Why Wordless Books are Full of Powerful Teaching Possibilities

I love a good book picture, maybe even more than most people.  They are beautiful for teaching! The words evoke such strong images, feelings, and mood.  Whether learning about the world or learning about how to be in the world, there’s nothing like a great book.  But this doesn’t always require actual words.  A great wordless book will do that, too.  Wordless books, in fact, have tremendous benefits.  Sometimes, even more than a book with words does.

Why? Because these books are super accessible, for one. 

Kids aren’t bogged down by the words; rather, the reader tells the whole story in their own words, guided by the pictures.  

I find quite often that when kids are learning to retell or summarize, they aren’t sure what’s important and what’s not, so they try to remember everything, down to the last minute detail.  This, by the way, is an issue caused by not understanding the importance of text structure, which I go into in another post.  But when there are no words to remember, just the child’s own, this becomes a non-issue.  It’s a perfect way to practice these skills.  It’s literacy through visuals.  

“The beauty of visual literacy is that it opens the door for other language arts standards to be woven into your lessons, and it accommodates all learners from pre-K to fifth grade.”

Kevin Agtarap, Edutopia, 11/15/21

Because the pictures carry all the meaning, the reader can tightly focus on everything the illustrations have to offer:  the color, the style, the mood, and the symbolism.  All of it contributes to meaning.  Every page connects to the next.  The amount of inferential thinking it requires to comprehend books without words is enormous.  

Let’s look at a simple wordless book

Take the simple text below, Tomie DePaola’s Pancakes for Breakfast (2018).  It shows the story of a woman bound and determined to have homemade pancakes for her breakfast, but she runs into problems every step of the way:  she’s out of butter, so has to churn her own, she ran out of eggs, so collects them from the chicken coop, and on and on. 

In the pictures you see here, the woman has finally, painstakingly secured each ingredient needed, and is excitedly thinking through the steps in the process to make them.  She cannot wait to finally have that big stack of delicious pancakes in front of her, fork in hand. Which is why, when the reader sees that the cat and dog have ruined it all while she was out collecting syrup, the reader knows exactly how the woman feels.  The reader can also make some great predictions about what the woman will do next.  Now that would make for an interesting conversation, for sure!

This straightforward cause and effect text is also perfect for practicing retelling!  

And for extensions…

Later, a fantastic interactive writing activity would be to use post it notes with speech or thought bubbles drawn on them to have your class narrate the story!  The enormous connections to punctuation and fluency, not to mention, of course, phonics application, that this activity would entail are plentiful. You could even take it a step further and create your own little reader’s theater to perform the class-written text!  And, of course, celebrate with a pancake snack afterward.  (And then…use more interactive or shared writing to write the steps to make pancakes, and share it with families!)

But what about older kids?  Can wordless books work for them, too?

Wordless books are absolutely not just for the primary grades. There are plenty out there for upper grades, too.  

Unspoken by Henry Cole (2012), is one of my absolute favorites.  In it, a poor white girl farm girl, about 10 years old, discovers a runaway slave hiding in the family’s barn.  With no words at all, only gorgeous illustrations, we watch the girl’s decision-making process as she determines whether she’ll rat the man out for the reward money the soldiers who are nosing around are offering, or help the man escape to further his journey to freedom. 

Wordless books are a great way to teach big concepts!

Imagine the incredible discussions that can be had around this book! There might not be a  more perfectly suited book in which to discuss character motivation and theme.   If used as a part of study of history of that time period, it would really help students understand the tensions that were at play.  This discussion would be a fabulous opportunity to use some academic vocabulary, or introduce some new words, like “conflicted” or what the title “Unspoken” means.  There’s a lot of teaching about the illustrations themselves, too.  The medium—charcoal pencil–shows light, dark, and shadows that all contribute to the tense moments throughout.  It would be very interesting to discuss the author’s use of dark and light and its effect on the reader.  

Another use for wordless books…

Many times, wordless picture books make a great component to a text set.  Like I Walk With Vanessa (Karacoët, 2018), pictured below, which is all about the theme of acceptance–and is especially awesome for the beginning of the school year.  Use it alongside the similar picture books Gibberish (Vo, 2022) or Invisible Boy (Ludwig, 2013),  the short cartoon Day and Night, and perhaps an article from your curriculum about the same topic, and you have a beautiful little text set to retell, compare and contrast, the illustrator’s use of color to evoke mood, and discuss thematic similarities.

Wordless books are perfect additions to a text set!

The illustrations in these books in particular encourage the reader to really home in on the characters’ facial expressions, so not only can deep character work be done, they are also perfect for building vocabulary that captures specific emotions.  What a great way to move kids past “happy,” “sad,” and “mad!”  This ties well to their writing, too, as they work to use precise words to convey their own characters’ feelings.  

The possibilities truly are endless with wordless picture books.  They’re a timeless tool that offer so much comprehension work benefit!  

Want more ideas for picture books?  Reading Rockets has a fantastic list, and so does We Are Teachers.  

And–important PSA: If you show the Day and Night cartoon, be forewarned, the characters do ogle a group of teenagers in bikinis in one scene.  It’s meant to be funny, but you may want to skip past that depending on the age of your students.  Or skip the video period–a text set doesn’t need a video.  

Looking for more read aloud ideas?  Download my 20 Awesome Read Alouds for Comprehension guide, where I share not just not-so-typical titles, but a ton of ways you can use each and every one for deep comprehension work!  And be sure to check out this post, where I share ways to make ANY text accessible for ALL of your readers!

For 1:1 support with your unique literacy goals,  reach out for a coaching call!  I’d absolutely love to help you make this year your best year yet!

Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 25-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls

Or, consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators! 

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