Just Imagine

Wordless Wonders

I am delighted to see a surge in publishing high quality wordless picture books, a valuable addition to classroom collections for children of all ages. Far from being an ‘easy read’ many of these books provide challenging reading experiences and provoke thoughtful responses.

There are many reasons to celebrate the wordless books, not least that they can provide a level playing field for children of all levels of reading attainment. Read and discussed in a group or guided reading session, the wordless book can be accessed by all. This gives  readers for whom 'word reading' is difficult, the opportunity to engage in discussion alongside children who are skilled word readers.

One outcome is the positive impact on self-esteem.  However, there are further advantages. It is essential to give children  who are struggling with word reading opportunities to develop their reading comprehension. Unlike many of the reading books that are written to help struggling readers, the wordless picture book may provide a multi-layered, polysemic experience which exercises the imagination, affords inference  and allows readers to develop and express complex ideas.

High attaining readers also have a lot to gain.  On a recent visit to a school in Nottinghamshire, I was invited to work with a year six (10 – 11 years) group of pupils, who, according to the teacher’s assessment, were the most prolific and proficient readers in the school. They had been targeted to do well in the end of key stage tests. He was however concerned that reading had become a competition, with the number of words and the thickness of the book being the marks of a ‘good reader’. 

We invited the six children to bring the book they were currently reading to a focus session and invited them to talk about their choices. Books included Veronica Roth’s ‘Divergent’ series, Michael Grant’s ‘Gone’ and a range of classics. Apart from the issue of age appropriate book choices, the teacher also raised a concern that some of the children were skimming books to get the ‘gist’ of the plot, but that the reading was, he felt, superficial. On the surface, they seemed to be moving rapidly through long books but he wanted to know how they might become more thoughtful, considered readers.

After discussing the problem, we decided to set up a group reading session using David Wiesner’s ‘Flotsam’. Initially, the pupils expressed surprise that we had chosen a book without words. A couple looked affronted and felt that we had obviously misjudged them. We structured the session to promote exploration, attentive reading and high quality discussion. At the end of the session, the group were asking if we could continue working with the book for the rest of the week… which we did.

Later, we interviewed the pupils about the experience.  Opinions about the experience were overwhelmingly positive. We talked to the group about their views on the ‘pace’ of their reading and how important details can be missed, if we read too quickly without thinking about what we are reading.


The reading of a wordless book provides a special experience from which all pupils can benefit. Of course, I am not suggesting that it is the only kind of reading that pupils need, but the inclusion of one or two wordless books in the selection of texts available for group reading in each year, would be a useful addition to the resource bank, as would a set of wordless books for the class or school library. Our ‘Let’s Think About It’ selection of texts for group reading includes wordless books for each year group and we also have a wordless collection with single copies of each title.



Selected ideas for sharing wordless books

1. For younger children the wordless book affords an opportunity for child and adult to co-construct the story as they talk about the pictures together. In this way the wordless book offers an experiences which is distinct from the usual practice of an adult reading the story to the child. In this instance the child can lead the telling of the story which gentle questions drawing attention to salient features and details.

2.  For older readers, the pace of reading a wordless book is different to one where the text leads and determines when the pages will be turned. Wordless books invite us to reflect, 'to stop and stare'. For children who are used to reading at a fast pace, encourage them to look more closely so that they do not miss important details, which may impact on their understanding of the story. An interesting way to approach this is to select a picture from the book and to cover the image, revealing sections at a time and asking them to talk about what they can see.

For example, if looking at this image from Shaun Tan's the arrival a slow reveal might show the bottom right hand corner with the tea cups and tea pot. Invite the pupils to consider what is happening. where do they think the picture is set?  Do they think there will be any characters in this scene? Who do they think they might be?. 

A second reveal might show the top of the page, the items on the mantelpiece. What can they see? Do these items remind you of anything? Where do you think this story might be set? time? place? what do you notice about the colours etc.

A third reveal could show the hands on top of the suitcase and questions such as, whose hands do you think these are? Are we seeing someone coming to visit or going away? What do you notice about the way the hands are placed on the suitcase?


3. Characters: thought and dialogue The silent space of a wordless books invites readers to think about what characters may be thinking or saying to each other. Post-its can be used for pupils to add their own thought or speech bubbles to an image. For example, Patti Kim's story, 'Here I am' is about a young migrant arriving in her new home. We learn a lot about the way she is thinking from her body language. Pupils can give voice to those thoughts using thought bubbles.

And in Beatrice Rodriguez' delightful adventure, 'The Chicken Thief' characters interact with each other, inviting readers to think about what they might be saying:

4. In wordless books, pictures are used to describe places and people. In turn, these pictures can be the starting point for pupils to describe in other ways. For example, for this scene from Jeannie Baker's 'Window', pupils might be encouraged to think about words and phrases that describe the scene. The textured collages are a perfect medium for encouraging readers to think about the sense of touch as well as sight. Alternatively, the scene could be described through the development of a musical score: what sounds might we hear in different parts of this picture? How can we represent them with percussive instruments?


5. A starting point for writing: While I prefer not to move too quickly from the reading of a wordless book to writing, wordless books can nevertheless be a brilliant stimulus and support for children's creative writing. learners can create their own plot lines based on those from a favourite wordless book. Alternatively, they can narrate the story from the book and then write it down.

Some of Just Imagine's Favourite Wordless Picture Books

The Arrival Shaun Tan
Art and Max David Wiesner
Banana Skin Chaos Lili L'Arronge
Before After Matthias Aregui
Belonging Jeannie Baker
Bluebird Bob Staake
The Birthday Cake Mystery The Tjong-Khing
The Chicken Thief Beatrice Rodriguez
Clown Quetin Blake
Flood Alvaro F Villa
Flotsam David Wiesner
Freight Train Donald Crews
Good Night Gorilla Peggy Rathman
Here I Am Patti Kim
Journey Aaron Becker
The Lion and The Mouse Jerry Pinckney
Mirror Jeannie Baker
Mr Wuffles David Wiesner
Quest Aaron Becker
Shadow Suzy Lee
The Treasure Thief Beatrice Rodriguez
Tuesday David Wiesner
Unforgotten Tobhy Riddle
Where's Walrus? Stephen Savage
Window Jeannie Baker
Zoom Istvan Banyai



This week’s giveaway is a set of Wordless Picture Books. To enter, send us an email to info@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk with your name, school name and address and choice of pack (choose from a selection for 5 – 7 years or 7 – 11 years). This giveaway is open to all teachers and school librarians working in the UK. The winner will be drawn at random and notified on Friday 30th January 2015

The winner of our Diverse Voices Giveaway is Victoria Bailey from Pinchmill Primary School in Bedfordshire. A pack of books is on the way.

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