Category Archives: wordless books

Board books meet babies’ literacy needs

baby reading a bookBoard books, those small-sized, thick cardboard books with brightly colored pictures and rounded corners, are celebrating their 70th birthday (more or less).  They were born with the baby boom in the late 1940’s, came in various shapes and sometimes included tactile surfaces for babies to touch.

By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, board books became a recognized “genre” of children’s literature.  Illustrator Helen Oxenbury was an early pioneer of these books meant for one- and two-year-old children.  Some of her books have become classics.

They have caught on for many reasons.  Board books are small in size, some just two inches square, perfect for tiny hands.  Their pictures are simple illustrations of babies and little children.  The illustrations use primary colors to attract toddler eyes.  The round edges of the books can be chewed by teething babies.  Board books can be flung, chewed and slapped without ripping.

Some board books have become classics, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.  Others teach ABC’s and counting.  Many focus on babies—animal babies and human babies.  Some have words—just a few and often in rhyme—but many are wordless.

Babies can learn quite a bit about literacy from “reading” board books.  They learn that books start on the left-hand side and move to the right.  They learn that book pages flip right to left in English.  They learn that there is a right-side-up to books.  They learn that the pictures and words have meaning.  They learn that reading is a fun experience and often a special time with someone they cherish.

For most children today, board books are their introduction to reading.

10 picture books with simple illustrations

Picture books with simple illustrations and bland backgrounds—the kinds which appeal to toddlers and children with sensory integration problems—can be hard to find if you search online or on shelf.  Even harder to find are such books which tell a story.

But they are great books for reading aloud to sensitive children.  And they are equally valuable for suggesting story ideas for children to write.

Here are ten such books from all over the world which your child might enjoy.  Many have won awards.


Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema

The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl (the version illustrated by Quentin Blake)

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde by Joyce Dunbar

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee (wordless)

Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle (wordless)

The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Snow White and the Fox by Niroot Puttapipat

Lon Po Po:  A Red Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young

For kids with sensory integration issues, choose picture books with pared down shapes, colors, focus

If your child resists being read to or resists reading certain picture books, it could be the pictures themselves that discourage reading.

Look for books with no backgrounds, solid colors, and focused on one or two characters.

Picture books with detailed backgrounds or with copious patterns can turn off children with sensory integration issues.  Such children have difficulty focusing if there is too much pattern, noise, motion, or texture in any experience.  They prefer plain painted walls and plain bedspreads, not papered walls and patterned bedding; low, instrumental music by a single instrument, not loud music or music with lyrics; sitting or standing still, not rocking or dancing; and loose knit clothing, not clothes with tags or clothes that are tight-fitting.

When you choose books for children who show sensory integration issues, search for picture books with these characteristics:

  • Pictures with no backgrounds, or just the hint of background—a wash of green to represent grass and trees, for example, or one or two birds in the sky, not a whole flock.
  • Characters dressed in solid colors without shading or patterns in their clothes. If you have seen Pippa the Pig books or cartoons, with their simplistic images, that is the kind you want to show your child.
  • Pictures using flat shapes and limited colors, the kind that children themselves produce. (Think of the way Peanuts cartoon characters are presented—Charlie Brown with his round head and Lucy with her dress of a single color.)
  • Pictures focusing on one or two characters, not groups. Look for pared down, minimalist images which have removed everything but the essential elements.

Likewise, when you look for  picture books for children with sensory integration issues to write about, search for picture books with the same features.  Some wordless picture books offer these kinds of pictures, but not all do.

Finding such books in your library or book store is not easy.  A section labeled “simplistic art” doesn’t exist.  I have had to scour shelves to find what I am looking for.  But the search is worth it to entice a reluctant child reader or writer.

Next blog:  Names of some books that might appeal to kids showing sensory integration issues.

How do I read to my two-year-old? Is he even ready?

Some one-year-olds are ready to be read to, and some two-year-olds are not yet ready. But most are. Reading to a two-year-old can be fun and educational for the child, and subconsciously, prepare the child for more sophisticated reading.

Two-year-olds are all about physical motion, so reading to them should include movement. You could start with board books, and ask the child to tell you what he sees. He might say, “Baby.” Probe a bit. “What is the baby doing? Show me.” Even if he can’t put into words the baby’s actions, he might be able to act them out.  Helen Oxenbury’s books are great for children who cannot speak yet.

baby reading a bookHis physical needs might include holding the book and turning the pages. He will learn to turn pages correctly if you help him. But he will want to go back and forth. He might see a dog on page eight and remember seeing the dog on an earlier page, and he might flip the pages to find the dog. Don’t expect formal sequencing of pages with a two-year-old.

