Document 74283

Using wordless picture books
to promote second language
This article discusses one approach
that I have found successful for
teachers with little formal ESL training and few ESL text materials to help
their primary-aged
ESL students to develop wide and varied uses of
English. The approach has proved effective in a situation in which almost
half of the school population
(in Vancouver, British Columbia) consists of
ESL students, and in which, naturally, the great majority of teachers are not
ESL specialists. The article discusses how wordless picture books can be
used for both oral language and literacy development
across a wide range
of topics, thinking skills, and text-types. These books and the approach to
using them, will, we believe, work well in EFL as well as ESL settings.
Wordless picture books tell stories entirely through graphic illustrations.
Frequently, people think of these books only in relation to very young
children, but more recently the value of wordless books for younger and
older students alike has been demonstrated (McGee and Tompkins,
1983). These books, because they lack texts, can be used for a multitude
of purposes and a wide range of age and proficiency. Moreover, while text
materials for teaching English as a second language may, in some
instances, be in short supply, schools and public libraries around the
world frequently have a plentiful supply of wordless picture books, or
indeed, students and teachers can make their own inexpensive versions of
this type of picture book.
Several researchers have considered the language skills that children can
acquire when working with wordless texts. According to Degler (1979),
these texts can be used to develop oral language, and since there are no
right or wrong answers in ‘reading’ these texts, they appear to foster
positive attitudes towards books. In our own work in Vancouver, we have
found that not only are these books a good vehicle to develop oral
language, but they are also good for developing particular discourse
types. Since the illustrations in the books are generally beautifully
detailed, they can be used to develop the language of description. Since
they often depict clever, moral tales presented on several levels of
meaning, they can be read literally to develop the language of temporal
sequence and choice and inferentially to develop the language of
prediction, hypothesis, and cause/effect.
ELT Journal Volume 45/3 July 1991 © Oxford UniversityPress 1991
In addition, by evaluating characters and their actions, the language of
judgement can be developed and, by understanding the concepts and the
interrelation of concepts, the language of classification and concept
formation is likely to be produced. Working within Mohan’s (1986)
framework for integrative language and content, the potential for
exploiting possibilities to produce different types of oral and written texts
from wordless books is considered in Figure 1.
Figure 1:
Based on Mohan (1986)
of actions
judge actions
General /
Specific /
any picture
any sequence
any decision
The reading skills which may be developed by using these books are very
similar to those produced orally. They include sequencing, noting detail,
determining main idea, making inferences, drawing conclusions, noting
cause/effect, and making judgements (Ellis and Preston, 1984).
Several scholars have noted that these books can be used to promote the
development of a variety of writing skills. Using either a languageexperience approach (Stauffer, 1970) where the teacher acts as scribe, or
by allowing students to compose their own writings, a single word,
phrase, sentence, paragraph, or extended discourse can be composed
from these books (e.g. Flatley and Rutland, 1986). Using the chart in
Figure 1 as a guide, writing tasks can be developed which are likely to
produce particular discourse/text types. Finally, Abrahamson (1981)
suggests that wordless picture books can be good language diagnostic
tools, for as the child reads the book the teacher can gain valuable insights
into the child’s language competence. While most of the literature on
wordless picture books has been in a first language context, Rigg (1977)
and Enright and McCloskey (1988) have also suggested the potential for
using this type of text with ESL students.
An example
The teachers we are currently assisting report that the following steps are
helpful guide-lines, particularly in the initial stages of using wordless
picture books. With time and practice, they extend and adapt these
procedures to suit their own styles and situations. Drawing on data from
one teacher working with one group of eight-year-old ESL children, the
steps will be described and the procedures illustrated.
The book used in the example is the exquisitely illustrated The Angel and
the Soldier Boy by Peter Collington. The story depicted in its pictures is
summarized briefly here. A little girl falls asleep with two tiny dolls, one
an angel, the other a soldier, on her pillow. As soon as sleep overcomes
the child the two dolls come to life. An adventure ensues as a gang of
pirates robs the child’s piggy bank and kidnaps the soldier doll in the
course of his attempt to retrieve their booty. They keep the soldier captive
on their tiny model ship until the ingenuous, courageous angel doll braves
many obstacles to set him free. The two dolls manage to set all aright and
return to the sleeping child’s pillow before she awakens.
Step 1
The students and teacher survey the text to get a general sense of what the
book is about. The students are encouraged to ask questions for
clarification or to request vocabulary items that are of particular interest
to them. The teacher, if she chooses, can ask general questions such as
‘What’s happening?‘, ‘Do you know any other stories about pirates?‘,
‘Have you ever done something brave?’ to tap the students’ previous
experiences and to get some indication of their understanding of the story
and their ability to express their knowledge in the second language.
