As a Kindergarten teacher, I know it takes effort to keep students engaged. The attention span of a five-year-old is limited! One thing that can keep their attention is a good story. Whether I’m sharing a read aloud or describing an event from the weekend in our morning circle, kids are fascinated. Storytelling is an art that writers need, too.
What is Storytelling?
Storytelling is an important skill for writers of all ages. Writers must be able to capture their audience’s attention to communicate their purpose. Oral storytelling improves students’ speaking and listening skills. Comprehension also grows as they practice retelling, sequencing, predicting, and inferencing.
What are Wordless Picture Books?
One tool to help students tell stories is the wordless picture book! These books set the stage for storytelling, because the reader must carefully examine the illustrations to deduce the story, then find the words to describe what is happening. While I share my experiences with kindergarten storytelling in this post, even high school students can grow as writers when they practice storytelling with wordless picture books. There are some incredible titles out there that can meet the needs of different genres and ages. Afoma Umesi shares forty books on her blog, Reading Middle Grade. In this post, I’ll share four ways to use wordless picture books to support storytelling in writing workshop.
“Read it Like a Story!”
When I first introduce students to wordless picture books, I share a two-step process to help kids read a book with no words.
First, the reader takes a picture walk through the book, naming what they notice on each page. After that, reread and use what they’ve learned to read it like a story. I love to have students practice in partnerships. On the second read, I hear students reading with expression, shouting sound words, making up dialogue, and adding suspense!
Check out these beautiful illustrations from Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle.
Here’s what I might say about this page during my picture walk:
“I see a flamingo standing the way flamingos usually stand- straight up with one bent leg in the air and one leg straight. It looks very prim and proper. Then I see Flora in a pink swimsuit, the same color as the flamingo, standing prim and proper, too. Her chin is up and her one leg is bent. She kind of looks like a flamingo! Hmm… I wonder if she is copying the flamingo. Maybe she really likes them? Maybe she wants to be as graceful as one? Okay, let me lift the flap. Oh my goodness, the flamingo turned and glared at Flora! I don’t think the flamingo likes being copied! And, how funny, Flora turns her head and whistles, as if she is pretending she’s not copying the flamingo.”
Here’s what I could say when I read it like a story:
“Flora crept up behind the flamingo, quiet as a mouse. She studied his high head and bent leg. Slowly, slowly, slowly, Flora lifts her leg high and bends her knee. Her leg wiggles as she balances. She lifts her chin. She did it! She’s a flamingo! SNAP! Just like that, the flamingo whips his head around in anger. He heard her! Flora, afraid, quickly drops her lifted leg to the floor and whistles a tune. ‘Nothing to see hear!’ she thinks.”
It’s fun to notice details in illustrations, and even better to use my skills as an author to craft a story based on what I see. I created some context based on my inferences. I included figurative language like similes, onomatopoeia, and repetition. I even included some dialogue and feelings. Through oral storytelling, students can play with these skills without the hard work of writing these words down.
Wordless picture books are an excellent method for introducing primary students to labeling. At the beginning of the school year, the kindergarteners in my classroom are still learning letter-sound correspondence and concepts about print. As a result, only some of them write sentences in their books. To increase the amount of print in their books, I encourage kids to label their illustrations with letters.
For this lesson, I group students into partnerships and give each group a wordless picture book and small post-it notes. Then, I invite students to add letter labels throughout the book. After labeling, partners “read” the book by touching and reading the labels. This helps students learn that the print we put in books has meaning. Labeling is an important skill for more than just Kindergarteners. Prompt your older students to add word or sentence labels to the illustrations in wordless picture books.
Wordless picture books open up opportunities for writers of all ages to learn about dialogue. Using paper, tape, and wooden sticks, you can make small speech bubble (or thought bubble!) sticks. As students read their wordless picture books, challenge them to hold the speech bubble stick on every character and make them “talk.” This is a fun time to add sound effects, too!
Authors and illustrators who create wordless picture books are adept at communicating character actions without words. They often put multiple frames on a page, similar to a graphic novel, to depict actions. Consequently, these books can help students describe action in greater detail. Prompt students to describe action in “small steps.” For example, instead of saying, “He got in the car,” one might write, “He grabbed his keys, slammed the screen door, and jumped in the car, buckling his seat belt as he turned the key.” You might invite older students to write sentences on post-it notes to leave in the book.
Here’s another page from Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle. Click on the picture and study it. What small steps could you write about this page?
I might write, “The flamingo’s loud SQUACK startled Flora off her feet! Scrambling to get away, she tumbled! Her legs flipped up and her head flipped down. Her flippered foot slipped on the wet ground, tossing her into a somersault! Then, SPLAT! Flora landed on her bottom, rubbing her head, water dripping from her swim cap.
Put It Into Practice
After each of these activities, send students off to write and try the skill they practiced with the wordless picture books. Students can apply these skills to any genre. Encourage them to add story words, labels, dialogue, and action into their own writing.
Using wordless picture books as a scaffold helps students practice oral storytelling skills they can carry into their own writing. As they practice out loud in a low-stakes way, students will slowly be able to transfer that language into writing. The following video shows a kindergartener at the beginning of the school year, reading his train book “like a story.” While he wasn’t yet ready to add more text to his book, he could practice language, vocabulary, story elements, and share his passion for trains using skills he learned with wordless picture books.
Special thanks to Chronicle Books LLC for sharing Molly Idle’s artwork from Flora and the Flamingo.