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Using wordless books in the classroom

It is easy to underestimate wordless (or nearly wordless) picture books. At first glance, they can seem simplistic and their educational value can seem limited since so much focus is placed on reading in the classroom, but if used in the right way they can contribute to a number of learning objectives across a wide range of grade levels. The books below illustrate some of the types of wordless books that are available and offer some suggestions for how to make them part of your lesson plans.

arrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan
This book tells a universal tale of immigration through pictures of a man travelling to an alien world in search of work and a better life. The retro-futuristic setting, sepia-toned images, and alien language will make this book relatable to any reader. Geared towards middle school or older readers, this book could be used in a social studies or history class while reading about the immigrant experience in the U.S. and could just as easily be used in a literature class to teach students how to “read” images.

Robot DreamsRobot Dreams by Sara Varon
It might seem surprising to say that a wordless book about a robot and a dog who are friends packs an emotional punch, but that is certainly the case here. Varon successfully uses images to pull readers into the story and vividly convey emotions without the need for dialogue. The bright colors of the drawings will make this book appealing and accessible to readers in third and fourth grade, where it can be used to prompt discussions around friendship and how art can prompt an emotional reaction.

harris burdickThe Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg
Though not completely wordless, this book from famed writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg is definitely not a typical picture book. It consists of a series of drawings, each of which has a title and a caption and no further words associated with it. While the drawings all share an odd, off-kilter quality that makes them mysterious and not quite of our world, they are not explicitly connected to one another. As such, they make ideal short story prompts for virtually any age. This book could be used as inspiration for creative writings projects from grade school through high school. If you don’t believe me, you need look no further than the new version of the book published in 2011 under the name The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, which included a story written by a best-selling author to accompany each of the pictures.

mirrorMirror by Jeannie Baker
Here the wordless format is combined with a unique physical format that has readers unfolding each side of the book to reveal side-by-side images of two families, one living in Sydney, Australia and the other living in a small town in Morocco. This layout juxtaposes life in these two locations, showing readers the differences but also the important similarities between the two families. This is an ideal book for younger readers from preschool through early grade school, who will delight in pointing out the similarities and differences between the images. It would work well for teaching vocabulary related to the images as well as for larger discussions about cultural differences around the world.

I hope these ideas will encourage some readers to reconsider the place of wordless books in their classes, but beyond this, I would also love to hear how readers have already been using them. I hope you’ll consider sharing your favorite wordless books and how you use them in your curriculum in the comments!

 

Carli Spina About Carli Spina

Carli Spina is a librarian who is currently pursuing a masters in technology, innovation, and education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She can be found on Twitter at @CarliSpina.

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Comments

  1. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Apropos of Carli’s post here, there is a (heated) discussion going on right now over at Megan Lambert’s post about The Farmer and the Clown. Jonathan Hunt in particular weighs in on the different ways one can interpret wordless picture books. http://www.hbook.com/2015/02/using-books/home/in-defense-of-gentle-men/

  2. Yes, please, more wordless books in the classroom! I can only imagine they invite such a great opportunity for educators and students alike to practice active listening. You can learn so much about how others experience the world when asked to fill in the blanks. A wonderful opportunity to investigate assumptions.

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