How to “Read” Wordless Picture Books {Parent Tips}

After my list of 15 Wordless Picture Books, some parents said they felt lost and didn’t know how to read wordless books with kids. Others commented that their kids didn’t like books without text. I admit that it took me some time before I learned to enjoy reading wordless books and it wasn’t until I felt comfortable with the format that my kids started to enjoy them, too. I thought it would be fun to share my tips for “reading” these books and how I learned to love wordless books.

Tips for reading wordless books and questions to ask kids

There are lots of benefits to reading wordless books! Literacy is not simply about decoding words, but also involves understanding subtext and the ability to make inferences, so learning how to “read” stories beyond literal text is very important. Wordless book have to tell the story without text, so they are the perfect tool for enhancing reading comprehension.

There are three ways I usually “read” wordless books:

Narrate the Action:

The first and maybe the most common approach is to simply narrate the illustrations. That’s how I started. The downside to this reading tactic is that it takes a lot of brain power. Honestly, I don’t always have this brain power. It’s all very well to say that parents need to be stellar read-aloud aficionados, and that may be true if you read to your kids only at bedtime or what-have-you, but let’s face it: parenting is hard and I am certainly not going to judge you for being tired sometimes. Reading text is definitely easier than coming up with the words yourself.

Ask Questions:

When I got exhausted from doing all the storytelling work myself I started asking questions, and Whoa! my kids had a lot to say. Asking questions not only takes pressure off you — the parent — to do all the thinking (do you ever feel like you have to do all the thinking? Yeah, me too.), but it teaches your children that narrative clues lay outside of text.

When answering your questions, kids start to understand story elements like plot, character, conflict, theme and even symbolism. It lays a terrific foundation for down the road, when they are learning to write and create their own stories in school (or at home).

General questions are a good way to get started. There’s nothing wrong with simplicity!

  • What do you see in the picture?
  • What is happening?
  • Who is here?

When opening a book for the first time, ask your child questions about the setting.

  • Where does this story take place?
  • What is the weather, season, day?
  • Is there anything unusual or familiar about the setting?
  • What sorts of things do people do in a place like this?

Spend time discussing the emotions of the story’s characters. (I like to spend a lot of time asking about the characters and their motivations, probably because of my theatrical background, but also these type of questions help kids understand the role of characters in moving the plot forward.)

  • What do you think he/she/it wants?
  • Why do you think he/she/it wants it?
  • What is the character thinking?
  • What is the character feeling? Are they happy? Sad? Angry?

Be sure to ask anticipatory questions! Anticipatory questions get kids eager to find out what happens next and keep “reading.”

  • What will happen next?
  • What do you think should happen?
  • What is a character going to do next?
  • What choices could a character make?

Encourage Child-Led Narration:

Get your child to tell you the story himself! Not only will this take the pressure off you, child-led narration exercises his imagination, oral skills. It even encourages him to use new vocabulary. I’ve noticed with my own sons that they approach narration differently. With my older son, I know he won’t tell the story until I’ve “read” it a few times first and asked him questions.  I think he likes to absorb as much information as possible before taking the plunge. It’s completely different for my 4 year old who rushes head-first into storytelling with gusto.

So if you child is a little reluctant, give it time, he’ll come around and you may be surprised at the things he invents! One of my favorite parts of child-led narration, is that each time my sons “read” a wordless book the story is a little bit different. Occasionally my sons will even narrate the story in the first person. I love how that means they are fully immersed in the action!

BONUS! Listen to my son answer a few of the questions. Plus, he uses the word, “hullabaloo!”

Do you enjoy reading wordless books with your kids? What tips would you give a parent who is hesitant or uncomfortable sharing wordless books?

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  1. says

    These suggestions are great! I definitely use all three of them now when reading wordless picture books with my kids, but I was also a timid wordless-picture-book-reader in the beginning and didn’t really like them. Now I love them (usually…there are still some that feel really, really tedious if I’m trying to narrate the actions). I think it’s fun to see how the story changes and grows and evolves from one reading to the next.

    I wish I’d had this post 4.5 years ago when Aaron was a baby!

