Blogger Early & Family Literacy committee

Unveiling the Science of Reading: Empowering ESL Students through Wordless Books

Over the next few months, the Early and Family Literacy Committee will write about one of the ECRR early literacy practices and discuss the science of reading research that supports the development of that practice and the skills it engenders. Today’s practice is reading! Since the topic is so broad, we are focusing on how wordless books support ESL students. We also include a reminder that many of the strategies that work for ESL students also support young children acquiring foundational language skills along with some tips on how you can use them in library programming.

Reading, a gateway to knowledge and empowerment, serves as the cornerstone of education worldwide. However, for English as a Second Language (ESL) students, the journey of mastering this essential skill can present unique challenges. Enter wordless books, a captivating tool blending art and imagination to unlock the magic of storytelling and language acquisition. In this article, we delve into the science behind using wordless books to empower ESL students in their literacy journey.

Understanding the Challenge

For ESL students, navigating the intricate landscape of English literacy involves overcoming various obstacles, from unfamiliar vocabulary to syntactical complexities. Traditional reading materials, laden with text, often intimidate and discourage learners, hindering their progress. Moreover, cultural, and linguistic differences further compound the challenge, making conventional approaches to reading instruction less effective.

Enter Wordless Books: A Visual Symphony

Wordless books, as the name suggests, eschew conventional text in favor of vivid illustrations that narrate compelling stories. By relying solely on visuals, these books transcend language barriers, inviting readers of all ability levels to embark on imaginative journeys. The absence of text encourages active engagement, prompting readers to interpret, infer, and articulate narratives using their own language resources.

The Cognitive Science Perspective

At the heart of wordless books lies a profound understanding of cognitive science. According to research, the human brain processes visual information significantly faster and more efficiently than textual content. By capitalizing on this innate ability, wordless books stimulate multiple cognitive processes, including:

  • Visual Literacy: ESL students develop critical visual literacy skills, such as decoding symbols, interpreting facial expressions, and discerning spatial relationships. These skills are transferable across languages and cultures, fostering a deeper understanding of narrative structures.
  • Narrative Comprehension: Through sequential visual narratives, students practice sequencing events, predicting outcomes, and identifying cause-and-effect relationships. This scaffolds their comprehension abilities, laying a solid foundation for future reading endeavors.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition: Contrary to popular belief, wordless books facilitate vocabulary acquisition by contextualizing new words within meaningful narratives. By associating images with concepts, students expand their lexical repertoire organically, without the cognitive load of deciphering written text.
  • Critical Thinking: Engaging with wordless books nurtures critical thinking skills, as students analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information to construct coherent narratives. This process fosters creativity and problem-solving abilities, essential for navigating real-world challenges.

Practical Applications in ESL Instruction

Integrating wordless books into ESL instruction offers a versatile and dynamic approach to literacy development. And many of these practices can be adapted to general education settings and library early literacy programs. Educators and librarians can employ various strategies to maximize the effectiveness of this tool:

Pre-Reading Activities: Before delving into the book, encourage children to observe the cover and predict the story based on visual cues. This activates prior knowledge and sets the stage for meaningful engagement. Use this strategy in library storytimes and class visits with preschoolers and up to encourage expressive language.

Guided Reading Sessions: During group readings and read-alouds, facilitate discussions by posing open-ended questions about characters, settings, and plot developments. Encourage children to share their interpretations and justify their reasoning, fostering peer interaction and collaboration. A simple question to ask is, “What do you think will happen next?” before you turn the page.  

Story Retelling and Sequencing: After reading, prompt children to retell the story in their own words, focusing on sequential order and key events. Engage in collaborative storytelling activities, where students take turns adding elements to the narrative, enhancing both oral proficiency and narrative coherence. With younger children, encourage them act out the whole book or key scenes.

Extension Activities: Extend learning beyond the book by integrating writing, art, drama, and digital media. Encourage students to create their own wordless stories, using drawing tools, multimedia software, or theatrical performances to express their creativity. Give children zine-folded booklet and let them create their own wordless books (pre-make the booklets for young children or if you are pressed for time).

Conclusion: Empowering ESL Learners Through Visual Literacy

In the realm of ESL education, wordless books emerge as a potent ally in nurturing literacy skills and fostering cross-cultural communication. By harnessing the power of visual storytelling, educators and librarians unlock a realm of possibilities for engaging, empowering, and inspiring children on their journey towards English proficiency. Many of these same strategies support the oral language skills of young children as well. As we embrace the science of reading, let us celebrate the transformative potential of wordless books in shaping the minds and hearts of all ESL and young learners worldwide.

Wordless Book Suggestions

  • A Ball for Daisy by Chris Rascka
    In this book, a white dog named Daisy’s beloved ball is destroyed during a trip to the park. Daisy is distraught until a new friend gift her with a new ball.
  • Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle
    Flora dons her skates and begins a beautiful ballet with a penguin and learns about friendship.
  • The Boy and the Book by David Michael Slater
    A trip to the library becomes a lesson in how to treat books when a determined young boy embarks on a quest to learn to read.
  • La, La, La: A Story of Hope by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Jamie Kim
    A young girl searches for a friend in this nearly wordless book.
  • Flashlight Lizi Boyd
    An exploration of nighttime, nature and the nocturnal world as a child explores the magic of the darkness.

Interested in more on the Science of Reading? Check out these other ALSC Blog Posts

Play and the Science of Reading: How Play Helps Get Kids Ready to Read

The Science of Reading and Every Child Ready to Read

The Science of Reading: A Primer for Children’s Library Staff 

American Library Association. (n.d.-a). Engaging Multilingual Communities and English Language Learners in U.S. Libraries Toolkit. Retrieved from ed.). Libraries Unlimited.

Seah, K. K. C. (2021). Do you speak my language? The effect of sharing a teacher’s native language on student achievement. Southern Economic Journal, 88(1), 245–273.

Mandel, L. H., & Johnston, M. P. (2019). Evaluating library signage: A systematic method for conducting a library signage inventory. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 51(1), 150-161.

Weintraub, L. (2023). Older Beginners: Library tailors ESL program to seniors. American Libraries, 54(6), 22-.

Today’s blog post was written by Rachée Fagg, Head of Youth Services at The Upper Darby Township & Sellers Memorial Free Public Library in Upper Darby, PA, on behalf of the ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee. She can be reached at

This blog post relates to ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group and III. Programming Skills

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