Kids + Teens

How to Read a Picture Book with No Words

Tandem, Partners in Early Learning is a Bay Area-based nonprofit organization that partners with families, educators, and communities to surround young children with interactive learning experiences to spark joy and close the opportunity gap.

Today, we’ve invited Julie Barton, Development Manager, to blog about one of the most common questions we hear: “How do I ‘read’ a picture book with no words?” Using the book Pool by JiHyeon Lee as an example, Julie shares her expertise with us.

Your child picks a book off the shelf. “Read to me!” she demands. You open the book… and there are no words! How can you tell a story that has no words?

Here at Tandem, one of our most popular workshops is on this exact challenge, which can be experienced both when reading a wordless picture book or when faced with a book in a language you don’t understand.

First, a little neuroscience. We start by showing the benefit to a child’s brain when a number of different reading techniques are used. This is a PET scan of a child—notice how reading the words on a page to a child (the top two images) only lights up a portion of the brain. For brain development, we want many different parts of the brain to light up. Using a number of different techniques to encompass hearing, seeing, speaking, thinking about, and generating words, we can stimulate that kind of activity.


So, how do you read a wordless book to your child? Instead of “reading a book,” think of it as “sharing a book,” and aim for as many back-and-forth interactions as possible. Here are four ideas to guide you:

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

1. Ask Questions

Ask for your child’s thoughts, opinions, and predictions. You’re lighting up many more parts of the brain while building confidence. Questions can include predictions (“What will happen next?”), social-emotional analysis (“What is this character feeling?”), personal connections (“Did you ever feel that way?”), vocabulary development (“What kind of animal is that?”), and critical thinking (“Why did she do that?”). With the evocative image of Pool’s main character watching everyone else jump into the water, I would ask, “What do you think this character is seeing? What do you think he is feeling?” Elicit your child’s emotional, empathic response to the images.

Pool by Jihyeon Lee

2. Make Connections

Narrative skills and prediction are important skills for a young child to learn. Try to create a sense of continuity by asking your child about what happens next in the story, or refer back to earlier in the book. In this final picture, which fish do we see? Where did we see them earlier? Feel free to go back and find them—children love seek-and-find challenges! Also, you can provide a narrative thread or rhyme to tie the book together. For instance, I might end each page with a phrase like “and they kept on swimming. Deeper, deeper, deeper they swam, deep down into the pool… UNTIL” and then turn the page. Invite your child to chime in with the phrase to connect her more with the reading experience.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

3. Follow the Child’s Pace

Children love repetition, and can become obsessive about things they love. This is absolutely fine! There is no need to rush through a book, or even to finish a book once you’ve begun. If your child is drawn to a particular page, enjoy that page together. Have a conversation about it. What are the colors? The shapes? What are the names of these animals? Allow your child’s imagination to take over.


4. Be Silly

Feel free to be silly. Maybe one of the fish is called a Stinky-Silly-Spider Fish, maybe another is the Snorcrack-Nosed Eel. Make voices, do movements, and play! What sounds to these fish make, what are their voices like? Ask about the different characters and what kind of shenanigans they’re up to. How silly for one of the ladies have a pair of boating oars in her swimming cap! What about the man about to jump into the pool—what kind of things would you shout if you were about to jump into a pool full of people?

Pool is a wonderful book to enjoy with your child, but these guidelines can improve any storytime. Let us know in the comments how you’re going to apply these ideas!


Julie Barton is determined to never be “too old” to read books for children. With a Ph.D. in Literature and a Masters in Children’s Literature, she works at Tandem, Partners in Early Learning ( and believes that quality children’s literature can change the world.

Julie Barton

Julie Barton

Julie Barton is determined to never be “too old” to read books for children. With a Ph.D. in Literature and a Masters in Children’s Literature, she works at Tandem, Partners in Early Learning and believes that quality children’s literature can change the world. Connect with her @JulieBartonPhD or with @Tandem_BayArea.
Julie Barton



  • danielle @ this picture book life May 29, 2015 at 9:53 am

    This was such a helpful post! Looking forward to putting these techniques into practice even more when I read with kids, whether a wordless or wordy book! 🙂


  • Lucy @ myfriendlucy May 30, 2015 at 2:48 am

    Stunning, thank you. I see so many beautiful wordless picture books, and don’t review them because I don’t know how to make them work in front of an audience. You have inspired me to try one in the classroom…


  • Sarah Yewman June 1, 2015 at 9:27 am

    Brilliant post! Great guidance and I intend to share with my audience NOW!


  • John S Green July 12, 2015 at 4:56 am

    Fantastic ideas. I have always thought that reading to a young child should include silliness (when appropriate only!) and interactive discussions at the child’s pace,

    My wife introduced me to wordless books and you have brought them out as totally cool… and I love the idea of using a book in a foreign language just as you would a wordless book. My wife is an associate professor of English as a Second language teaching ‘Elementary teachers to be’ and uses Wordless books to see how the young 3 – 6th graders “read” these books after a demonstration.


  • Diana Toledano November 30, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    Really interesting post. I’ve use most of those techniques already (in my personal life, and as a informal educator and illustrator), but it’s good to reflect on them from time to time.

    I specially enjoyed the brain scan image. It’s going to be useful when explaining to some parents why reading with kids is so important…


    P.S.: Also, “Pool” is a fantastic book and allows for a really deep emotional connection. I love it!


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