Wordless picture books are the bridge between the literacy skills the students are learning in their classroom and the visual images they are creating and responding to in the art room. Students are already familiar and comfortable with the concept of sitting down with their teacher to read and discuss a book in their classroom, so it would be a smooth transition to doing this in the art room. Students have been somewhat receptive to this, although some of the third graders asked me, "When are we going to do art?" I had to explain that talking about illustrations in a story was talking about art, and talking about art is an important part of learning about art. As an art teacher, literature and books have a strong link to visual art, especially in the young elementary grades. At the grade levels of kindergarten through third grade, students are rarely looking at text without accompanying illustrations. Reading to my students offers an immediate connection to one of the activities they already do in their classrooms, and a similar routine of reading to them aloud as a whole class in the art room can usually get them more invested and interested in my lesson. As author Caroline Brodie noted,
Wordless picture books can serve as a great tool for building vocabulary and comprehension by providing an opportunity to verbally "read" the picture…wordless picture books encourage creative thinking because students can see how verbal (and written) language works with the illustrations.
Without text to explain objectively what the students are looking at, it is up to the students to put together the story being shown solely in pictures. They can use the same skills they have learned in their literacy lessons in the classroom to interpret the story. Many students will find out themselves that text is not necessary in a lot of cases, as the sequence of many stories is very clear from page to page.
Students are also used to participating in what is called a "Picture Walk," although the implementation of the Common Core State Standards is restructuring this process somewhat by eliminating the term. I spoke with several of the K-3 teachers in my building to get an idea of what this was because I was unfamiliar with the term. A picture walk is used when a new book is introduced to the class. The teacher sits the class in a group (this can be done one-on-one as well) and shows the class every other page or so of illustrations. The class discusses, with prompting, what they see and what their predictions for the story are. When the story is read to them, they are comfortable discussing the events therein, and they have a familiarity with the sequence/structure of the story. I have not done this in the past but plan to incorporate it into my future lessons, starting during the instruction of this unit.
Wordless books are a great resource for art teachers and classroom teachers because they are "accessible to everyone regardless of language or reading ability, making the books ideal for use in international settings, classes with non native speakers, or families with adults or children who are struggling or emergent readers."
This is a sentiment that I read echoed over and over again in journal articles and books about the benefits of using wordless picture books in the classroom. Students who participate in art may sometimes be shy but articulate about their abilities as artists and especially as readers, so using wordless books serves as a non-threatening way to introduce literacy into the practice of learning about art. There is no pressure to sound out words or struggle over pronunciation.
Many of my students enter school for the first time without a strong foundation of conversational skills and as a result have heard "32 million fewer words than some of their classmates,"
according to Gentry. I hope that through this unit, classroom teachers will consider using wordless picture books as well as artist prints as a valuable tool for developing literacy, vocabulary and conversational skills amongst their students.
The Ebb and Flow of Wordless Picture Books' Popularity
According to Barbara Bader in her book
American Picture Books from Noah's Ark to The Beast Within,
the addition of sound to movies halted the development of wordless picture books. After 1931's
A Head for Happy
by Helen Sewell, the next wordless book didn't get published until more than thirty years later.
This website offers a list of wordless picture books from the 1960's to the present that are categorized by author's country of origin as well as by theme: http://gatheringbooks.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/list-of-wordless-picture-books/ .
Picture books without words have been becoming increasingly numerous and easy to find. When researching this unit, my local library had labels on all the text-less books to identify them and set them apart from the other books in the children's section. Many wordless picture books have been published in the last five years, including this year's
by David Weisner; and last year alone,
by Bob Staake,
by Aaron Becker, and
by Lizi Boyd hit the shelves of bookstores and local libraries. This resurgence serves to raise the picture book to a fine art standard that it well deserves, beyond the yearly Caldecott Medal, which is awarded for illustrations. The more popular this style of book is becoming, the more picture book illustration as a fine art is recognized.
How to "Read" a Wordless Picture Book
Wordless picture books are able to teach children many of the same valuable literacy skills and concepts that books with text do. Therefore, using them in the art room is of great value in supporting what the classroom teachers are modeling, except in a different modality. These books, as noted in numerous articles (Read and Smith's being just one), teach children about "sequencing, determining main idea, making inferences, drawing conclusions, determining cause and effect and making judgments."
I feel that wordless books demonstrate these concepts just as well as books with words, and that teachers would benefit greatly from using these books, if those concepts were easily accessible through an index of themes such as the ones as referred to by Read and Smith. There are already in existence lists of books with themes such as Journeys, Chases, and Dreams, but none from a literary conceptual standpoint such as those topics mentioned above (main idea, sequencing, drawing conclusions, etc.).