Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Before Words: Wordless Picture Books and the Development of Reading in Young Children

reviewed by Guy Trainin & Tiffany Young - May 10, 2019

coverTitle: Before Words: Wordless Picture Books and the Development of Reading in Young Children
Author(s): Judith T. Lysaker
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807759163, Pages: 160, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

Our lived experiences as teachers, parents, and researchers show that when we give books to emerging readers at the beginning of the year, a handful of students will hand them back, adamantly saying that they cant read. Others will gladly take the books, open them up, and begin looking through them, using the pictures to craft their vision of the story. These students life experiences, interests, and background knowledge provided the rich context for the stories they imagine. To these students, reading is an interaction between reader and text; it is the active, fluid, and enjoyable experience of storytelling.

In Judith T. Lysakers Before Words: Wordless Picture Books and the Development of Reading in Young Children, she argues that the skill of comprehending using wordless picture books can and should be actively taught, valued, and utilized as an insight into childrens sensemaking. Such work, she claims, is as foundational to early reading development as alphabetic knowledge and phonemic awareness. We believe that, in some ways, Lysakers conclusions do not go far enough. We claim that the interaction between reader and media is an essential part of learning to read at any age, and that some of the practices offered in this text could be easily extended to multi-modal texts for a variety of ages.


The text begins with an introduction that interrogates the reductionist view of reading as unidirectional communication (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). Lysaker also challenges the current text-focused, analytic nature of current reading standards, specifically the Common Core, suggesting instead that texts are dialogic in nature and co-created with the reader. She asks teachers, teacher educators, and literacy researchers to remember that we have a body of research that shows otherwise. She then invites the reader to take a journey with her to answer the following questions:

What happens when children make meaning with books before the onset of decoding, when comprehending is the only thing that matters? How can we think about this early comprehending in ways that break open the complex human experience that it is, lead us to value what children can do, and imagine new ways we can respond? (p. 126)

To answer these questions, she uses vignettes about several children, ranging in age from three to six years old, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in early learning or Head Start centers in mostly economically disadvantaged areas.


In Chapters Two and Three, Lysaker shares vignettes from her research and discusses how children create meaning as they transmediate images to words and use embodied reading (such as facial expressions, gestures, gaze, prosody, and dramatization) to support and express comprehension. Comprehension is further explored in Chapters Four through Six as Lysaker demonstrates through further vignettes how children develop an imaginative relationship with text, use their social and narrative imagination to make sense of a story, and use elements of fluency to support meaning-making. In Chapter Seven, Lysaker discusses how wordless picture book readings are prime opportunities to assess students ability to make meaning that will support later reading development, including comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary growth. The book concludes with practical ways in which wordless picture book reading can be integrated into classrooms to help strengthen childrens emergent literacy.


This text, which extends theories of how emergent readers make meaning while reading, moves quickly into the practical realm, making it widely appealing to practitioners. The vignettes of students reading texts at a variety of developmental levels, along with Lysakers discussion of ways to respond to and prompt further development, provide a qualitatively rich vision of classroom application. The Noticing Map and Digging Deeper Noticing Map, used as tools to monitor childrens storytelling, are printable and available for immediate use. In addition, Lysaker suggests and models a clear pattern of response to childrens oral reading, which can assist teachers in using this co-creation of meaning as the starting point for instruction. She encourages teachers to praise the skills children are currently using, direct their attention back to the pages to assist in memory, explicitly name (in developmentally appropriate language) the reading behavior the child is exhibiting, ask more about their thinking, and finally, prompt for next steps without making such prompts sound like corrections. Furthermore, a table of reading behaviors is provided which highlights examples of specific comprehending behaviors.


Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its valuation of young childrens developing ability to create meaning and actively comprehend. In fact, Lysaker distinguishes between comprehension as a noun and comprehending as a verb, which focuses on how children actively make meaning while they read. We believe this is the heart of the book, made important since as children start reading simple texts the world of comprehension is suddenly constrained by vocabulary choices that are easily decoded. While five of the eight chapters are expressly devoted to comprehending, the title of the book makes no mention of this aspect, perhaps unintentionally limiting the otherwise broader audience who might have an interest in comprehension work. The ideas presented in this text, such as taking time to orchestrate and build a relationship with texts, are worthwhile to audiences interested in working with older readers who are struggling with comprehension but who are not necessarily before words.


In fact, as children progress towards print reading, an added discussion of how wordless text reading may change over time would be helpful. Although some vignettes of childrens sensemaking may appear to be less sophisticated, we wonder if their seemingly limited sensemaking is an indication of their increased knowledge of school-based reading expectations. For example, we encounter Amber, a five-and-a-half-year-old kindergartener, who is reading a book in a patterned and almost mechanical way. This reading might actually demonstrate her growing knowledge of the way emergent guided reading books work, with her mimicking the texts shes encountered in school. As such, some of the interpretations throughout the text sometimes seem to disregard the context to support the claims being made.


Lysaker touches on the relationship between language and vocabulary development. She describes the ways these skills can be further developed from guided wordless picture book reading. This is a fascinating idea that holds important implications for all readers, including emerging multilinguals. Although the author hints at this relationship, we strongly feel that this idea could be expanded into its own chapter. In addition, since the book focuses on one-to-one interaction between an experienced reader and an emergent reader, it lacks a thorough discussion of how group instruction could be utilized as an avenue to support the development of the sensemaking process. Explicit instruction on how to use pictures and background experiences to create meaning would surely support the development of reticent readers described in the text and observed in our own classrooms. It would begin to level the playing field between the literacy haves and the literacy have nots.


In the midst of high-stakes testing and the increase in state and national identification of readers as being delayed as early as kindergarten, this is a welcome text. Lysaker reminds us all that above all else, reading is meant to be an intimate and enjoyable experience. She teaches us to view childrens literacy development from a strengths-based approach and encourages instruction to mimic the experience some young children have in the laps of their caregivers: an interactive, dialogic, and relationship-building experience.


Gough, P. B. & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 610.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22795, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 5:59:01 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Guy Trainin
    University of Nebraska-Lincoln
    E-mail Author
    GUY TRAININ is the Melvin and Jane Nore Professor of Education and Chair at the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). He focuses his research in the areas of literacy development, motivation and literacy integration with technology and the arts. He teaches in pre-service education as well as graduate courses in field research methods, technology integration, and in literacy research. In recent years, Dr. Trainin has been studying 21st century learning and innovative schooling in Nebraska, South Africa, and China, with a specific focus on mobile devices and creativity. He has published research articles and books as well as extensive digital authorship.
  • Tiffany Young
    Doane University
    E-mail Author
    TIFFANY YOUNG is an assistant professor of elementary education at Nebraska's Doane College. She is a past Kindergarten teacher and focuses her research on early reading acquisition and the interaction of reading instruction with social justice.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue