Wordless Picture Books: How do you 'read' a book with no words?

In our school library we have a range of picture books without words (or very few words).  At our recent Hot Chocolate Reading Events these books have proved to be popular with Early Years, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 parents!

Where are they?

These books are stored in the two wooden (beech effect) boxes between the white book cabinet and the book bands books.  We have purposely not labelled the boxes Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 2.

The books in these boxes should have either:

  • a green sticker on the top right hand corner to indicate that the book is suitable for younger children
  • a red sticker on the top right hand corner to indicate that the book may included certain themes (e.g. conflict, bereavement) or may be harder to interpret.

Apologies but some books without green or red stickers do occasionally end up in these boxes!

How do you ‘read’ a wordless picture book?  Part 1

Recognise that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to read a wordless book.  The following bullet points are suggestions – but they are not the only way.

  • Spend time looking at the cover and talking about the book’s title. Based on those two things, make a few predictions about the story.
  • Take a “picture walk” through the pages of the book. Enjoy the illustrations, which are often rich with detail, but don’t worry too much about telling a story yet. Sometimes you may only look at one or two pages if there is lots of information contained within the detailed images
  • Talk to each other about what you can each see – take this in turns. If your child notices a “dog”, then you should echo back a more developed response e.g. “Yes, a black dog with a glossy coat.”
  • Look carefully at the expressions on characters’ faces, the setting and the use of colour.  Pose some wondering questions e.g. “I wonder how the boy is feeling?”, “I wonder what might  have made him feel that way?”, “I wonder what season it is?” or “I wonder whether this story happened a long time ago?”
  • Your child may give a response to your wondering questions – it might be accompanied by a reason/justification or it might not.  If they do not given any response then do not panic!  They may still be processing the information.  If they do not respond to any questions which you pose, then you may need to model an appropriate response.

How do you ‘read’ a wordless picture book?  Part 2

Whilst there is no “right” or “wrong” way to read a wordless book – you should not attempt to invent a story narrative before thoroughly exploring the pictures (see Part 1).  As earlier, the following bullet points are suggestions – but they are not the only way.

  • Go back through the book a second time and get ready for some great storytelling! Consider going first and acting as a model for your child. Ham it up! Have characters use different voices, add sound effects and use interesting words in your version of the book.
  • Encourage your child to “read” you a page or two pages. Focus on the words your child uses when he tells the story. Help your child expand their sentences or thoughts (see ‘echoing’ above).
  • Encourage them to add information from the illustration’s details – or just to add some of their own imagination. One way to encourage more details is by asking “W” questions: Who? Where? When? Why? How?  For example: What did the jungle look/smell/feel like (adjective choices)? How did the elephant move (verbs and adverb choices)?
  • You might chose to scribe the story as they narrate, so their story is not ‘lost’. You may then read their story back to them. At this point they may choose to change some parts of the story – this is fine – or they might choose to just smile as they are so proud of the story that they have created – this is fine too!
  • Once your child has developed the above skills, then they may be ready to tell you a story based upon a longer section of the book or even a whole picture book.

Quiz Question: What should you do when you have finished exploring a wordless picture book?

Answer A

Ask a few simple and general questions e.g. “What pictures helped you tell the story?” or “What was your favorite part of your story?”.

Answer B

Ask a few questions to encourage links between literature and life e.g. “Have you (or someone you know) had an experience like the one in your story?” or “What other story did this book remind you of?”

Answer C

Ask no questions, thank them for sharing such a special time and just have a cuddle.

Answer D

All of the above.

Answer E

None of the above.

Remember: There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to read a wordless book.  Just do what feels right to you!

Little note to Year 6 parents

Will a wordless picture book ever appear in the Year 6 Reading SATs?  Answer: No – because the SATs are based on a very definite sense of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. “How dare children apply their own thoughts, opinion and interpretations to literature” (imagined quote from the offices of the Department of Education).

Should Year 6 pupils ever read wordless picture books? Answer: Absolutely – if you and your child value imagination, creativity, free thought and want to grow up as individuals rather than ‘robots’ – then they should read definitely read wordless picture books. Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’ should be compulsory for all Year 6 pupils!

St Peter's C of E Primary School

Moor Lane, Budleigh Salterton, Devon EX9 6QF

01395 443167


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