Exploring Wordless Picture Books

Exploring Wordless Picture Books

Wordless picture books may be better defined by what they do contain — visually rendered narratives — rather than what they do not contain. This article challenges traditional ways of looking at wordless picturebooks and offers a few approaches for integrating wordless picturebooks into a wider range of classrooms, preschool through middle school.

Traditionally, wordless picture books have been defined by what they do not contain: words. They have also been defined by an assumed readership of young readers who can't yet read words. This potential bias toward the essential nature of the wordless picture book — which I also call a visually rendered narrative — needs to be rethought in order to consider the potential of this type of book in today's classrooms. In this column, I would like to challenge both of these traditional ways of looking at wordless picture books and offer a few approaches for integrating wordless picture books into a wider range of classrooms: preschool through middle school.

Literary considerations

To begin, wordless picture books often do contain some words. For example, most wordless picture books contain a title, the author-illustrator's name, and other peritextual elements like copyright information, author blurbs, and book jacket teasers usually created by the publisher. The textual elements included with these picture books serve to identify the work, designate the topic or focus of the book, and allow readers and librarians to shelve and retrieve the books. In addition, other words are often contained in the illustrations as signs, labels, or parts of the décor, for example; these are defined as intra-iconic text (Beckett, 2014).

In their classic taxonomy, Richey and Puckett (1992) divided wordless picture books into two main types, wordless and almost-wordless picture books, and delineated several sub-categories for each type. They asserted that many wordless picture books contain dialogue, labels, onomatopoeia, text used as a framing device at the beginning and end of the book, symbols, and of course, titles. So, we have to admit that wordless picture books aren't entirely wordless!

Wordless picture books may be better defined by what they do contain — visually rendered narratives — rather than what they do not contain. In some wordless picture books, the visual narrative is rendered through a sequence of images that contains features typically associated with graphic novels, such as gutters and panels (Low, 2012). Flotsam (Wiesner, 2006) and The Snowman (Briggs, 2002) are two examples of this type of wordless picture book. Other visual narratives are rendered through full-page illustrations. For example, the wordless picture book Chalk (Thomson, 2010) features some of the most detailed, full-bleed sequence of illustrations found in any picture book. The colorful illustrations of the playground setting and the dinosaur that comes to life in the story are simply breathtaking. In this type of picture book, the turning of the page, rather than individual panels, orders and reveals the narrative sequence of images.

Second, all readers can enjoy wordless picture books and should be exposed to them whether or not they can read words proficiently. Being able to make sense of the world begins with making sense of visual information. It goes without saying that young children can read pictures long before they can read words. However, making sense of some of the more complex wordless picture books available today requires being able to understand the conventions of these books, including the sequential rendering of visual information, the drama of the turning page, and ways to navigate panels, gutters, and other design features. The sparse written text that may be included is there to support the visual images, anchor the narrative sequence, and call attention to various aspects of the visual narrative. In wordless picture books, the written text is subservient to the visually rendered narrative. As wordless picture books grow more complex, older readers will find challenges and enjoyment in these texts, which are too often relegated to younger readers.

Pedagogical possibilities

Knudsen-Lindauer (1988) suggested that wordless picture books offer numerous pedagogical benefits for emerging readers, including the development of pre-reading skills, sequential thinking, a sense of story, visual discrimination, and inferential thinking. In addition, Arizpe (2014) outlined the demands that wordless picture books place on readers. In order to make meaning in transaction with these visual narratives, Arizpe suggested five things that readers of wordless picture books must learn to do:

  • Give voice to the visual narrative by participating in the story sequence
  • Interpret characters' thoughts, feelings, and emotions without textual support for confirming these ideas
  • Tolerate ambiguity and accept that not everything may be answered or understood
  • Recognize that there are a range of reading paths to explore through the visual narrative
  • Elaborate on hypotheses about what is happening in the narrative sequence

Providing time for readers to immerse themselves in a variety of wordless picture books allows them to enjoy the elaborate illustrations, explore the narrative possibilities these books offer, become comfortable with the absence of written text, and develop understandings of how these books work. Wordless picture books can be used to support readers' understandings of narrative conventions as they progress toward more sophisticated graphic novels and multimodal texts.

In a recent study, I worked with a high school teacher using Flotsam (Wiesner, 2006) and The Arrival (Tan, 2006) to introduce her readers to the conventions and designs of visual narratives in wordless picture books that are also found in graphic novels. The wordless picture books used in her classroom offered her older readers a relatively risk-free opportunity to share and discuss the visual and narrative conventions that would support their reading of other multimodal texts.

