Why Wordless Books?
By Leslie Ross-Degnan , M.Ed., and Christina Silvi, M.A

How many wordless books (also known as picture books) do you have in your classroom library? How do you use them with the children? When asked about the use of wordless books in their preschool classroom, Naomi and Diane replied, “We don’t have very many. I know we have A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog by Mercer Mayer,” and “I never really thought about how we are using them…though we have looked at Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie de Paola on a day when we made pancakes with the children.”  

 

As instructors of an emergent literacy course, we’ve asked many teachers to do an inventory of books available to children in their classrooms. We found that the number of wordless books in their inventory were either limited or altogether missing. As a genre that potentially promotes a wide range of language and literacy skills, we wondered how teachers could use wordless books more effectively. What are the benefits of this under-utilized genre of children’s books in the preschool classroom? Why use them at all?

 

Including Wordless Books in the Classroom

To help teachers discover the value of wordless books, we asked a team to introduce them into their classroom and observe their use. Naomi and Diane decided to replace all the books in their book corner with a variety of wordless picture books from the local library (see page 34). Their focus was on books that tell a story through pictures rather than on wordless concept books such as alphabet or counting books. There are numerous benefits and strategies the teachers discovered while using this unique genre of books with their preschool children.

 

Naomi’s Experience

For the first few days, the teachers simply placed the books in the story corner and encouraged the children to look at them. Without any teacher guidance, the children looked and talked about the pictures. Many engaged in labeling pictures or describing events as dictated by the illustrations. Naomi noticed that the book Time Flies by Eric Rohmann was very popular with the children. In this story, a small bird flies into a natural history museum full of dinosaur bones that suddenly come to life! “The children focused on the dramatic details of the pictures: The big dinosaur and the tiny bird,” she reported. After multiple readings, Naomi observed the children telling the story from different points of view. “I’ll be the dinosaur and you be the bird,” is a phrase she heard as children identified with one or the other of the characters. Naomi decided to get more actively involved in these “readings.” She used sticky notes to write the words children provided, and stuck them in the book. “Since there were no words in the book, the vocabulary was driven by the children. It was fun having them in charge of telling the story,” she stated. This book stimulated the children to engage in more writing and drawing, while giving the teacher the opportunity to model writing by taking dictation (Schickedanz, 1999).

 

Diane’s Experience

Diane felt reluctant to jump into this project. “I was intimidated at first. How could I ‘read’ a wordless book to all the children at story time?” For Diane, the words were guides to the story. Without them, she found it challenging to keep a large group of children interested during her full-group book reading. As a result, she decided to break her readings into smaller groups. Small group book readings encourage more in-depth discussions about the details of the story and the characters (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Though it required some planning to break up the group and develop questions for the children, Diane had to admit, “There was a lot more book talk. When we read Picnic by Emily Arnold McCully, the children were concerned about what happened to the little mouse and how she felt when she was left behind.” The children recognized the main character and identified with her experience. When asked, the children could tell her what happened to the character at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Diane was able to observe what the children knew about the story structure and the sequence of events. This stimulated conversations about what to do if they got lost. All of this challenging book talk resulted in higher levels of language use and story comprehension for the children as they discussed the “what if” aspects of getting lost.

 

How Wordless Books Support Learning

One day, Naomi watched Becca, one of her quieter children, looking through the book Up and Up by Shirley Hughes. This book is organized in a comic book format that encourages directionality, an important pre-reading literacy skill for young children (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000). Becca talked to the girl character in the book as she pointed to each picture panel from left to right. Naomi said, “It’s often difficult to spend one-on-one time with children in a busy classroom, but it’s important to try…especially with the quieter children.” She was pleased to see that this wordless book encouraged one of her less talkative children to open up and use her own language to describe the events in this exciting picture story about a girl who tries to fly. The wordless, black-and-white picture panels allowed Becca to freely interpret the actions of the girl character. The teacher was able to engage in a rare, one-on-one conversation full of thinking, imagining and predicting.

 

An opportunity for higher-order thinking came with the David Weisner books Free Fall and Tuesdays. Naomi confided, “At first, I thought these books were too abstract for our preschool children. The illustrations are busy, and dream-like.” The children were curious about the unusual illustrations. They inspired open-ended questions from both teachers and children. “What if frogs could fly?” “I wonder what it’s like to meet a dragon?” Because the story was not defined by words, but by images, the children expressed ideas on what they thought the story was about. “I think this boy is having a scary dream!” or “The frogs only fly on Tuesdays. On other days, pigs fly.”

 

At the end of two weeks we returned to speak with Naomi and Diane about having wordless books in their classroom collection. Their response? “We want to keep using them. We found we were doing more thinking and planning around book use. The children seemed less constrained in their book use as books traveled around the classroom, especially the dinosaur book!” The children used this book at the writing table, while playing with the toy dinosaurs, and in the dramatic play area.

 

Conclusion

Sometimes a small change in classroom practice can put a new focus on an old habit. By replacing the books in their story corner with wordless books, two teachers rediscovered the joy and wonder that books inspire. Both the children and their teachers benefited from the use of wordless picture books. If you haven’t introduced them into your classroom book corner yet, we hope that our account of this experience will motivate you to visit your local library and check them out!

 

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Leslie Ross-Degnan, M.Ed., and Christina Silvi, M.A., are with the Center for Children and Families at Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, MA. They are instructors for LEEP (Literacy Environment Enrichment Program), a college credit-bearing course for early childhood educators throughout New England.

 

Resources

Dickinson, D.K. & Tabors, P.O. (2001).

            Beginning literacy with language.

            Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing

            Co., Inc.

Neuman, S.B., Copple, C. & Bredekamp,

            S. (2000). Learning to read and write: 
            Developmentally appropriate practice for young children. Washington, DC:

            NAEYC.

Schickedanz, J.A. (1999). Much more than the ABCs: The early stages of

            reading and writing. Washington, DC:

            NAEYC.

 

Books referenced in article

 

A Sequel to a Boy, a Dog and a Frog: Frog, Where Are You?

Author: Mercer Mayer

Publisher: Dial, 2003

 

Clementina’s Cactus

Author: Ezra Jack Keats

Publisher: Viking, 1999

 

Deep in the Forest

Author: Brinton Turkle

Publisher: Puffin Books, 1992

 

Do Not Disturb

Author: Nancy Tafuri

Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 1987

 

Follow Me!

Author: Nancy Tafuri

Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 1991

 

Free Fall, Vol. 1

Author: David Weisner

Publisher: William Morrow & Company, 1991

 

Hunter and the Animals

Author: Tomie DePaola

Publisher: Holiday House Inc., 1981

 

Mouse Letters: A Very First Alphabet Book

Author: Jim Arnosky

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999

 

Pancakes for Breakfast

Author: Tomie DePaola

Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1978

 

Picnic

Author: Emily Arnold McCully

Publisher: HarperCollins, 2003

 

School

Author: Emily Arnold McCully

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2005

 

Ship Ahoy!

Author: Peter Sis

Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 1999

 

Time Flies

Author: Eric Rohmann

Publisher: Random House, 1994

 

Tuba Lessons

Authors: Moniquie Felix and T.C. Bartlett

Publisher: The Creative Company, 2004

 

Tuesday

Author: David Weisner

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 1997

 

Up and Up

Author: Shirley Hughes

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1986