Wordless Books and How to Use Them

image of several wordless picture books
“Wordless book” sounds like a contradiction. But wordless books use illustrations to tell a story, with very few or even no words included with the pictures. Believe it or not, they can actually be a great way to help anyone trying to grow their reading skills, no matter their age or what languages they speak at home.

One important part of reading is decoding the shapes of letters and seeing them as words, but there are other skills that are just as important. Learning to read in any language involves:

  • knowing what words mean (vocabulary),
  • figuring out how they make sense together in a sentence (context), and 
  • understanding what sentences mean all together (comprehension).

Wordless books can be great tools for growing and strengthening all three of those skills for new and more experienced readers, including for a wide variety of reader ages. You can see some examples of this in these videos in English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese, showing ways to read the book Draw! by Raúl Colón.

When there aren’t written words to rely on for a story, readers can become active characters in the story and talk more about what’s happening in the illustrations. Adults and teens use a lot of unusual words that don’t come up in regular, daily conversations to describe the setting and characters and to ask questions about what is going on. Children flex their creativity and observation muscles as they look at and think about the illustrations. They practice asking questions and coming up with answers as they figure out what is happening and what might happen next. Together you can decide what characters are saying and thinking or even make up your own stories based on what the readers see and interpret. All of that literacy development happens with no written words at all.

Whether you regularly use wordless books in your family reading or are just getting started, here are some ideas:

  • Remember there are no right or wrong ways to read a wordless book! It’s all about the conversations between kids and caregivers, and those will be different from reading to reading and kid to kid.
  • Think about first taking a “story walk” through the book. Look through the pages to get children used to the book and the illustrations. We all know kids love reading books over and over again!
  • Try taking a look at the book from cover to cover. Sometimes artists hide fun details on the front/back cover, the title page, and even under the removable paper cover that comes with some books (usually called a dust jacket or dust cover).
  • Maybe ask questions like “what do you see?” and “what is going on in this picture?” and “what do you see that makes you say that?” (borrowed from Visual Thinking Strategies)
  • Encourage children to tell the story in their own words and help them learn new words  when they ask for more information about  an emotion or concept. Example: “yes, that duck looks angry and sad. Do you know what that feeling is called? Some people call it frustration, like when you’re sad you don’t get to do something and you’re mad about it, too.”
  • Have fun with it!

For some great, inclusive wordless book suggestions, take a look at the booklist Wordless (or mostly wordless) books for all ages, including some for teens and even adults. 

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