Wordless picture books (reluctant reader series tip 6)

Kids who struggle with independent reading can end up despising it because they don’t get to spend much time doing the most fun parts.

Reluctant reader tip #6: check out wordless picture books from the library, no matter how old you are.

You’ve probably got it memorized by now since I say it so often: yes, reading wordless (or nearly wordless) picture books “counts” as reading. For all ages. Reading is a complex process that requires the reader to flexibly use the following skills: solve words, monitor, use information, maintain fluency, summarize, adjust for genre, predict, make connections, infer, synthesize, analyze, and critique.1

Only a couple of these skills have to do with decoding words independently. But without decoding skills, kids struggle to be able to think more deeply about what they’re reading. They get mired in a swamp of letter sounds and monitoring and end up spending the bulk of their reading time practicing these skills that are extremely hard for them. They may get to practice higher level thinking during read alouds, but begin to see that is only possible with the help of another reader. It doesn’t seem possible for them to think deeply about stories on their own. After several years of this they can end up feeling demoralized – reading has left a bad taste in their mouths.

When I was at OSU I noticed this was uniquely true for English Language Learners (ELL). Not only did they have to labor word by word through basic books, but they didn’t even know the meaning of many words in the books! This compelled me to do my master’s capstone research on using wordless picture books with ELL students during literacy instruction. I worked with two boys and decreased the time spent on their decoding skills so they could read wordless picture books with me once a week. They brought the story in the pictures to life through their conversation. They gesticulated wildly, pointed at the pages with ferocity, and rapidly argued in their first language as they sorted out what was happening. They got to practice thinking beyond and about the text unencumbered by an unfamiliar language. I gave them words when they pointed at the illustrations wanting more information (“that man is feeling scared”). We could talk more about why things were unfolding in this manner, what might happen next, and oh my goodness what do you think that is for?! The dialogue was high level and high stakes. They actually cared about these stories. Their timidity gave way to confidence as they both shared their opinions and questions and predictions with me. I got permission to take video of these sessions and it was gripping.

Have you ever been in a place where you didn’t understand or speak the language? How did it make you feel?

Think about your reluctant reader. Do they face a language barrier of sorts when it comes to decoding words in books? Rigorously honing those skills is exhausting. If a read aloud gives the listener a gift of rest, a wordless picture book gives the reader a gift of autonomy, empowerment, and a sense of individual achievement. How would your reluctant reader feel if they could open a book and think deeply about it without really trying? If they could use dormant skills during independent reading? If they could wonder what was happening in the story and care about turning the next page to find out…knowing they could find out?

Would they finally feel like a reader?

Here are some wordless picture books my kids (or students) have enjoyed:

This series originally appeared on Facebook and Instagram under the hashtag #lovereluctantreaders. If you’d like to start at the beginning of the series on the blog you can click here.