Some books for young children have textured parts for the child to touch. Others have flaps that open and close, or they offer pop-up parts that unfold. Little children love these books, but roddlers tend to rip the pages. Beware. They love to move things in a trial-or-error way to see what happens. Yet their touch is usually not delicate.

You might start reading a picture book and the child might interrupt, pointing to a picture and talking about it. He might not care for the story yet, but he might be fascinated by the pictures. Don’t think that just because there are words you must read them. Let the child guide you.  If he doesn’t want you to read, look for some wordless books or just discuss the pictures.  Most wordless books are intended for toddlers.  They are also great for older ESL students new to English.

Two-year-olds are acquiring language rapidly. If you point to a picture and say “bug” or “triangle,” the child might remember the new word. Two-year-olds are also picking up grammar, so be sure you use grammar correctly, even if the child doesn’t. You don’t need to correct him most of the time.  By hearing you say grammar correctly, he will eventually say sentences correctly.

I remember my preschoolers choosing the same books over and over. I was bored reading them repeatedly, but they weren’t. Children find it comforting to hear, day after day, how the little bird found its mother or how Sylvester returned to his family.

father reading Old McDonald to childNursery rhymes are great for the littlest readers.  Some, like “The Itsy, Bitsy Spider” and “This Little Piggy,” encourage finger or toe play. You can tell the child enjoys nursery rhymes when he starts doing the finger play himself.  Plus, children love rhymes, anticipate them, and race to complete the rhyme.  Rhymes teach children about word families (spout, out; rain, again), too.

You might use reading to a toddler to establish routines, such as what you and your child do before or after a nap.

If there are older children, you might want to read to them at a different time, since a two-year-old’s abilities are quite different from a four- or five-year-old’s.  On the other hand, a patient toddler might pick up reading skills and vocabulary by listening to his older sibling read with you.

So should you read to a two-year-old? Definitely, but keep in mind the abilities of a child that age.


With so many apps available for preschoolers, how do I know which are the best ones to use to teach my child to read?

The best apps to teach reading share many of the same characteristics as the best apps to teach math or to teach games.  Here are some traits to look for, although you will not find each of these traits in every app.

baby looking at an iPad

To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • The app should be age or developmentally appropriate for your child.  It should seem like play but allow the child to gain self-confidence both in mastering the media and in mastering the material presented on the app.
  • The app should be interactive.  Most apps are passive, limiting a child to clicking or scrolling down, but that’s about it.  The best apps allow children to solve problems or to develop curiosity.  Some apps allow coloring, drawing lines and highlighting, with the child deciding how.
  • The app should be intuitive to use.  Using computers is often hard for preschoolers since interaction depends on mastering a mouse and a keyboard.  But pads are intuitive, allowing for swiping with a single finger to move from page to page.  Once the child tries the process a few times, he understands it.
  • The app should allow for repetition.  Young children like to have their favorite books read to them over and over.  They might also like to go to their favorite apps over and over.
  • The app should take advantage of the technology.  A book about a pet might show the word “dog,” but an app might show the printed word, offer a picture of a group of dogs wagging their tails, and create the sounds of panting and barking.
  • The app should be open-ended: divergent, not convergent.  Usually an app encourages a child to hit an icon which might be right or wrong, a dead end for the child.  But if the answer allows the child to continue in a manner she prefers, or to get to an answer in a round-about way, the child has some input into the outcome.
  • The app should extend a child’s skill or make up for a child’s shortcomings.  If a child cannot print yet, or has poor printing skills, a good app would produce the desired letters without the child needing to “write.”  Or for an ESL child or a child with speech problems, a good app might “read” the words aloud so that the child can hear the words pronounced correctly.
    child taking iPad out of toy chest

    To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • The app should be fun and engaging.  Stories should move in time order so that they are easy for a young child to follow.  There should be an obvious beginning, middle and end.  The vocabulary and sentence structure should be comfortable for the child so he gets it the first time he hears it.  The art work should make the child laugh.
  • The app should foster socialization.  Apps that store child-taken photos of a trip to the zoo allow for later sharing with preschool classmates or with family.  Apps that allow a child to film a Barbie fashion show or Grandpa snoring beg to be shared.  SKYPE allows for sharing over great distances.

