Wordless picture books are perfect for creating writing opportunities. Invite children to write an original story to accompany the illustrations.  It can be really interesting to let groups of students work together and then have a "Share Fair" where each group presents their final story.  Compare and contrast the different versions.
  • Using a wordless book with strong characters, challenge the children to write an original readers theater script for the book.  Students can perform while projecting the pictures electronically on a large screen for everyone to see.  As an alternative, and depending on your available technology, older children can use iMovie, Keynote, or Power Point to produce their stories.  This could lead to a fun "Film Festival."
  • Allow the children to tape record their original stories, using a "ding" to signal when to turn the pages.  Let a class with younger children borrow the book and recording for their listening center.  Older children can be very creative with this, adding in sound effects, trying different voices, and including background music. 
  • I found speech-bubble and thought-bubble shaped sticky notes at office supply stores.  Use these to help children think deeply about characters. Because there are no words in the book, invite children to place speech bubbles near characters on each page and brainstorm the dialogue they might be having.  They can write their ideas directly on the speech bubble. Again, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about how different readers have different ideas... compare and contrast these ideas.  Sometimes, a character might not be speaking (you can tell by the illustration), but may be deep in thought.  These are perfect places for your students to infer internal dialogue.  Use thought-bubbles to encourage children to write what characters may be thinking.


These sample pages are from one of my favorite wordless books, Chalk by Bill Thomson.  It's a fun story with bright illustrations and is a nice one to start with because it's not too challenging to comprehend.  My kids always like this one.


For more wordless picture book titles, see the photo at the top of the blog post.  My favorite books are pictured there and you can read the titles on the spines.  I'm always looking for new ones, though, so if you have a favorite (or you find one because now I've inspired you to at least think about wordless books... wink), let me know. 

Do you have a tip for wordless books?  

Happy teaching!  :)


14 comments:

  1. Andrea, I love this post! It is jam packed with tons of higher order thinking activities!

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    1. Thank you, Christina. Are you getting ready for Vegas?? :)

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  2. Great post, Andrea! Love the use of picture books for all grades. Jayne
    Smart Kids

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  3. I LOVE this idea! I've also heard that foreign language picture books are a good idea, too. The kids can't READ the words, so they have to tell their own stories.

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    1. Hi Laurie... that's a great idea. I had never thought of that, but it totally makes sense.

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  4. Great post!! Individual creativity will shine in this area!!

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  5. I love the idea of using thought and talk bubble Post-Its! What a wonderful post! Thanks so much for sharing!
    ~Jennifer
    STORIES AND SONGS IN SECOND

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    1. Thank you, Jennifer. I found the speech-bubble sticky notes about a year ago... we use them all the time!

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  6. I'm very happy that you found CHALK to be a useful classroom tool- I created it (and my other wordless books) for caring and creative teachers like you!
    All The Best,
    Bill

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    1. Oh my goodness... this is like a celebrity encounter. You just made my day!! Thank you so much for taking the time to write. My own kids (who are 13 and 15 now) still remember this book from when they were little. :)

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  7. I too love the book CHALK as do my students and my own children. I notice something new and different every time I read it. Thank you for the new ideas to use with CHALK!!!

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    1. You're welcome, Jedonia. I think it's such a great book. :)

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