The Power of a Wordless Book

If there are no words in a story how does one read it? You read the pictures, of course!

One of the many reasons I love picture books is because the artwork tells so much of the story. While traditional picture books rely on both images and words to convey meaning, wordless books must stand on illustrations alone. And that means the story might be radically different from one reader to the next.

“The story you tell while reading a wordless book is up to you,” — Author David Wiesner.

As prolific wordless picture book author David Wiesner explained in his 2021 Mary Nagel Sweetser Lecture, “When an artist removes the text, they invite readers to decode the pictures for themselves, so every child reads the book in their own unique way according to their own personal life experiences and background. A wordless (or almost wordless) picture book asks children to collaborate in the storytelling process — a very empowering request.”

Think about how you read a traditional story aloud to a child. You open the book and say the words on the page. You look at the artwork that corresponds to those words. If you’re really on top of your read-aloud game, you’ll engage in dialogic reading and ask the child a question or two about what they’re seeing on the page. Once you’ve read all the text, you turn the page. And when you finish turning all the pages, well — you’ve finished reading the book! But what happens when there are no words to guide you from one page to the next? 

How to read a wordless book

“Begin by asking questions about what you see. Look at everything on the page. All the imagery has been chosen by the author/artist to tell readers something about the story. Nothing is there by accident,” — Author David Wiesner.

The most effective way to read a wordless picture book aloud is by asking your audience (or yourself) questions about the images on the page. What is happening? Have you ever seen something like this before? Where? What do you think will happen next, and why? Some of the questions Wiesner suggests asking include:

  • What do you think the characters are doing and why? 
  • What do their expressions suggest they are thinking or feeling? 
  • Why are the objects in the picture there? Do those things recur in subsequent pictures? If so, why? 

Most of all, Wiesner suggests asking children what they see, and I couldn’t agree more. It is truly fascinating to see the world (or at least a story) through the eyes of a child.

“Let [children] lead the way, because they will probably see a lot more than you! Let your child tell the story that they see, in their own words, in their own time.” — Author David Wiesner.

As a children’s librarian I’ve found that, left to their own devices, children spend a lot more time pouring over the details of wordless picture books than adults typically do. So the best answer to the question of when to turn the page is just as the late author Jerry Pinkey said: “When you are ready.”

But beyond the incredibly important bond of spending quality time sharing books together, reading wordless books also has all sorts of added academic advantages!

No words, numerous benefits

Sharing wordless books is a terrific way to build important literacy skills, including active listening, vocabulary, comprehension — and an increased awareness of how stories are "built," as the storyteller often uses a beginning, middle, end format. According to Scholastic, books without words boost literacy skills in a variety of additional ways, including the following:

  • They help visual thinkers play to their strengths
    • Plenty of kids struggle with reading. Reluctant or growing readers can gain a lot of confidence from wordless stories by getting more comfortable with the idea of “reading.”
  • They incorporate context clues
    • Wordless books encourage children to use the detailed images to figure out what’s happening. Those same context clues will be a factor in decoding text later, and recognizing their importance can help kids become stronger readers.
  • They welcome retelling
    • Whether you reread it once or every night at bedtime, there’s always a new direction for a wordless picture book to take. Encouraging kids to think of new possibilities and reinterpret the story in different ways is a fun way to exercise their creativity and get them excited about reading.

As if these benefits weren’t enough, a 2012 study by Jessica Nielsen at Utah State University found the following:

“Wordless books may more closely mirror play contexts because there is no prescribed linguistic information or content that caregivers must follow. While the pictures are suggestive of the direction the story may take, the final story is the result of the interaction between the parent, the child, and the pictures in the book,” — Researcher Jessica Nielsen.

Because of this kind of interaction during book sharing, where the parent is not directing the conversation but following the child’s lead, researchers found a much higher number of words used by the child than during the sharing of a book with text. In other words, a book without words generates much more language from a child. How about that!

Suggested wordless reading

Now that you have more of an idea of how to read a wordless book, and some of the benefits of doing so, here are some of my favorite wordless picture books to share with the children in your life:

 

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention a favorite storytime read-aloud of mine that ironically is quite different from the subject of this blog post. That is, it’s a story containing no images, but rather only text: That book is B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures. The delivery of this book relies heavily on the supremely selected typography styles, which allow the words of the story to function as images themselves.

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