Step 2
Key vocabulary items are introduced. Either the teacher can pick five to
ten words related to the story, or the list can be compiled from those
words requested by the students when the text was surveyed. In practice,
a combination of the two has usually applied. Students often request
quite difficult words (e.g. glowing, braided, frightened, rescue). We have
found that in the context of the story they acquire these words quite
readily. The teacher, then, using the illustration as a support context,
naturally models the use of these words as they apply to the picture (e.g.
the angel is going to rescue the soldier, or the angel is frightened by a large
mouse). The students - either as a class, a group, or in pairs - are then
given opportunities
to ask questions or compose oral sentences
containing the key words in the story. The teacher, or the students’ peers,
support individual efforts through a process of ‘scaffolding’ (Bruner,
1973, where the child is supported in achieving an intended outcome.
Thus, in the pre-reading stage, the teacher has an opportunity to
establish, validate, and evaluate the students’ prior knowledge and
understanding of the story generally, and the students have an
opportunity to get a sense of the overall story, to ask clarification
questions and to request and expand their knowledge of new words.
Step 1
The teacher surveys the text to identify sections (plots and subplots) into
which it might naturally be divided. (Subplots are sometimes inserted
graphically in the margin, for example, of the main illustration.)
Step 2
Mohan (1986) has developed a set of questions a teacher can ask when
analysing material related to any given topic. We have found these
questions useful in helping to develop a wide range of language around
each section/episode depicted in the book. (See Figure 2 for a variation of
this idea.)
Using wordlesspicture books
Figure 2: Based on
Mohan (1986)
General /
theoretical: What
universal, timeless
themes are in the
topic materials?
What are the
concepts, ideas
What is the moral?
How are the
What values hold?
What counts as
good or bad?
What would a film
show about the
Who? What?
What persons,
objects, actions,
What happens?
What happens
What is the plot?
What are the
choices, conflicts,
Step 3
Usually, we work through each section of the book, first asking specific
questions of description, sequence, and choice. Once these have been
discussed fully, with the teacher modelling, scaffolding, and/or extending
the students’ use of language, the teachers introduce an inferential
‘reading’ of the text and draw the students to see moral themes. One way
to explore theme in tales is to elicit from the class topics, ideas, and
concepts on which the story depends (e.g. friendship, ‘good guys’, ‘bad
guys’, courage, theft, bravery, etc.). The teacher then explains that a
theme must connect at least two ideas within the story. Then, in pairs,
students work to develop a theme statement incorporating at least two of
the topics. The results from our adventure story included: ‘It is bad to
steal’, ‘You can be brave to help your friend’.
Step 4
These morals can then be shared with the class as a whole and the
universality of their truth-value discussed and judged. This raises the
possibility for the development of the language of critically reasoned
Step 5
The story might then be ‘re-read’ one more time, straight through, for
pleasure. Children do not appear to tire of the re-readings.
The teacher must decide what type of writing (e.g. description, sequence,
choice, cause/effect, etc.) she wants the students to produce from the
book and whether or not she wants to act as scribe for group or class
compositions or have the children compose the text themselves. In the
classroom from which these examples are drawn, the teacher had the
children working in pairs or individually. The children had to choose a
character or setting for describing; and a subplot for reporting. Their
choices were then turned into written descriptions and short narratives.
Examples of students’ work
Below are texts produced around The Angel and the Soldier Boy picture
book by a group of ESL children who have been learning English for less
than a year. The first two examples are of three students’ efforts to
produce the language of description. Examples 3, 4, and 5 display the
texts the children wrote as their linguistic realizations of various parts of
the plot.
Example 1: The Angel
The angel looks like a young girl. She has a yellow glowing halo over
her head. Her hair is long and braided. She has white wings on her
back. She is wearing a white dress with long sleeves. Her socks and
shoes are also white. (Betty and Denise)
Example 2: The Setting
The pirate ship is very big. It has tall sails and many guns. Inside the
ship the pirates sleep in hammocks. They sleep with their swords and
daggers. They look tough. It is dark and quiet in the ship. It looks
scary. (Kenji)
Example 3
A mother is reading a story to her daughter and the story is called
Treasure Ahoy the mother gave the girl a kiss and then the girl was
hugging in her hand the soldier and the angel and the girl was thinking
of something and then she went asleep. (Denise)
Example 4
The pirate climbed up the cord to the top of the table at the bed. Then
the pirate pushed the piggy bank. The soldier heard a strange sound so
he woke up. He saw the pirate. He left the angel asleep then he started
walking. (Carolyn)
Example 5
The pirate took the money. The soldier say stop. The pirate got his gun
and pointed at the soldier. The pirate said stick up or die. The boy
dropped his gun. The pirate kidnapped the soldier. The deck washer
got the money. The pirates was gone with the money and the soldier
and the soldier left his sword behind. (Kehn)
Later, the teacher will help the children merge their descriptions into
narrative texts, and make sure that each major section of the plot has
been written up by a child or group; then the teacher will help the children
compile and edit a class text around the story. If the teacher so chooses,
the major conflicts, dilemmas, and choices which the characters face can
be discussed and written up also in detail to enrich the recounting of the
The students can now read and re-read various sections or the complete
manuscript of different types of texts produced by their group or
individually. Students may read their own texts aloud for their classmates
or publish their texts on bulletin boards or in class anthologies for their
classmates to read.
