Books Without Words: Wordless Picture Books

When we suggest reading a book without words, some parents are aghast. Not because they don’t want to read a book without words, but because they are not quite sure what to do with them, or where the value lies in them.

A wordless book is one that tells a story through art and illustrations.

Artists and illustrators create characters’ personalities through pictures alone, using facial expressions, colour and body language to convey thoughts and feelings they want the reader to identify. Emotion is also shown through the context of pictures. The size of an image affects how the reader might respond to a character, as does the size of the character within the image, and lighting and colour also play a critical part in communicating to the reader. All of these different elements provide wonderful opportunities for talk with your child, for them to interpret these pictures as they wish – there is no right or wrong. Guiding your child’s interaction with any book, but particularly a wordless book, can support and develop rich vocabulary and offer a creative interaction with a story structure that they may not experience with more traditional books.

In child language development, there is a critical link between talk, vocabulary and comprehension. Reading with your child, answering and facilitating questions, provoking discussion and helping them explore language and stories is possibly the most impactful activity that a parent or carer can participate in.

Teachers have been using books without words as valuable tools for vocabulary and literacy development for a while now, as not only is there a wonderful range now but they engage children of all backgrounds and reading levels. They are also fantastic resources to support critical thinking, prediction and meaning making.

Consider a child who is struggling to read for any number of reasons, it may be his or her second or third language, there may be some learning difficulties, they may have phonics knowledge but not fully understand what they are reading. The child may not engage with a book that has words on a page as it is too complex to access. A picture book is much more accessible option and it often elicits wonderful ideas and interaction with the illustrated narrative, in some cases much more so than a traditional words and pictures book.

Picture books have art and illustration at their core and the beautiful thing about this is that they convey different things to different people. Each ‘reading’ of a picture book can be different and something a child notices one day may not be something they notice on another. It is similar to looking at a piece of art in a gallery or on the wall at home – there is always something new to notice or a new light in which to view it.

It is not always easy to find the time and energy to read with our children; daily life and commitments often get in the way but participating in reading 10-15 minutes a day with your child has the potential to make a significant difference to their enjoyment of language, books and ability to engage with a story – whether it has words or not.

Ideas on how to read a wordless picture book with your child

It may feel a little odd to ‘read’ a book with no words, so here are some steps to help you get started:

  1. Begin by looking at the cover. Ask your child, ‘What can you see?’ ‘What do you think the story is going to be about?’ ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘What clues does the cover illustration show?’
  2. Read the title or ask your child to read the title. Ask them, ‘Does the title give you any ideas for what the story might be about?’ Ask them to make a prediction about the story based on the cover and the title. You can do the same. Write them down and revisit them at the end!
  3. Take a ‘picture walk’. Look through the pages of the book with the sole purpose of enjoying the pictures. Ask your child what is capturing their attention and why? Talk about anything that captures your attention and explain why you are interested by something.
  4. “Read” the story. You might go first, inviting your child to add to your story as they see fit. Add voices and actions that suit the story and characters, ask your child to add some actions or add sound effects. Ask them to explain why they have chosen a certain voice or a certain sound to go with the picture.
  5. Encourage children to take a turn telling their own version of the story. You could record your stories and play them back to each other later or to other members of the family! For reluctant writers, you could type up their oral version of the story and show them what they have produced.
  6. Ask questions about the book — which is your favourite illustration and why? Do you have a favourite part of the story or a favourite character? Why? What do you like or dislike about them?
  7. Encourage creativity and individuality: what other characters could you have included in the story? Children could design their own version of a page in the book or an additional page.