In addition to understanding the visual and narrative conventions of wordless picture books, readers need to be able to interpret what is happening in individual images and illustrations. Facial expressions, gestures, settings, events, actions, and motives all have to be inferred from the sequence of images, since no text is available to anchor the meaning potential of the visual narrative. By discussing a variety of narrative and visual features, we bring forth readers' implicit understandings of visual images and narrative sequences and make themexplicit so we can examine how they serve the narrative and influence interpretations. As reading teachers, we need to call students' attention to how these books work in addition to what they might mean.

Wordless picture books by Barbara Lehman — for example, The Red Book (2004), Rainstorm (2007), and The Secret Box (2011) — are wonderful visual narratives that keep readers exploring the details of the illustrations over the course of numerous readings. Recent award-winning wordless picture books like The Lion and the Mouse (Pinkney, 2009), and Flora and the Flamingo (Idle, 2013) offer the reader opportunities to explore beautifully illustrated picture books and focus children's attention on the rendering of the visual narrative.

Wordless picture books are not simply for beginning readers, however. Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad (Cole, 2012),The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo (Feelings, 1995), and Mirror (Baker, 2010) are sophisticated visual narratives that evoke discussions concerning the types of social issues usually reserved for older readers. As picture books cross over into young adult themes and topics, they become even more important for sharing and discussing with older readers.


From classic wordless picture books like Anno's Italy (Anno, 1978) and The Snowman (Briggs, 2002) to more recent publications like Wave (Lee, 2008), Journey (Becker, 2013), A Ball for Daisy (Raschka, 2011), and Sidewalk Circus (Fleischman, 2007), the quality of the wordless picture book continues to improve and evolve. The open-endedness and rich visual experiences that are offered in these texts require readers to slow down and pay close attention to the details of the illustrations and the rendering of the visual narrative. As readers are invited to shift from the temporal logic of the written text to the spatial logic of the visual image, we need to find ways to support their meaning-making processes with visually rendered narratives in addition to written language (Kress, 2010).

Imagination is an important part of the process of reading visual narratives. Readers are being asked to actively participate in the construction of the narrative and cannot rely simply on the literal decoding of written text. The open-endedness or ambiguity that is inherent in wordless picture books allows readers to construct diverse interpretations and return again and again to reconsider their initial impressions. Teaching readers to dwell in complex illustrations and to wander through the sequence of images in wordless picture books, exploring the possibilities they offer, is an important part of becoming visually literate (Serafini, 2010, 2012).

In today's world, being able to make sense of visual images is an essential skill both in and out of school. Too often, being literate focuses on reading written text and not in making sense of the world across modalities, in part because of the logocentric or text-focused nature of schools and society (Bosch, 2014). Teachers need to develop their own capacities for talking about visual images and narratives in order to support the development of these capacities in their readers (Serafini, 2014). Wordless picture books may be the best platform for introducing many narrative conventions, reading processes, and visual strategies to readers of all ages.

Related video: The wonder and excitement of wordless picture books

Take a look at wordless picture books and how important they are for developing early literacy skills, like comprehension, vocabulary, and listening.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

  • Arizpe, E. (2014). Wordless picturebooks: critical and educational perspectives on meaning-making. In B. Kümmerling-Meibauer (Ed.),Picturebooks: Representation and narration (pp. 91–106). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Beckett, S. (2014). The art of visual storytelling: Formal strategies in wordless picturebooks. In B. Kümmerling-Meibauer (Ed.),Picturebooks: Representation and narration (pp. 53–70). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Bosch, E. (2014). Texts and peritexts in wordless and almost wordless picturebooks. In B. Kümmerling-Meibauer (Ed.), Picturebooks: Representation and narration (pp. 71–90). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Knudsen-Lindauer, S.L. (1988). Wordless books: An approach to visual literacy. Children's Literature in Education, 19(3), 136–141.
  • Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Low, D.E. (2012). “Spaces invested with content”: Crossing the “gaps” in comics with readers in schools. Children's Literature in Education, 43, 368–385.
  • Richey, V.H., & Puckett, K.E. (1992). Wordless/almost wordless picture books: A guide. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Serafini, F. (2010). Reading multimodal texts: Perceptual, structural and ideological perspectives. Children's Literature in Education,41, 85–104.
  • Serafini, F. (2012). Reading multimodal texts in the 21st century. Research in the Schools, 19(1), 26–32.
  • Serafini, F. (2014). Reading the visual: An introduction to teaching multimodal literacy. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Literature Cited

