There is a unique category of books commonly referred to as wordless books. They are all pictures, meaning there is no text. On the surface it would seem that a child learning to read would benefit very little from looking at pictures. After all, doesn’t the real work of reading require us to grapple with text? That is a very appropriate question, and technically it would be hard not answer yes. But there is great benefit to reading books without words, and I’d like to give you six quick reasons why you should make wordless books a part of your overall strategy for teaching your child to read.
First, the young, developing reader learns how books work. Imagine a mother asking her three-year old if he would like to read a book. He excitedly runs over and grabs a book off the shelf and climbs up into mom’s lap. He eagerly opens the book somewhere in the middle, not noticing that it is upside down. For whatever reason, mom turns the book around and flips the pages to the beginning. Now mom is talking to him, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. A story begins to emerge, with questions and comments and enthusiasm. Then a page is turned for some apparent reason. And so it goes, one page turned after another. Must be a connection between the story that is capturing their attention and the turning of pages. They move from the front of the book to the back. Things seem to proceed in a logical order. The book with its pictures and text and page turning seem to be guiding everything that mom is doing. These early understandings of how books work may seem like a no-brainer to us, but it is actually a part of the necessary groundwork that will eventually produce a successful reader.
Second, wordless books create an almost inescapable opportunity for dialogue. Just asking your student what they see in the current picture is a stepping-off point for all sorts of speculation about what just happened and what is going to happen next. This is the opportunity to celebrate the child’s ideas about the story, which encourages active thinking as opposed to the more passive listening which often takes place when reading the text of a story. Related to this is our next benefit.
Third, the child is encouraged to think critically and to speculate on a world of possibilities. The teacher can model their own thought process as they think out loud about what might be happening in the pictures. This modeling tells the student that it is perfectly appropriate to ponder and consider and risk being wrong. Research supports the idea that students will pick up on this behavior and demonstrate their own willingness to consider the many possibilities a picture presents.
Fourth, the student reading a wordless book is guaranteed a 100% success rate. Because every comment, every contribution or speculation from a child is encouraged and honored, there is no risk of getting something wrong. When struggling with text it is like walking through a mine field. But reading pictures is a journey a world of possibilities and creative thinking, that is never wrong. This is an exhilirating, encouraging and inspiring reading experience.
Fifth, wordless books train a reader to pay attention to detail. As the teacher slows things down and points out different details in the pictures, the student learns to do the same. Again, thinking out loud, you might speculate that the dog in the picture is about to attack. But wait, it looks like his tail is wagging. Do dogs attack when their tail is wagging? By leading your student with questions about what they see, you can gently teach them to look more closely for details that confirm of deny ideas about what might be happening.
Finally, wordless books can be used to great advantage by readers of all ages. While we have spoken mostly of younger, developing readers, wordless books are also available for the more mature student. (Give three examples of advanced picture books).
It is not wrong to say that reading consists of decoding the printed word. But reading is actually more than simple decoding. It is about the power of story and the effective communication of information. Sometimes you are faced with hundreds of pages of text, but you will still need to apply the skills of deduction and understanding. Nuancing a character’s behavior in a story, reading between the lines, inferring motive, and pondering the intangible, unwritten possibilities are not things a reader gets simply by learning to decode text well. Wordless books can be a vital tool for developing a truly accomplished reader, and should a part of your total reading program.