The teacher (as described above) may give various sections of the book to
different pairs or individuals to generate a text; these texts may then be
compiled, edited, and illustrated to form a ‘textured’ class version of the
wordless book. If several groups, or different classes, produce different
versions of the texts, these may be compared to raise students’ awareness
Using wordlesspicture books
of different possible linguistic realizations of the graphics. The students
may read their stories onto a tape so that others may read along either
with the wordless picture book or the students’ ‘textured’ version.
Students can also review each others’ books, thus creating opportunities
to develop the language of concepts, principles, and evaluation.
There are many possible follow-up activities. A few are offered as a
starting-point. The students can act out the entire story or simply their
favourite part of the story. They may, if they choose, introduce twists in
the plot and act out what they think might have happened if something
had gone differently in one of the events; for example, what would have
happened if one of the pirates had woken-up during the rescue operation.
They could write letters to one of the characters in the story. If these
letters require a reply, then another child may imagine that he or she is the
character to whom the letter is addressed and take on the forming of a
suitable response. The students may also take on the roles of their
favourite or most despised characters and another child can interview
them about their actions, motives, and emotion in the story. News
reports, either on television, radio, or in a newspaper, can also be
prepared and released, reporting the key events in the story. In addition,
these books can act as a springboard for a wide range of related activities
(e.g. making model ships; researching pirates; finding similar heroic
tales; making dolls or other artefacts found in particular texts). Each of
these activities brings its own potential to develop a wide range of related
In sum, these books, because they tell stories without texts, stimulate
thinking and language use across modes and text-types. And because
they are generally beautifully illustrated, clever tales, they motivate
learners and hold their interest. With their built-in story structure, these
books encourage students to produce longer, more detailed, coherent,
and cohesive texts, which in turn fosters linguistic confidence in the
students. In short, these inexpensive materials have great potential for
language development. They ensure that students work with quality
graphics, good content, fine ideas and at the same time have some fun.
They provide an excellent means by which teachers without too much
effort can design tasks which afford their second-language learners an
opportunity to develop a variety of discourse structures across modes and
Received August 1990
Abrahamson, R. F. 1981. ‘An update on wordless
picture books with an annotated
The reading teacher 34/4, 417-421.
Bruner, J. 1975. ‘The ontogenesis
of speech acts’.
Journal of child language 2/1-40.
Collington, P. 1987. The Angel and the Soldier Boy.
Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi
Degler, L. S. 1979. ‘Putting words into wordless
books’. The reading teacher 32/4: 399-402.
Ellis, D. W. and F. W. Preston. 1984. ‘Enhancing
beginning reading using wordless picture books in
a cross-age tutoring program’. The reading teacher
37/8: 692-698.
Margaret Early
S. and M. McCloskey. 1988. Integrating
MA: Addison-Wesley.
Flatley, J. K. and A. D. Rutland. 1986. ‘Using
wordless picture books to teach linguistically/
culturally different students’. The reading teacher
40/3: 276-281.
McGee, L. M. and G. E. Tompkins. 1983. ‘Wordless
picture books are for older readers, too’. Journal
of reading 27/2: 120-123.
Mohan, B. 1986. Language and content. Reading,
MA: Addison-Wesley.
Rigg, P. 1977. Reading ESL, in Fanselow, J. and R.
Crymes (eds.) On TESOL ‘76. (pp.203-210),
Washington, DC: Teachers of English to Speakers
of Other Languages.
Stauffer, R. G. 1970. The Language experience
approach to the teaching of reading. New York:
Harper and Row.
English. Reading,
The author
Margaret Early (PhD, University of California, Los
Angeles) is Assistant Professor in the Department
Language Education
at the University
of British
Columbia and co-director with Bernard Mohan of a
and content
project in the
Vancouver School District. She was previously the
for English as a Second
and Multi-Cultural
for the
Province of British Columbia and Co-ordinator
ESL programmes
for the Vancouver School Board.
Her research
are in the planning
of programmes
for school-aged
children. She is particularly interested in considering
Using wordlesspicture books