Agency in Storytelling: Dialogue in Wordless Picture Books

Early Childhood -ECII 5 year olds

Literacy, Playful Learning

During the Winter quarter, I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in research on the importance of wordless picture books with Dr. Christine Lee at CONNECT Research and EC2 demonstration teachers Kelly Peters, Eric Varela, and Arlen Nava. Through this collaboration, I’ve learned how wordless picture books can facilitate language development through creative oral storytelling that allows for an interactive reading experience for students. Wordless picture books are books with illustrations and little to no text. With a lack of words, there is no “right” or concrete indication of what is occurring, leaving ample space to foster a sense of independence in reading. It also lets students read the illustrations in the book to come up with their own stories and have control over how the stories will take place.

With every page in wordless picture books, a new scene was born paving the way for these young students to create an immersive and fantastical experience where their stories came to life. In the dual language kindergarten classroom, students even took their stories and turned them into theatrical plays. For example, the class created a theatrical version of the book Where’s Walrus? [1] (see blog post by Gayeon Koh). While watching them recreate these wordless picture books in theatrical ways, I could already see dialogue emerging in their storytelling. The students not only said what the character would say, but what they did next in the story. One student was able to create a marvelous performance with one of the teachers while acting as la morsa and creating poses to hide from the seguridad. I was intrigued to see how the students were hooked and engaged the entire time, leading me to realize that reading transcends the ability to simply understand how to decode text, but also includes creating an imaginative and meaningful literacy space.

Image 1. One of the many speech bubble tools used by EC2 students to converse.

Throughout my weeks in class, students were given speech bubbles as a prop to add various forms of speech, sound, and movement to characters in wordless picture books. Students would physically move the speech bubbles in front of characters within their books to make a visual representation of speech as if they were the characters themselves. The importance of wordless picture books is that there is no fixed structure or format implemented to dictate how to “correctly” read a story. Therefore, students were able to use their speech bubbles to freely tell their stories in their own ways. From here, we hope to instill a sense of reassurance in students allowing them to take control of specific narratives that will allow them to develop the necessary linguistic skills to promote a sense of agency in self-storytelling. Immediately, I was able to note a key distinction. As students were given free liberty with their dialogue, no student read the books the same way. It provides a new set of perspectives where students are not only allowed to develop critical thinking skills as to what is occurring but also for emotional expression that can promote social interactions within individuals. 

While reading Good Dog, Carl [2], I remember observing two groups of students reading this wordless picture book in different ways. In one group, a student read Good Dog, Carl as a story where the dog was actually a human that turned into a dog that was now caring for a child at home. The inclusion of a transformation between a human and a dog made me curious about this story. As I listened to the students’ story, one of the students in the group used the speech bubble to act as the baby in the book, “My parents turned you into a dog!” I realized at this moment how wordless books gave agency to students by allowing them to create interesting narratives.

Image 2. Students in different groups using speech bubble tools to read Good Dog, Carl

Later on, I observed another group of students who were also reading Good Dog, Carl. In this group, the students read the book as a story of a baby being home alone with their dog. The students used their speech bubbles to exclaim “I’m home alone!” and “Oh no let’s look in the fridge for food!” with the occasional inclusion of theatrical sound effects such as: barking, sniffing, baby crying, etc. This made me realize that words alone can stray the attention and meaningful attachment a young child can have to books. With wordless picture books, students are more motivated to explore books independently, allowing them to develop an interest in books by themselves. It also supported imaginative thinking and encouraged students to develop diverse settings with plotlines and characters with unique backgrounds.

Throughout this quarter, I saw how wordless picture books gave students independence, agency, and creativity in reading stories. It allowed students to pay close attention to details so that they could read the illustrations to create their own story; details of how characters are dressed, the way characters and objects move on the page, and how they interact on the page. I’ve seen the potential of wordless picture books as a way to develop literacy skills that give students autonomy in storytelling in ways that don’t focus on the “correct” or “right” way to read. As we continue this work, I look forward to possibly comparing how bilingual proficiency improves through the continued use of wordless picture books and theatre with Spanish and English-speaking students through their conversations and dialogue.

Darwin Hernandez

Darwin Hernandez is a 3rd year student at UCLA majoring in both Psychology and Education & Social Transformation with a minor in Disabilities studies. He is currently an undergraduate CONNECT Research Intern working alongside Dr. Christine Lee throughout the Winter Quarter. He is an aspiring educator with a strong passion for redeveloping curriculum to work with underrepresented youth in South Central Los Angeles as well as therapeutic services for students with disabilities

This blog post comes from a CONNECT Research study, Storytelling and Writing in Kindergarten STEAM Curriculum. Questions about this study can be directed to Dr. Christine Lee (