  2. Samantha says

    My ok our two favorites are Unspoken and The Adventues of Harris Burdick! They both a great prompts that don’t offer promptly words for writers. They are free to express all of their predictions, inferences,etc. after sharing one like Ice even my 6 yo ds is easily led to paper to write his story! Thanks so much for sharing this and all of your posts. You have brought so many great books into our lives …. Many aren’t at our library or they may have one or two, but Santa and the Tooth Fairy etc wont have to do much but stop by Amazon…. We are waiting for The Cupcake Queen series and more Daisy Dawson’s…

  3. says

    I am totally one of those parents who dreads reading wordless picture books! So much so that when I first saw your post pop up on Pinterest, I was like “eh, I hate those things…”

    But I’m glad I did read this after all! Going to pin it now. :-) Thank you!

    • Erica MomandKiddo says

      Exactly, Kelly. I also never knew what to do with wordless books, but we have so much fun with them now.

  4. says

    Great tips. My son has a number of books with a lot of text alongside pictures and I have to admit both his dad and I have occasionally treated these as wordless books and just described the pictures or summarised the story – when it’s 8PM and past bedtime the last thing we want to do is read aloud for an hour!

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing these tips! I was probably one of these people asking “How do you do this?” I think it’s amazing what children see when you let them take the lead – they often come up with the most surprising ideas. One of the things I would also try to do, is to place them in the story and ask them what they would do, how they would feel, etc. I would be interested in seeing the difference in thoughts when you ask the questions about the character in the book, vs. placing them in the character’s shoes. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a difference, but I’d be curious to see.

    • Erica MomandKiddo says

      Renee: That is a fabulous idea! I love it and am trying it next time we pick up a wordless book.

  6. says

    I really like your suggestions! I’ve always liked wordless books, in that they tend to generate repeat “reading” – we often miss something the first go-round. I always tend to ask my kids a question about what they see on the page, and let them take it from there. My youngest always liked this route. It made her feel more in charge of the story. (She’s a bit envious of her big sister’s ability to read.)

    • Erica MomandKiddo says

      I like how your technique gives them a sense of ownership of the story. I’ve they are more invested, they will learn more. It’s true about younger kids wanting to do what their big siblings can do! Thanks for sharing.

  7. murmun says

    Thanks for the tips! I love the way you structured this whole theme about wordless books. I am one of the moms who enjoy “reading” such books with their kiddos… well, most of the time at least.
    However my kiddo is still a toddler and can hardly speak and therefore answer complicated questions about the plot, although we still discuss the characters and the plot. What we love doing with wordless books at this stage is looking for particular things or people and follow them through the entire book. Such books are usually filled with numerous fine details, so I ask my little guy to find, say, a squirrel on a page or a sock or a clock, whatever or we look for a boy in the red hat on each page and watch him move across the book. It’s a great activity for toddlers that develops their attention to details and it gives my guy infinite pleasure when he accomplishes a task and among so many things and people finds what I asked him to.
    Also, we count things (well, mostly I do, while he is pointing) and you can count whatever or look for cars/houses/hats of a particular color or repeat shapes looking for smth round or square or triangular.

    • Erica MomandKiddo says

      Great tips. Counting and pointing out shapes is a terrific idea for younger kids to “read” wordless books. Thanks so much for sharing.

  8. Marie Sollitt says

    I love wordless books. I often fall into the trap of just reading a book and not exploring it with my children and wordless books remind me to do the latter. What is the book pictured with the dolphin and the sting ray? It looks kind of like a Polo book but I’m not familiar with it.

    • Erica MomandKiddo says

      Isn’t it a gorgeous book? It’s Wonder Bear (on my list of wordless books – a link to that is in the first paragraph of the post).

      • Marie Sollitt says

        It does look marvelous and better yet, my library has it! (It does not have Flora the Flamingo or The Boy and the Airplane, which are the other two books on your list that we haven’t read) I’m looking forward to getting it and reading it!

  9. Liz says

    I love this! Do you have a post about how to read “ABC” books? I always struggle to make these a meaningful read both for understanding the pattern of the alphabet as well as the connection of the A to the B to the C for overall comprehension. I need mentoring! :)

  10. Ann says

    I wish I had read this when we were just starting out. It would have taken the pressure off me. I would get such stage fright with wordless books (even though I always pick them since they usually have awesome illustrations). Once my daughter started reading some of the books at night I would would hand a wordless book to my son and say this was one he could read. He loved that and pretty soon my daughter wanted in on the fun so sometimes they take turns with each page. If I think they are missing something interesting in the story I will ask a question. Much easier than and more fun than how I used to to read them. Such a good topic!

  11. Chris says

    My kids love wordless books:
    Wave is a favourite of mine
    Up & Up by Shirley Hughes – may be out of print – but should be a classic
    The Chicken Thief is an absolute must

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