Spend some time investigating apps for your young children.  Teach them how to access the apps you have selected.  And next week do it again, because the apps—like your child—are always changing.

In my library, I saw some wordless picture books. What are they for?

Wordless picture books (books with no words except for the titles) and almost-wordless books (books that repeat the same word, phrase or sentence over and over) are a category of picture books that began in the 1960’s but have grown increasingly popular.  There are several kinds:

  • Concept books.  These include ABC books, counting books and pictures for infants to identify.  They also provide pictures of everyday objects for ESL students to identify.
  • Books related by a theme or a sequence.  These books show illustrations that are related, but not by a story line.  Books showing different kinds of trucks, or pictures of how the seasons change, or pictures showing a bedtime routine are examples.
  • Books showing expository content.  These books might explain how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly or show all the protection a football player puts under his uniform.
  • Books showing visual games.  Interaction is required to find a hidden object or to find subtle differences in two nearly identical pictures.  The reader might need to point to the hidden item, or circle differences in pictures.
  • Story books.  These might show simple or complicated story lines.

I assume the books you are asking about are story books.  Why have stories without words?  Let’s start by talking about two-year-olds.

baby reading a book

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Kids who have just turned two are probably not aware of “story” as we know it, even though they might have been read to a hundred times.  When they look at a picture book, they see individual pictures, not parts of a story.  They might be interested in the boy on page 3 because of his glittery sneakers, or they might notice the funny expression on a dog’s face.  When they look at page 4, two-year-olds probably are not aware that events on page 3 have caused events on page 4.  The picture book is not so much a story with a beginning, middle and end for such young children.  Rather it is a collection of fascinating pictures.

For such children, does it matter if there is text on page 3 or page 4?  Probably not.  They are getting their meaning from the pictures.

Does it matter if the adult reads the accompanying text aloud or not?  Probably not to the two-year-olds.  The words give just one meaning—that of the author.  But the children are more interested in gaining their own meanings.  They pick up on their own clues and focus on what is important to them.  You have probably had the situation where you are trying to finish reading a story but your child doesn’t care about the story ending.  He would rather talk about one of the pictures, or leaf back through the book to see a particular picture again.

young boy reading a book

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Yet sometime between two and kindergarten, most children realize that story books are more than a collection of fun pictures:  the pictures tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.  Do children need text to learn this?  Probably not.  As they become more sophisticated at “reading” pictures, they notice more, they make more connections, and story emerges.  It is only when children begin to read words that they need words on the page.

So back to your question.  What are these wordless story books for?

  • With no right or wrong words to explain what is happening, these books allow for wider interpretations than a text might allow.  Children can bring their own meaning to the stories.
  • Research shows that parents who tell a story based on pictures only use a richer vocabulary and more complex sentence patterns than authors usually use in picture books.  Children pick up on the vocabulary and become attuned to longer sentences.
  • Bilingual parents can mix vocabulary from two languages to make the story meaningful for their children.  Parents who don’t speak English can “read” the story in their own languages.
  • Developmentally delayed children benefit from having the reader tailor the story to their level.  Or they get the chance to tell the story from their own point of view, with no right or wrong perspective.

As children grow, these books have other advantages:

  • Children can learn the elements of story from these books—characters, setting, beginning, middle, and end.
  • Children can think creatively, coming up with various possibilities to interpret a single picture book.
  • Children can learn how to tell stories orally before they have the skills to write stories down.
  • By using recording devices and cameras as children “read” these stories, children can record their favorite stories to share with Grandma in Taiwan or with Mom waiting at the gate for her flight.
  • Once children begin to read and write, they can write their own words for the wordless story books, and read them aloud.
  • Children can use the books as models, illustrate their own stories and then supply words, perhaps dictating to an adult.
  • Children can gain success in reading, like reading and feel confident reading all before they can “read” real words.

Like all books, the quality and sophistication of wordless picture books varies.  A children’s librarian can point out some good ones.  Or you can find lists on the web.  Some classic ones include:

  • A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog by Mercer Mayer
  • Pancakes for Breakfast by Tommie de Paola
  • Time Flies by Eric Rohmann
  • Picnic by Emily Arnold McCully
  • Up and Up by Shirley Hughes
  • Free Fall and Tuesdays by David Weisner
  • board picture books by Helen Oxenbury