Reading visual elements of texts is not easy for me. I am not a visual person. I cannot see the undertones in paint colors. I buy most of my outfits straight from the mannequin, confident that they must match if the salesperson put the pieces together. I do not often notice when a friend gets new glasses.
Because of my own struggles with reading and interpreting visual cues, I have never known quite what to do with wordless picture books. To me, words are at the heart of any story. I never had the patience to "read" the illustrations in a wordless book in order to make meaning.
In the past, I kept a few of these books in my classroom but they were buried and seldom used. The only thing I read about that I considered doing with them was to ask students to write words to go with the story, but that never felt right from a writing perspective.
Recently I have been learning a great deal from Katie DiCesare about picture reading and wordless books. Following Katie's lead, I have been sharing more wordless picture books with primary students in the library to begin conversations about picture reading. I have started to love wordless picture books and have been adding several wordless books to my collection.
Strategies for Teaching with Wordless Picture Books
I have learned to spend more time on the pictures and to reread these books several times. These books have all of the elements of good literature. More than anything, I have learned that I can always discover something new about the book when I listen to students' thinking. For all readers, no matter the age or level, I have come to realize that wordless books can provide much support in becoming more thoughtful and sophisticated readers.
When sharing wordless picture books, I have found that students naturally:
Support their thinking with evidence in the pictures
Notice ways in which illustrations go together
Think about color choices and mood
Sequence events in the plot
Go back and reread to make sense
Ponder the big message or theme
These skills will serve them well throughout their reading lives. By helping students value wordless books, they can learn the sophisticated skills necessary for all reading. These books also encourage students to work together, no matter what their reading "level."
Some of my favorite wordless books include:
Welcome to the Zoo! by Alison Jay
This is a story about a day at the zoo with bright, colorful pictures. There is lots going on in the illustrations. I couldn't quite get a handle on what was going on until I got to the end. At the conclusion of the story, the author gives you a few things to do. There is a page of "can you find" pictures, which children always enjoy. But my favorite is her list of "What else can you find?" On that page, the author gives you hints to all of the stories going on in the book. For example, she asks, "What happens to the hat? Can you follow it through the whole book?" The author gives several questions that invite us to go back through the book following that item. I discovered so many stories going on in the pictures that I hadn't noticed the first time.
Wave by Suzy Lee
Wave is the story of a little girl's trip to the beach. She has a great time on the beach, as told through the breathtaking illustrations. The artist uses only white, blue and black to tell the story, and the pictures draw you in to the story. I also like the shape of the book — a shape that is a bit more long and narrow than most books. Conversations about the book's design and how it adds meaning to the book arise naturally.
Trainstop by Barbara Lehman
It took some work for me to understand this story. A little girl goes on a train ride and uses her imagination as she steps off the train. This is a fun story that kids will enjoy, and there will be lots to ponder as they work through what is happening. The illustrations are inviting. Kids love trains and this is a great locomotive — big, yellow, and happy!
Yellow Umbrella by Jae Soo Liu
This is the story of children walking to school in the rain, with colorful umbrellas filling the pages. The book comes with a music CD designed to be played as the book is shared. This adds a different dimension to the wordless picture book experience, as students think about the ways that the illustrations and the music work together to create meaning.
The Flower Man by Mark Ludy
In this story, the author uses color to help readers understand the message. The main character in the book works hard to make the place where he lives better. As things improve, more color appears. This is a simple story that can be used to introduce the concept of theme to young children. Lots of details in the pictures can be discovered through rereading.
South by Patrick McDonnell
This is a small book and the characters are also pretty tiny on the page, which adds to the meaning of the book. It's the simple tale of a cat who helps a lost bird on his journey. It is so sweet and, as wordless books always do, it amazed me with the amount of meaning that was packed into each page. This is another great book to invite discussions about theme.
A Circle of Friends by Giora Carmi
This heartwarming story is about the things that can happen when we focus on acts of kindness. In the story, one kind act leads to another, creating a circle story through the illustrations.