I was privileged to present at the recent Urban Sites Conference to talk about the use of wordless books with ELL students. One of the things that as a teacher it is easy to forget is that every time we ask our ELL students to do something – read a story, do a math problem, or perform an experiment, we are in actually asking them to do several things: translate the language that explains what is expected of them, do the task, and then figure out how to explain what they did or understood in English. Figure out the language for the math problem, do the math problem, and then figure out the words to explain what s/he did and why.
Many people are likely thinking, “Wordless books are for three-year-olds.” It used to be that wordless books were things used only in preschool for the preliterate students. However, wordless books have come of age. Books that show the immigrant story like Shaun Tan's The Arrival and the fantastical tales of David Wiesner are far from the simplistic concepts and images of years gone by. Wordless books are now full of complexity and creativity which makes them valuable tools for teaching a new language to students working on literacy in another language and for developing language and creativity for those who are working in their own native language.
So much cognitive power is used by ELL students just to figure out the language being used, that they have less processing power than the English-speaking student left for the task itself. That is why there is an old axiom in ESL instruction that says, “new content – old language; new language - old content.” That is one of the most beautiful things about using wordless books: students can focus on only doing one task at a time. The wordless book provides the content; they provide the language. In a writing class, they don’t have to try to figure out what to say and to find the language to figure out how to say it – they only have to focus on the language. That may be why Early (1991) found that using wordless books with ELL encourages them “to produce longer, more detailed, coherent, and cohesive texts.”
In addition to using wordless books for language, wordless books can also be used to develop conceptual understanding in the content areas. Using a text in content areas like social studies such as Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo byTom Feelings or in math the pictures from Tana Hoban’s More, Fewer, Less provides the students with the time and opportunity to develop the necessary conceptual framework with images before being burdened with new content area language. Using wordless books in the content areas allows for the ELL “new with old” paradigm to be fulfilled.
For the beginner there are lots of ways to scaffold the process – dictating the story, teacher modeling the story and having students create alternate endings; providing word banks; or working with others to create the story. Another fabulous thing about the use of wordless books is that they are perfect tools for classrooms with both native and non-native speakers of English. One need only look at the immigrant experience as depicted in the wordless book The Arrival by Shaun Tan or the fantastical tales by David Weisner to recognize that depth, imagination and complexity can be created with just illustrations – leaving lots of room for the creative writing and concept learning to come.
There are lots and lots of sites which have lists of wordless books. Here are just a few.
Some Lesson Plan Ideas for using wordless books can be found at