  • Anno, M. (1978). Anno's Italy. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
  • Baker, J. (2010). Mirror. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
  • Becker, A. (2013). Journey. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
  • Briggs, R. (2002). The Snowman. New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Cole, H. (2012). Unspoken: A story from the Underground Railroad. New York, NY: Scholastic.
  • Feelings, T. (1995). The Middle Passage: White ships/black cargo. New York, NY: Dial Books.
  • Fleischman, P. (2007). Sidewalk circus. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
  • Idle, M. (2013). Flora and the flamingo. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
  • Lee, S. (2008). Wave. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
  • Lehman, B. (2004). The red book. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Lehman, B. (2007). Rainstorm. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Lehman, B. (2011). The secret box. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Pinkney, J. (2009). The lion and the mouse. New York, NY: Little, Brown.
  • Raschka, C. (2011). A ball for Daisy. New York, NY: Schwartz & Wade.
  • Tan, S. (2006). The arrival. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine.
  • Thomson, B. (2010). Chalk. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.
  • Wiesner, D. (2006). Flotsam. New York, NY: Clarion.

Frank Serafini. (2014). Exploring Wordless Picture Books. The Reading Teacher, 68(1), 24–26 doi: 10.1002/trtr.1294


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.


Wordless picture books are a great way to introduce reading to students at a younger age and would allow them to have a greater interest in reading, which there needs to be more of! This article does a great job of explaining the importance of wordless picture books and why they should be implemented more in teaching.

In my class today, we looked at your website and at another article talking about sharing wordless picture books. I think that it is important to build children's imagination and their ability to talk about what they are seeing. There was discussion of how we would implement this type of book into a classroom. I think a cool way would be to give a child a book and have him/her look through the book and then decorate a bag that they will place the book into to take home. At home, they would have a parent read aloud to them and then they would be expected to read it back to them later in the week. This would be a good way to engage the children.

I loved learning about how wordless picture books invites readers to shift from the temporal logic of the written text to the spatial logic of the visual image. As a class, we discussed the importance of imagination and how essential it is to have the skills mentioned above in and out of school. Wordless picture books help students have their own interpretation of their book that they can compare with their classmates after.

I really liked how you explore open imagination with children's books so they can evolve into much greater things.

I appreciate the way you interpret imagination and the importance it has on early readers. I always disliked the books that contained pictures because I wasn't allowed to imagine what the people in the story looked like.

I like how you mentioned the open-endedness of pictures books and how each reading interprets the images differently, and when going back to read it again and again they can interpret it differently each time. Thank you for your work.

Wordless children's books allow children an early love for books. One thing that was important to note form the article was that children at an early age pressure interactive book nad books that they can easily understand.

I think it is super important to expose early readers to wordless picture books because it becomes a stepping stone into moving on to reading picture books. It encourages students to want to read.

Learning about wordless pictures books was not only fun but it was interesting to know how they influence children and how it helps them learn how to read.

I have learned quite a bit today about wordless picture books that I did not know before. For example, I was definitely under the impression that wordless picture books are for young children who do not have the ability to read words, but I now see the importance of these books at all ages. They can help students foster healthy imaginations, and give them skills they need both in and outside of school.

The part about how wordless picture books are open for interpretation resonated with me as a former ELL student I know how important those types of books were for my understanding.

I think the importance of wordless picture books is how it teaches children how to analyze pictures in different ways . Understanding different facial expressions in different situations is important for the development of the child .

I love the concept of wordless picture books, I learned how truly important they can be to young children in their learning and imagination. Something I will definitely take with me for my future children!

I really appreciated your take on the importance of wordless picture books. Adding the note of how kids process images first, really made it seem significant

Very informative and helped me understand more in depth about the pros of wordless picture books. This will help me in the future as an educator!

I really appreciated the statement about interpreting the facial expressions and gestures, etc., the kids really do have to interpret this on their own through the images given and that is a good point I did not even think about but would be good to expand on in class to improve the whole understanding of the book.

I think it is important that all children read picture books regardless of their literacy level because they do "read" pictures before words.

Being able to analyze pictures without text can help a child's literary development and social interactions that they may have in the future. Students need to be able to enhance their analytical skills at a young age in order to advance their ways of thinking.

I think it is important for teachers and parents to expose kids to wordless picture books before they can even read. Children do process visual information before words and I think guiding them through wordless picture books helps them experience the world easier.

I never realized how important wordless picture books could be. I now know that they are a big part in cultivating young future reader's minds, making them more prepared to read.

I enjoyed the two pages on exploring and sharing wordless picture-books. I found it very educational as a future teacher.

I think its interesting how wordless picture books have a lot of influence on the start of reading for children.

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"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan