The thought of a book without words might sound strange. How can students read a book without words? If you have ever seen, read or taught a wordless book, you are familiar with their value.

Wordless books tell a story through just images and are a powerful tool to teach and practice oral and written language skills with English learners. There are several activities that are engaging and fun that incorporate wordless books, and help students to learn and practice both general academic and domain-specific vocabulary, both orally and in writing. Some of these ideas can be adapted for content-area classrooms as well.

The first step is to pick some wordless books that your students will enjoy. There are many, many examples of high-quality wordless books to incorporate into instruction. A simple internet search for "wordless books" will result in multiple options for use in your classroom.

Choose books that will be beneficial for your students, depending of course on the grade level, subject area and proficiency level of your students. Here are a few recommended titles that can be used to incorporate the activities listed below.

While the titles are listed under specific grade bands, any of these books can be utilized at any grade level. Review the books to determine if they would be appropriate for your students.

K-2nd grade

"Beaver Is Lost" by Elisha Cooper: This book shares a beaver's adventure as he floats away from his home on a log and into the city. Note that this is a nearly wordless book.

"Pancakes for Breakfast" by Tomie dePaola: In this book, a woman wants to make pancakes for breakfast but cannot find all of the ingredients she needs.

3rd-5th grade

"The Tortoise & the Hare" by Jerry Pinkney: This classic tale is told through a virtually wordless book.

"Anno's Journey" by Mitsumaso Anno: This is the story of Anno, who rides through the streets and countryside of Northern Europe. The book's pages tell the stories of each place Anno visits, including geography art, architecture and painters, on a tour of England.

"Fossil" by Bill Thomson: A boy trips on a fossil, and it comes to life! As the fossils interact with the present, the boy must find a way to make things go back to the way they were.

Middle school/high school

"The Arrival" by Shaun Tan: An immigrant embarks on a journey to create a better life for his family.

Oral language development

There are several fun activities that help students develop oral language skills. The simplest, of course, is to have students narrate what is happening on each page of the story.

Students will need to learn the vocabulary of what is being portrayed in the story, and — depending on the proficiency level of the students teachers can engage in a variety of vocabulary teaching strategies to help students learn the necessary language. Teachers can explicitly teach the key vocabulary words that represent the various aspects of the setting, the characters and the plot. Students might then label these various pieces in the book using self-stick notes.

Along with the vocabulary associated with the story, student can learn general academic vocabulary, including signal words and sentence starters for sequencing. As students retell the story to a partner, a small group or to the class, they can incorporate some of the following words and phrases as a way to boost their academic language proficiency.

  • first, second, next, later, then
  • initially
  • before/after
  • meanwhile
  • beginning, middle, end
  • immediately
  • earlier
  • prior to
  • for the past
  • subsequently
  • previously
  • simultaneously
  • eventually
  • following
  • during
  • concluding
  • preceding
  • for the past

Sample sentence frames:

  • First ___________ went ________________. Then, ________________ and _________________. Next, there was ___________________.
  • After (insert action), the _____________________.
  • In the beginning/middle/end, ____________________.
  • Now, ________________________.
  • For the past ___________________________.
  • Initially ____________________, then ____________________.
  • Immediately before/after ________________, ____________________.
  • Meanwhile ___________________ was taking place/happening/occurring.

A fun, hands-on and active engagement strategy can also be developed using wordless books. The best way to prepare this activity is to purchase two copies of the book at a minimum. Cut up the books so that each page of the book is on one sheet of paper.

You may need two copies of the book if the book pages are double-sided, as you will need to cover one side of each page. With two copies, you will ensure that each page of the book is represented.

Once you have the book cut and separated, hand one page to each student. Tell students they may not reveal the page they have to anyone else. Rather, they have to walk around and describe what they see on each page.

As they describe the pages to each other, they are to line up in the order of the books events, from page one through the end of the book. Again, they should not reveal their picture until the very end. Once students have lined up in what they believe is the correct order, have them reveal the pages they have to determine if the order is correct.

Two books work well for this activity, "Zoom" and "Re-Zoom" by Istvan Banyai. These two clever books show an image from a small point and zoom out to show the scene in a much larger context. The pictures in the books provide an excellent opportunity to not only describe what is depicted, but also to discuss perspective.

An additional hands-on activity can be done in pairs or small groups to discuss and sequence the text. Begin by taking pictures or making copies of each page of the text. If you take pictures, you can shrink the pictures down into a smaller size. Then, print the pictures and cut them out.

Hand each pair or small group a set of the pictures, and students can then put the pictures in the appropriate order, discussing what is depicted on the particular page as well as practicing the sequence words being emphasized.

Written language development

Just as students narrated the story as an oral language development activity, they can then summarize the story in writing, using the key vocabulary and sequencing words taught through oral language development activities.

Students can begin by writing the definitions of the key vocabulary words in their own words or in student-friendly terms. Students can then be given the expectation that they incorporate a specific number of the key vocabulary words in their description or summary of the story. The same expectation can be given for the sequencing words.

Another activity that is fun and engaging for students is to write text for each page of the story. Begin by modeling what the text might say if it had words.

Demonstrate writing some text to go with the first page or two of the book. Then, have students brainstorm in small groups or pairs what the text might say, and together as a class create the text for the next few pages. When students are ready, they can write text for subsequent pages.

Additionally, students can create dialogue for the characters in the story. This can be embedded into the text written for each page, or can be done by creating speech bubbles and thought bubbles.

Simply cut out the speech or thought bubbles and have students write in the bubbles and place or tape the thought or dialogue bubbles onto the text. This will later lead into students adding dialogue into the stories they are writing.

As an alternative to these activities, either cut up or photocopy the pages to the book and hang them around the room in the order they appear in the book. Next to each page, hang a sheet of paper, preferably a larger sheet such as 11x17 or a piece of chart paper or butcher paper.

Students then work in pairs, triads or groups of four, and go to one of the pages hanging on the wall. In their teams, they then write words, phrases and/or sentences that go along with the images on that page. Dialogue and thought bubbles can also be added here.

This can serve as a preview of the story, where students walk around and discuss and write what they see and make predictions about the book; during the reading and practice of the book and its key vocabulary; or as a review of the text after reading. The idea is to get students up and moving around as they discuss and write about the text.

Wordless books, while seemingly simple, provide rich opportunities for students to be creative and develop oral and written language. Because of the flexibility in language produced, they are appropriate for use with students of all levels of English proficiency.

These books range from simple topics appropriate for young students at the primary grade levels, students at the intermediate levels and even students in middle and high school. Explore the possibilities, the many topics available and have some fun with wordless books.