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Early Childhood Education | English Language Arts | Teaching Strategies | April 24, 2024

Wordless Books and Your Classroom—A Perfect Match

Wordless books in the primary classroom library are worth another look. In this article, learn about the benefits of wordless picture books for emergent readers and ways that you can use them in your primary literacy classroom. Plus, download a wordless book from TCM’s forthcoming Explore & Learn program.

What are Wordless Books?

You probably have a couple of wordless picture books in your early childhood or primary classroom library. I’m betting that they are not the books you reach for in a pinch when you want to do a read-aloud, or when you need a great mentor text to share with your students. I’d like to suggest that you take another look at those wordless books, though. Don’t be afraid! You can use them to support literacy in your classroom at all levels, and your students will benefit in a myriad of ways.

Wordless books are picture books that rely entirely on illustrations to tell a story. Labeled books also fall into this category. These are books that are almost wordless— having one word, phrase, or sentence per page. Wordless books can be fiction or nonfiction.

Why Wordless Books?

Wordless books can be enjoyed by all levels of emergent readers. Most of them are designed for preschool or primary-aged children. They encourage children to apply critical visual literacy skills, which is important for today’s focus on visual images. Wordless books provide scaffolds for storytelling, vocabulary use and fluency, and language learning. Opportunities for creative dialogue and characterization abound when children “read” these stories.

Navigating a wordless book reinforces many of the behaviors necessary for reading one with words, such as identifying the front and back, page turning, reading left to right and top to bottom, and enjoying the page-to-page unfolding of the story. Judith Lysaker and Elizabeth Hopper, in their 2015 article in The Reading Teacher, suggest that children’s emergent reading of wordless books provides a context for practicing strategies very much like those they will use when they begin to read print. These strategies may include searching, cross-checking, self-correction, and rereading.

How Should I Use Wordless Books?

There are several ways that wordless books can be used for emergent readers. Support literacy in your classroom with wordless books by integrating some or all of the following activities.

Introducing the Book

Your emergent readers will be entertained and interested as you model “reading” a wordless book. You can “read” the book as you display the illustrations. It will serve your students well if you help them differentiate between a description and a “reading” of the book. The students will begin to see that the pages turn a specific direction, that there are distinct parts of the book that are different from other parts. Starting to engage the students with a prompt like “What do you see?” will lead to discussions of the images. Both the modeling that you do and the discussion that comes from the prompts will help students to be able to outline the story and identify the characters and actions. For the second reading, you can model going through all of the pictures and as you go, you can invent a narrative and/or dialogue. Use the point of view that you want your students to use in their retellings.

Interpreting Character’s Feelings

Since there is limited, or no, textual support for students to use when interpreting the characters’ feelings in wordless books, modeling close “reading” of the characters’ facial expressions, gestures, and actions is important. Thinking aloud as you interpret characters’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions will give your students a strategy to emulate as they infer the characters’ motivations from the images. Students may need prompts to help them understand visual clues. Guide them through the process. Help them to understand what they need to look for and how this analysis can benefit their understanding of what is happening in the story. Interpreting these clues and analyzing the text’s information is an important skill for students to develop as they become visually literate.

TCM_WordlessBooksAndYourPrimaryClassroom-PerfectMatch-650x520-2Vocabulary and Word Study

A lack of words doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce vocabulary or word study into your lessons. Create anchor charts that students can refer to when discussing or writing about a book. For example, a chart might feature: character descriptions from your students, dialogue from retellings, event sequences, or questions students have about the story. The charts could also contain lists of words that students might want to use during retellings, for settings, or to identify items found in the images. These anchor charts will certainly provide you with plenty of vocabulary for phonological awareness, sight words, and academic word study.

Comprehension Strategies

You can use any comprehension strategy used for teaching a book with words to teach a wordless book. The lack of text does not negate the need for students to navigate story sequence and structure, to interpret elements of plot, characterization, and author’s purpose, and to use inferencing and prediction to actively engage with the story. Have students use sentence frames such as “I wonder _____” to orally delve into who, what, when, where, and why questions about the story.


Perhaps the most intuitive activity to accompany wordless books is to have students tell the stories. A permanent record of a story retelling is useful for assessment purposes, as well as gratifying for the students. The sense of authorship and the reading experiences that can be gleaned from the transcript of a retelling is both positive and useful. This can be facilitated with primary students in several ways. Students can dictate their renditions of the stories to a teacher or volunteer. They can record themselves on tablets, computers, or video.

These retellings can be written on post-its and directly put in the books, or published with words and illustrations to become new books. For emergent readers and writers, using Cloze sentences for students to fill in on written retellings gives them opportunities to participate in the transcription process without the expectation that they will be writing the entire story.


Imagination is an important part of the process when students interpret visual narratives. There is really no right or wrong to reading a wordless book. Emergent readers will create a story from a wordless book based on their levels of understanding of story structure and countless other variables. Allow students to construct their own interpretations. It is important to give them the freedom to return to wordless books and to completely change or add to their retellings.

Put it All Together

Begin with communicating to students the skills necessary to tell a story or narrative. Add a second layer of visual literacy through illustrations and visual analysis modeling. Sprinkle in comprehension elements such as inferencing, setting, sequencing, characterization, plot, and author’s purpose. Mix this up with book handling behaviors and word study, and you have a literary dish that will delight your students and help you authentically reach your reading objectives.


Emergent readers need a variety of skills and practice opportunities. Give them wordless book activities to change up their routine activities and to develop different kinds of literacy skills. Watch as these suggested activities help each reader become more engaged and grow in their understanding of both wordless books and books with words.

Lysaker, Judith, and Elizabeth Hopper. 2015. “A Kindergartner’s Emergent Strategy Use During Wordless Picture Book Reading.” The Reading Teacher 68(8): 649-657.



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Carol Huey-Gatewood

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