Reaching Reluctant Writers Using Wordless Books

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Author bio: Lisa Wroble is a children’s author and educator who often writes about literacy. She takes writing programs into local schools to work with at-risk youth. You can learn more by exploring her website.

A new school year is a fresh exciting start for most students, but reluctant writers often feel more anxiety than normal at this time of year. Even if your students are eager to write, you’ll find benefits in using wordless picture books with them. They’re a great way to ease into writing because the illustrations tell a story using zero (or minimal) words allowing students to focus on what happens. A story through pictures forces the students to:

  1. Identify key details to pick up on the storyline
  2. Predict what the next scene might be
  3. Use their own words to understand the story

As you read the story, ask students to share their thoughts on “what’s happening.” Simply listen and encourage further sharing. Reluctant students can see that this is about what each student notices and are provided “clues” to piecing together the storyline from their classmates.

After “reading” the book, students write a summary of the story. Ask them to write down the story events as they understand them, emphasizing there really isn’t a “wrong” way to interpret it. This takes away some of the anxiety for reluctant writers. (If they still struggle, ask them to tell you verbally about the book, then ask them to write what they’ve just told you.) Encourage them to think of this task as “sharing” the story with someone who has not “read” the book. These writings provide a good idea of the students’ comprehension and writing skills after summer break.

My favorite books to use in this “genre” are Zoom! by Istvan Banyai,

Flotsam by David Wiesnerand,

and for younger elementary students, Chalk by Bill Thomson.

 

Zoom! is a great initial choice because it is easily adapted to all ages. I focus first on predicting. This book is a perfect for this task because it begins in a very near focus. The view zooms out with each page turn. I ask the students if they can guess what the image is, hinting that it’s part of something bigger. Students love trying to identify the object and delight that it’s never what they assumed. For example, what looks like a farm scene turns out to be toys a girl is playing with but she is really on the cover of a toy catalog which really in the hands of a boy on a cruise which is really an advertisement on a bus. I show them the book, with the zoom going out and out. At the end I flip backwards so they can see the images zooming in. For this reason, the book is perfect for older students with a discussion of perspective and/or focus and the pieces that make up the bigger picture.

Another good book for predicting, perfect for younger students, is Chalk. In this story, three children find a bag of chalk on a playground and quickly realize that what they draw with magically happens. So, the dinosaur comes to life and they eventually draw rain clouds to wash away the chalk, eliminating the “threat.” When I use this book, I stop the story twice. Before the third child uses the chalk, I ask the students to write what each of them would draw. I also ask them to describe what they think the next child will draw and why. I stop again before the “resolution” and ask them to imagine being on the playground and what they might draw to “solve the problem of the dinosaur.” Like the other books, at the end I have them write out a summary of the story as they understand it.

Flotsam is a great choice for older students (upper elementary and above) because the story and each page is more complex. A boy is at the beach with his parents and finds an old camera. He discovers a roll of film and has the photos developed. There are strange underwater images but one photo is of a child holding a photo of a child. In this way it is similar to Zoom! Using a magnifying glass and then his microscope, he zooms in to see the original image of a boy from long ago. He completes the cycle by taking a photo of himself holding the photo of the child, then tosses the camera back into the surf. In addition to the summary writing, this story lends itself to a variety of imaginative writing projects from “explaining” the marvelous underwater creatures to using the photographs as springboards for writing a fiction story.

In case your students believe these are “baby” books, be sure to show them the novel, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. In this book the storyline from the past is told through illustrations while the storyline from the present is told through words. The storylines converge toward the end. Or, you can rent the wordless film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

It is important to select books that fit your students’ ages and interests. Both the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have good lists of books in this “genre.” Use the summaries to find titles and then check with your local or school library.

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