8 years ago when my daughter was born I started reading picture books again. As a “serious adult reader” I had not read a picture book since I was a child; it was great! Together we would go to the library up to 3 times a week and I don’t know who was more excited about the prospect of checking out new books to read. At around 2 years of age, my daughter began choosing what books she wanted to read but I was unwilling to give up the joy of choosing great picture books too, so we reached an agreement in which she would pick out some and I would pick out some.

I made my selections based on how much I loved the artistic style of the author. We delighted in reading all of the stories together but even more than that, we loved discussing the pictures. This soon lead me to wordless picture books. The first wordless picture book I discovered was by David Weisner and it was beautiful. The story was imaginative and without words to get in the way, we were able to tell each other endless variations of the story as we pointed out new details to each other each time.

My daughter’s already good vocabulary expanded even further and I wished I could share these stories with my English language students but for a long time I didn’t because I teach university students and adults and I didn’t want to risk insulting them with books made for children.

​I loved them so much that I started to collect them though and one day I decided to throw caution to the wind and bring them in to share. My adult students loved them as much as I did and were not at all insulted because even though the stories may have featured frogs or dinosaurs, the themes in the stories were thought provoking and universal. Here I am going to share with you my favorite wordless picture books and how I like to use them in an adult classroom to build language skills.

By Nikolai Popov
Themes: war, environmental destruction,
​escalating violence

I love this book because it uses beautiful paintings of frogs and mice to tell a story of how conflict begins and how it escalates. It shows how one act leads to another until everyone and everything is destroyed and it begs us to ask the question that is also the title; Why? According to his websitePopov, who was a child in Russia during World War II, “created this book because it seems to me that if children can understand the senselessness of war, if they can see how easily one can be sucked into a cycle of violence, they may become a force for peace in the future. I also hope that adults who share the book with children will reexamine their own thoughts on the futility of war.”

Language Learning Tip:
Ask students to tell the story to different groups of their classmates several times giving them a shorter amount of time for each telling. This will help students develop their fluency in a second language and help with vocabulary acquisition. 

Circle of Friends
By Giora Carmi
Themes: community, giving, interconnectedness, homelessness

This is a delightful book about how we can inspire each other to be kinder. One little boy shares his muffin, setting off a chain reaction that ends with that same little boy receiving an unexpected “gift” as a result of his kindness. The images are drawn in black and white with only one thing in each image in color. The author Giora Carmi was born in Isreal, immigrated to the United States, and uses art to heal with his foundation intuitiveflow.

Language Learning Tip:
In this book, the artist uses color to draw our attention to one object in the scene. How can words be used to draw attention to certain parts of our writing? Are some words more powerful/unusual/thought-provoking than others? How does changing where a word is located in a sentence draw more or less attention to it?  

Sector 7
By David Wiesner
Themes: conformity vs. imagination, school trips, curiosity

I am a huge fan of art and the art in this book is outstanding. Wiesner’s attention to detail creates whole worlds to get lost in. The story of a child who meets a friendly cloud on a field trip and is invited to come back with it to where clouds are shaped unfolds in paintings that that both adults and children can appreciate. The story is beautiful, humorous, and for adults, nostalgic. The subject matter is whimsical but at the same time can be discussed more in depth when we think about how when we are children, everything seems possible but gradually we learn what is “proper” and we begin to conform.

Language Learning Tip:
The illustrations in this book are very detailed. How can we tell stories that include enough details to make them come alive. How can details contribute or take away from the stories we are trying to tell?  

By David McPhail
Themes: bullying, standing up for what is right, protesting, war

When I first came across this book at a used bookstore, I was surprised that it was a children’s book. The protagonist is a little boy but the story is about the very adult themes of war and the power of saying no. It shows rather than tells its message about how many times we see things we know are wrong but we don’t say anything because they are not happening to us personally. If we do this enough, harmful actions become normalized until someone stands up and says “No!” Sometimes I wonder why we don’t allow books to belong to more than one age category. This book should be shelved right along with other political books in the adult section as well as in the children’s section.

Language Learning Tip:
This story centers around a boy sending a letter to the leaders of his unnamed country. With the advent of the internet, we have many more ways of sending our political messages but what are the most effective ways? In this TED talk Omar Ahmad argues for writing old-fashioned letters to get the attention of politicians. How do we use language differently when we communicate with hand-written letters, email, facebook, and other forms of political expression? 

The Flower Man
by Mark Ludy
Themes: urban life, the power of one person, community

I love this book for it’s complexity. It is impossible to see all of the stories that are happening simultaneously the first time through and that is what makes it great. Even though the main character in this story is a single man, the “flower man” of the title, the story takes place in a city full of buildings with windows and inside each window people are living their lives. Not all of the characters interact directly with the flower man but they are all affected by him as his love of flowers and kindness infect the neighborhood he moves into.

Language Learning Tip:
This book shows the interconnectedness of all of our lives 
and how one person is affected by another. When we write paragraphs, the sentences within them are also interconnected with one idea referring back to previous sentences or alluding to future sentences. Examine how we connect sentences within paragraphs and how we connect paragraphs together within a larger text.

I hope you have as much fun using wordless picture books to learn languages as I have. The great thing about them is that they are not language specific, you can use them to teach or learn any language at any level.

​I am always on the lookout for great wordless picture books, what are some of your favorites and how do you use them?  

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