wordless books · writing workshop

Silence is Golden: The Value of Wordless Text

I have to face facts: February is a SLOG for me as a writing teacher. We’re just past the point of knowing the expectations and settling into our routine, but we’re just not quite to the point where all of the pieces start to fall together. There’s magic in the works, but oh! I’m just waiting for it to happen.

Now is about the time of year when I’m looking for something – anything! – to get us out of the rut we’re in, spark our creativity, and work on some of that classroom magic we’re seeking. And for me, one of my favorite sources is wordless texts. Animated shorts, wordless books, you name it! They’re perfect for so many reasons. Today, I’ll share some of the ways I love using wordless texts for writers of all strengths and levels of readiness. 

Why Wordless Texts?

I like using wordless texts because they shake things up. My kids pay much better attention to a story when it’s shared in a format they’re not always used to. More importantly, wordless texts even the playing field among learners. Removing the written word allows for thinking skills, pure and simple, to take the stage. Sure, advanced readers may have vocabulary and fluency, but others may use deductive reasoning or understand abstract themes in ways they don’t often get credit for. Watching that dynamic play out in a classroom is heartening.

For your reference, I’m sharing two collections I’ve curated over the years. One is a detailed spreadsheet I can reference for using animated shorts in the classroom. The other is a list of wordless texts I often incorporate. Both are works-in-progress, and I’d love to field any ideas or additions you have!

Starting Simple and Sure-Fire

When I’m looking to use wordless shorts in my classroom, there are several simple activities I can use that take little planning or work on my part. Generally, I see more success when students read or watch the text once before launching an activity, but whatever works best for your students is the way to go.

Backwards Design. What can we learn about story structure from viewing an animated short? Students could construct a basic 3-column chart to show “Beginning – Middle – End,” or track a “5-finger plot line” to trace a problem and solution. 

Simple video that demonstrates the “5-finger plot line:” Bench (1:00)

One Word, One Page. I like to do this activity with wordless books. Is it possible to summarize a wordless page in a single word? This works best with books that have simpler, more straightforward illustration patterns, with one to two illustrations per page. This activity could be leveled according to grade level or readiness on a continuum: Can students match any kind of word that they think of on this page? What if they limited themselves to action words/verbs? Nouns? Adjectives? Abstract nouns?

David Weisner’s Tuesday: What one word would YOU use to accompany each page?

As an extension, this activity could be done with an animated short. Students would need to decide for themselves what the critical or transition points are in the story, screenshot those, and describe them accordingly. The opportunities for differentiation are endless!

Test Prep. It’s late February. Who can forget standardized testing? In the February 19th episode of the Two Writing Teachers Podcast, Melanie Meehan talks about ways to infuse test prep with joy and fun. She speaks in particular about an activity she does with Pip, an animated short (4:05) about a dog who goes into a guide dog academy. Melanie shares great strategies for incorporating the same kinds of writing skills students might see tested in the coming weeks. We build the skills, kids get the fun. Call it a win-win!

Leveling Up: Oh, the Possibilities!

For times when things are moving along well, or if I have learners who are ready for bigger and better things, there are so many more directions we can go with wordless media. Here are just a few additional possibilities:

Comparing platforms. I can have my students consider: what do wordless texts do BETTER than worded text? What do they miss out on? Would just any piece of text translate to a wordless format, or vice versa? From there, they can choose a piece of their own writing that might succeed as a wordless piece. Maybe they’d like to transform their own work, or perhaps they’d like to trade with partners or groups to craft from a new direction.

Consider craft. In animation or in wordless texts, a creator has to use a different set of tools to convey character, plot and theme.

  • How does a creator indicate that scenes are changing? 
  • How do they focus the reader on different characters or ideas?
  • How does a creator use visual (or sound) elements to convey imagery and symbolism?
  • How might foreshadowing work in a visual or auditory sense? (Is there a storm? Someone looking through a window? A shadow? A change in the music?)
  • How might inner thought work in a visual sense?
Camera zoom in-out: Istvan Banyai’s Zoom

How do we infer emotion? Dark Dark Woods (6:15)

Use of imagery, shading (content warning: implied threat of self-harm) Side Effects (1:30)

Showing sequence: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

Visual communication: just look at the layers that Barbara Lehman conjures in The Red Book!

Summing it Up

In (animated!) short, I’ve found that wordless texts go a long way toward adding excitement and variety to our writing classroom. I hope that I’ve been able to offer some hints and ideas for how you might use them, too!

My collections of animated shorts and wordless texts are open to anyone who’d like to use them. And, if you have any other resources or ideas for using wordless media, share it with the community in the comments!

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