how books without words can build literacy skills

While thinking back to my days of volunteering as a high school student in an elementary classroom, I was reminded of one particular day’s task and, now that I can look through my critical ‘teacher lens,’ have a different take on the experience.

My job was this: take Grade 1 students out into the hall, one at a time, and have them narrate a book to me. The only catch: the book had no words. The book depicted a baby who, while being carried by their mother, yawns and starts a chain reaction of other yawns around the town which eventually makes it back to the same baby (and I wish I could remember the title/author of the book – I tried searching for it to no avail). The Grade 1 students were meant to catch on to this and tell me the story in their own words by interpreting the illustrations.

One particular student astounded me with their ability to string eloquent sentences together on the fly. They began the story with “Once upon a time…” and added in other phrases that made it very articulate and exactly like what the written words on the page would have said (if there had been any), while some of their other classmates merely flipped quickly through the pages saying, “Then the construction worker yawned. Then the librarian yawned” (which still show complete sentences and sequencing words like “then”). It took me by surprise how different the children’s versions of oral storytelling were.

I think ‘reading’ books without words is a great way for students to work on the flow of their spoken words, storyline comprehension, understanding of story elements (beginning, middle, end, setting, characters, plot, etc.) and careful observation of visual clues. Perhaps the biggest benefit of this exercise is its quality of open-endedness, which leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation and creativity. Each student will notice different things on the page and verbalize their observations into the story. It is pretty amazing that one book will never be told exactly the same way – it allows for a lot of reuse!

Another thing that struck me when thinking about this experience was that some of the students clued in to the yawning, while others mistook the baby’s closed eyes and open mouth for screaming or crying. The evaluation of the students’ performance in this exercise was based on their ability to recognize the baby’s action as a yawn, not something else. At the time, I remember feeling bad for the children who misinterpreted the pictures.


Thinking back on this now, I question if this is truly a fair evaluation of a student’s skill. Is it contradictory to give students all the freedom of telling their own story and then penalize them for not getting the prescribed ‘right answer?’ Or should children be expected to put together the story’s clues and realize the yawn? What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback on this one! It just goes to show you that assessment can be a slippery slope, especially with such wide open activities.


2 thoughts on “how books without words can build literacy skills

  1. Reading through your blog post I really liked the idea of the storybook with no words. We all interpret certain pictures and actions differently. What we interpret is often based off of our past experiences, culture, and the society we live in. In regards to evaluation, I believe that as long as the student can provide a sufficient story, that connects ideas together and makes sense, then the student should excel. Having the student being evaluated according to a certain interpretation of what the book ‘should’ read, falls under oppressive education. This also fits under what we perceive to be ‘common sense’. If the baby has its eyes closed and mouth open, the ‘common sense’ constructed by the teacher is that the baby is yawning. Asking the students what their ideas are should give them an opportunity to express themselves freely. An exercise where further evaluation could be considered, in an anti-oppressive manner, would be to have the students write out their personal thoughts. Therefore the evaluation would focus on writing skills, rather than confining students’ imaginations to be evaluated. I believe that imagination should flourish and not be extinguished due to standardization. Though, teaching toward social justice is much easier said than done. Society is constructed in ways that there will be a dominant ‘right’ answer and an ‘incorrect’ minority, or ‘wrong’ answer. Often minorities get lost beneath dominant viewpoints, or can be considered less than. To make a change in education is challenging, to change society. Little things are connected to bigger things.

    • Thanks for the insight, Jesse! I feel the same way – that doing an imaginative activity can’t be judged with one certain indicator of success because it is so broad and open to individual interpretation. You have linked together many of Kumashiro’s ideas into your response. It’s great to see practical applications of what we are learning in the textbooks. I appreciate what you shared.

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