The Potential of Wordless Picture Books for English Learners

by Valentina Gonzalez

Wordless Picture Books

Imagine you are a second grade student born in America, and you only speak English. You’ve attended English schools until now. But your father’s job has relocated your family to France, and now you are in a classroom filled with students and a teacher who only speak French (a language you have never spoken). The science teacher hands you a book and signals for you to read it. You open the book and find that it is filled with pictures…no words. First a group of horses. A mare feeding a foal. A colt running wild. Then a group of pigs, chickens, cows, etc. Instantly, you begin to think about the information you know about animals. What they are called, where they live, what they eat, etc. 

Though you aren’t able to communicate this information in French yet, you are able to follow along with the class and think in English using the schema and background knowledge you have about animals.

Why Use Wordless Picture Books?

While wordless picture books have commonly been used with emergent readers and primary students in elementary grades, they are also useful when developing English in older students. Books that lack words allow for students themselves to produce language needed for each page, think critically about the ideas, and engage in deep inferencing to develop a plot and theme while building language skills. 

Wordless picture books are accessible to learners who speak any language, as seen in the example above. No matter the language our learners speak, they can interpret pictures almost instantly in their minds. When we use wordless picture books with students, we are able to communicate with them at many levels.  

As an ESL teacher, I had students who spoke several languages all in one classroom at the same time. Each student was unique. They had 

  • various proficiency levels in their native languages and in English,
  • different background experiences, and
  • different educational histories. 

But all of my students could access a visual representation at the same time. Using wordless picture books allows learners to think and process information using their own linguistic repertoires. 

Wordless picture books lend themselves to opportunities for oral and written storytelling. The power of sharing a story and interpreting visuals in multiple perspectives is great with wordless picture books. When books include words, readers are somewhat limited to the ideas and text held by the author. However, wordless picture books give readers freedom to interpret the visuals through their own eyes, thoughts, and experiences. 

Using wordless picture books with English learners can support all language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 

  • Listening: students listen to a partner or the teacher “read” or interpret the pictures from the book
  • Speaking/Reading: students share their interpretation of the book with a partner
  • Writing: students write captions or text for wordless picture books, or students create their own wordless picture books 

How Can I Implement Wordless Picture Books With My English Learners? 

Students love wordless picture books! They are fun because students get to interact with the book by adding their ideas. 

Wordless picture books can be shared or interpreted together as a whole group. It’s important to begin with ample modeling of the art of storytelling through shared experiences. After much modeling, encourage readers to try with a partner, and then be sure to make these books available for independent reading. 

Students can also write captions or text for wordless picture books. This exercise shows learners that each page or picture tells readers something new and expresses main ideas and details. Take time to model for students how to glean the main idea and supporting details. When modeling writing for students, weave in authentic grammar instruction too. “Should we put a capital here? Why?” “Do we need a period at the end?” “Is there a word missing in this sentence?” “Let’s read it one more time together to make sure it makes sense.” 

Once students see many examples of wordless picture books, they can create their own, too. Drawing is an excellent way to process information and is known for boosting memory while increasing recall of information. In addition, allowing students to create provides space for self-reflection and creativity. 

Make Space for Nonfiction

Not all wordless picture books are fiction. Students can create nonfiction picture books related to information they are learning in specific content areas or to share their own lived experiences. In an Edutopia article, Kathryn Fishman-Weaver wrote, “Art gave the students I worked with new ways to process and tease out meaning, and to share their lived experiences.” The student-created wordless picture books can be used to teach younger students, too. 

A Short List of Wordless Picture Books

When considering which books to use with your students, think about not only grade level and content, but also student choice and interest. Allowing students to self-select wordless picture books to read gives them a sense of freedom and autonomy. English learners at earlier language proficiency levels will benefit from reading books that the teacher has already read to the group. The list below is not an exhaustive list but it’s a good start for those interested in trying out wordless picture books with students. 

Can Wordless Picture Books Be Used in Remote or Distance Learning? 

The short answer is yes, they can. Remote or distance learning can be defined as learning situations where the teacher and the student are separated and unable to interact in the same classroom setting. Yet, not all families have access to computers and the internet, so providing instruction that is accessible to all children is important. If your school is using remote or distance learning for any reason, wordless picture books are one way to accommodate English learners because they lean on the total linguistic repertoire and not solely on English. Using a child’s whole language repertoire, we can build the target language. 

Teachers who have prior notice of school closures have the luxury of pulling together wordless picture books from the public or campus library and distributing them to English learners with choice boards such as this one

What Does Reading a Wordless Picture Book Look Like? 

Reading is more than decoding words. Wordless picture books provide students with the opportunity to analyze visuals, synthesize ideas, infer meaning, and create language structures to support their thoughts. Students are encouraged to narrate the pages.Older students benefit from being told that this practice will support their English development.

This is where the Gradual Release of Responsibility fits right in. Copious amounts of modeling for students will yield greater gains. Students who know and understand the expectations for reading a wordless picture book will be more successful. Show students exactly what reading a wordless picture book sounds like, then move to guided practice. Read wordless picture books together as a class or in small groups. Some students will need the support of questions such as “What is happening in this picture?” or “What makes you think that?” and “What will happen next?” Finally, have students practice reading wordless picture books independently and with partners.    

If students have access to technology, they can record themselves reading wordless picture books on platforms such as Flipgrid and Seesaw. Students can watch their peers read and comment on their videos. Providing English learners with a model and sentence stems for sharing will enhance their experience. For instance, have them introduce the book with a stem like, “Today, I’m going to read a book to you called…” or “This is a wordless picture book I made. It’s a (how to/all about/fiction/nonfiction) book. Let me share it with you.” And after they read, have them comment with phrases like, “My favorite part was when…” or “I like this book because…” Or, they can ask questions about the book for their fellow students to answer, themselves.

Final Thoughts

Author Tanny McGregor recently shared the hashtag #WordlessBookWeekend on a Twitter chat. It’s filled with ideas for wordless picture books and how teachers are using them with students. 

No matter a student’s language, language proficiency level, or grade, and no matter what content area you teach, wordless picture books can support learning. Wordless picture books are fun, engaging, multimodal, and interactive. Give them a try, and be sure to share with us how it goes with your students. 

 

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