Reading without Words

Too often, the purpose of reading in school is about grammar, vocabulary acquisition, organization, structure, mechanics, conventions, punctuation, figurative language, imagery, etc, etc, etc . . . There’s always a standard, a clear purpose, a takeaway for students when they read . . . but that doesn’t always have to be the case.

There is another important purpose for reading.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something on a page that tells our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something that can tell our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves. 

Some of our students haven’t discovered this yet, and the reason is often because of the accessibility and relevance of books. We’ve all struggled with finding texts that are age and level appropriate for some of our students — readers who struggle don’t want to read what they deem to be “baby books” for a variety of reasons that are fair and legitimate. They need books that they can read and books that they want to read.

Recently I’ve discovered that there are some beautiful, poignant, relevant illustrated books that are decidedly not perceived as baby books, and which take a lot of thinking and reading in order to understand. But they are wordless, or at least almost wordless.

While I’m not giving up on teaching words and all of their beauty, I also know that wordless stories have a place in my classroom.

The book I’ve recently fallen in love with is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. It’s a wordless graphic novel, and it tells the story of a person who leaves his family behind in order to create a better life for them all. arrival cover

It’s the kind of story all sorts of people can relate to: Character endures separation, loneliness, and heartache because of hope, optimism, and desperation.

It’s beautifully complex and requires some attention to detail, some hard thinking, and some rereading in order to really understand and analyze it.

I’ve book talked it to several of my classes, and I’ve gotten some puzzled looks when students try to understand how a book can be both complex and wordless.

They struggle to understand how they could find fiction signposts, discover characterization, etc, in a wordless book, that is, until they get the book in their hands.

Students who don’t always have easy access to complex texts have found success with finding the Beers/Probst Notice and Note Fiction Signposts in this complex and detailed story.

IMG_2042

For example, this Again and Again signpost is an easy one to spot – the main character carries a picture of his family as he travels from his home country to his new land, and the photo pops up in many of the frames. It’s significant because students realize quickly that this man’s family is the most important thing to him, which is why he carries the photo everywhere.

Both boys and girls have read this book, and I’ve overheard conversations about what it might be about as they wonder and struggle through their thinking. This is the kind of talk I love to hear.

This morning, I discovered four boys reading choice books on a bench: one was reading this wordless graphic novel, another was reading one of the Harry Potter books for the first time, another was reading The Crossover, a novel written in verse, and the last one was reading a humorous graphic novel. All different forms of books, but all legitimate books that “count.”

The point is, all of these students had texts that were accessible to them. They were curious about their own reading, and were enjoying their books. Their brains were engaged, they were talking to each other about what they were reading, and most importantly, they were fostering a community of reading as well as their own healthy reading lives.

Graphic novels, with or without words, can be excellent bridges between teacher, student, and healthy reading habits. Students can learn valuable reading skills and strategies with all kinds of books – even the “extreme” examples that don’t have words. It’s not a place where I want my students to “live” — but I don’t want my students to “live” in any one genre or form anyway. They should build skills, stretch their brains and habits, find familiar and easier books, and then stretch some more. The wordless book have a place in their learning, and will always have a place in my secondary language arts classroom.

A few wordless/nearly wordless books that are complex and relevant to secondary students:

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  • The Marvels by David Selznick
  • Unspoken by Henry Cole

One final idea: It’s a bit like teaching reading strategies with the Pixar short films. My grade sevens practiced finding fiction signposts in the short film Partly Cloudy last week, and they were able to point out signposts even though the movie does not have dialogue.

Studying and reading wordless books and silent films can build confidence and skills in our readers who struggle with more complex texts, and while we can’t ignore their decoding skills, we can also allow them to grapple with the complexities of stories that are developmentally appropriate for their growing identities as readers and human beings.

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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