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Language Teacher Toolbox: Wordless Picture Books

Traditional books can intimidate English language learners. Learn about the benefits of wordless picture books and how to use them.

The Benefits of Wordless Picture Books for English Language Learners

Interaction with others is an essential part of learning a new language. Unfortunately, some approaches emphasize the transmission of knowledge. According to author, professor, and consultant Pauline Gibbons, many programs focus on “drilling students in low-level language and reading skills” without focusing on “meaningful context.” This often comes at the expense of “higher-level thinking and literacy development.”

Gibbons went on to say that “further disadvantage may become structured into the curriculum of the school,” perpetuating a lack of opportunity for many second-language learners, and English Learners (ELs) in particular.

Another perspective considers learning to be collaborative. The social view of learning goes beyond merely gaining items of knowledge to use in other contexts. Instead, it teaches students to learn how to think. When they engage in joint thinking and work together to solve problems, social dialogue is gradually internalized.

Accomplishing that is arguably the goal of any language teacher. But how do you get there? Wordless picture books offer distinct advantages over typical books and can aid students’ oral and written skills.

Why Wordless Picture Books?

Reading tasks involving literary and informational texts can be valuable for learners at all levels. Teachers need to structure activities and provide support for helping meet students’ individual needs. Engaging with reading material is a basic part of motivating students who are learning English as a second language (ESL).

However, typical books pose difficulties. “Reading closely or deeply is hard for many native speakers,” an article in The Reading Teacher noted. “Where can we begin to teach ELs to read closely and critically in a language when many of them may still be struggling to identify all the words? . . . Can we develop the thinking skills and habits through close viewing before we add the language demand of close reading?”

Wordless picture books may be part of the answer. Wordless books lack text, but not meaning or relevance to language. In fact, research from Neurophyschologia suggested that readers use linguistic processes to construct meaning from sequences of images. Comprehension of visual narratives is similar, structurally, to language that relies on narrative grammar.

The resulting benefits are powerful. Instead of being overwhelmed by text, learners work hard to fill the gaps in images to create meaning. Teachers can adjust learning strategies as well. With no text to limit students’ attention, students can receive differentiated instruction to reflect their skill level and needs. For instance, beginners can label actions and objects in pictures, emerging students can use sentence stems to tell stories, and advanced learners can take a critical stance and tell the story from a new perspective.

Wordless Books for ESL Students

Incorporating wordless picture books for ESL students can improve accessibility to stories and spark learners’ imaginations. Follow along for a few suggestions of wordless books and how to incorporate them into your classroom.

Recommended Books

Here are some suggestions for recommended wordless books for these students.

  • Grades K–2: Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola is about an old lady who wants to make pancakes, but can’t find all of the ingredients she needs. Determination and humor are major themes in this wordless picture book.
  • Grades 3–6: Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman tells the story of a boy who enters a work of art during a school trip to a museum. He enters labyrinths and emerges with a medal, which he still has after being reunited with the class. Was his experience real or imaginary?
  • Grades 9–12: The Arrival by Shaun Tan depicts an immigrant’s journey to create a better life for his family. Faced with a new language, culture, and way of life, the wordless picture book illustrates those elements through unique objects, unusual creatures, and other symbols.

The website Colorín Colorado lists other books you can consider for your classroom.

Using the Books Effectively

Wordless picture books are versatile tools for helping ESL students of all ages and levels improve their skills and knowledge. The layers of meaning that the books accommodate can be particularly powerful. Gibbons recommended that teachers allow for plenty of time to discuss pictures, such as by asking about connections to images and experiences in students’ cultures.

In “Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling,” the authors argued that, while the events in wordless picture books appear to tell themselves, viewers are actually the ones who provide a voice to narratives. That’s what makes wordless picture books a great way to stimulate students’ oral and written linguistic output. Students are the readers who collaborate with the author/illustrator — “the invisible storyteller” — to recreate the text.

The Reading Teacher proposed an instructional sequence for guiding students in small groups to learn from wordless picture books.

  1. Preview the peritextual features. Instead of providing background information, encourage students to examine peritextual features (the cover, title page, end pages, dedication, and author’s note) to help set reading expectations.
  2. Use repeated viewing to identify details in layers. Ask students to share details that they notice. For each viewing of the book, try to concentrate on one layer of meaning, such as setting, character, or textual structure (like compare and contrast, problem and solution, or a story map). Ask about the significance of those details for the meaning of the book. Repeated viewings can help keep conversations focused on a particular layer of meaning.
  3. Analysis. Achieve cognitive scaffolding by asking students to analyze the author’s purpose, how ideas connect to other books, and how they can use that information to form opinions. Consider questions like “Why do you think the authors/illustrators did that? Does this book or the pictures remind you of something that you have seen?”
  4. Synthesis using student-authored text. Help students put everything they discussed into writing. What they write is based on what they expressed orally, making it easy for student authors to comprehend. You can dictate sentences and have students copy them and read them to themselves. Or you could have students draw a picture about the book and provide them with words to label items in the picture.

Learn More

If you’d like more strategies to help you better teach your ESL students, consider earning an online M.Ed. in Language and Literacy. The program helps you teach effectively to all students, including English Learners (ELs), in a variety of content areas. A major focus is on integrating reading and writing into lessons plans, using technology in the classroom, and matching readers and text.

Our program is offered in a convenient online format, giving you the flexibility to study when and where you want.

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