Wordless texts

Looking for something fun to do to fill the long hours of winter break? I recommend a family viewing of LEGO City. Seriously.

My husband and I got talked into watching an episode of LEGO City after dinner the other night. While I monitor my sons’ TV watching, I also know they refuse to watch anything in the least bit frightening/violent. We didn’t make it through the storm scene of Ratatouille, or Toy Story, to give you some idea of our threshold. Before LEGO started, both sons were giving an extensive preface about the story. And when it started, they kept talking. You see, there are no words in LEGO City. There’s some tonally appropriate mumbling, but no actual words. It was brilliant. Their narration, talking over one another, punctuated by the baby’s exclamations when a helicopter showed up.

What’s the big deal, you might be asking? Simply, that wordless texts invite children into deep engagement with that text. My sons participated actively in the watching of this TV show, demonstrated an understanding of plot structures, plot twists, character development, and all kinds of other literary devices that show up in state standards. They were also inferencing, another $10 reading teacher word, the whole time. And this happened through TV, of all things.

But beyond these indicators of reading skill, the stories they wove around the wordless TV show also helped them develop empathy, or social imagination. They had to consider the motives of the criminals and the police officers, and how various people were affected by the choices all of the characters made. This aspect of the wordless TV show, this space for developing the ability to step inside someone else’s world, is why I was pleasantly surprised by LEGO City.

Man and child, holding hands, walking down a street lined with brownstone houses. The child is in a red jacket with a hood, holding a few flowers.

Cover, courtesy the publisher.

I know about the potential for the power of wordless texts because of the extensive scholarship that’s been done around wordless picturebooks. Some of my favorites include Sidewalk Flowers (btw, Groundwood Books is an amazing publisher!!!) and Clown. (I’ll find some pics once I figure out copyright stuff!) Though there are so many! Engaging with these texts can support children’s reading development, regardless of the presence of actual words. Words are, after all, only one part of reading. Bigger things — like plugging into life experiences, monitoring for sense across a story as you make predictions, and paying attention to yourself as a reader — are just as important as being able to decode individual words.

Two page spread from Sidewalk Flowers, courtesy the publisher.

Even taking a minute to look at the pages above, and imagining the possible stories there, reveals the power of wordless texts. Children can think about what the little girl might be thinking, what her father is thinking or saying, or even what the little dog sees. How did she ask her dad to stop and look at the flowers? Did he tell her to hurry up, like a lot of parents do? (Totally guilty of that one.) There’s a great blog post from the contributors about writing wordless stories, which would be a great family or class project.

Wordless picturebooks also highlight the visual element of the book, and the visual is ever-more a part of our world. Supporting children in reading visuals well can help them to be critical readers of commercials, advertisements, and all kinds of texts as they get older. Activities for working with developing children’s visual acuity can be found in this teacher-friendly (and parent-friendly-ish) article.

And closing with LEGO City: we talking about how my son’s initial impressions of the characters proved to be right or wrong as the stories progressed. We discussed how likely it is that there would be such a bad bunch of criminals — bad as in always getting caught. We even had a chance to talk about why there weren’t many women police officer or criminals (I think they show up in later episodes) and why the bad guys might have a legitimate beef with the quality of their prison cells. Heavy conversations, all made possible by LEGO City. You might imagine the types of conversations we have around wordless picturebooks.

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