By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
Like most parents, you probably remember fondly the first time you had your toddler in your lap, reading a children’s book with big, beautiful illustrations and simple words like Goodnight Moon or Brown Bear, Brown Bear: Where Are You? I remember how exciting it was to trace the words on the page with my toddler’s little, stubby fingers and showing him how those words were connected to the illustrations.
But here’s the thing: strangely enough, researchers have discovered that when it comes to improving your toddler’s language skills, you’re better off reading illustrated books without words than books with pictures and text. The reason is when you read a picture book with only a few words, you probably do what I and most other people do: you describe how those words relate to the illustrations, like saying “This is a house,” and then asking your toddler “Show me where the house is.”
When parents read wordless books, they create rich, complex stories from those illustrations and end up talking with their toddlers about all kinds of things. For example, instead of asking their kids to “show me the house,” they ask “What does our house look like? Who lives there? What can you see when you look out the window?” As a result, researchers have found, toddlers end up with a broader vocabulary, better word comprehension, and they learn how to use language to describe events in their lives.
There’s nothing wrong with reading picture books with simple words. Clearly, it’s smart to introduce your toddler to words at an early age and explain how they can use words to describe themselves, others, and the world around them. But as they get closer to school-age, it’s important to expose them to more sophisticated language, and strong wordless books do that. As Professor Daniele O’Neill, the author of one recent study, puts it, “reading picture storybooks with kids exposes them to the kind of talk that’s really important for children to hear, especially as they transition to school.”
What are some great wordless books you should consider reading with your toddler? Here are three modern classics that’ll inspire great conversations:
Hank Finds an Egg by Rebecca Dudley
This book has beautiful photographs of dioramas and tells the story of a stuffed animal named Frank, who finds the egg of a hummingbird, takes care of it at home, and then returns it to its nest to hatch. Your kids will relate to how vulnerable the small hummingbird is, and you’ll find yourself speaking with them about taking care of others.
Inside Outside, by Lizi Boyd
This wonderfully illustrated book will stimulate many conversations about the fun things to do inside and outside your home, and during the changing seasons. Featuring a kid who plays with various animals (bird, cat, dog, mouse, and a turtle), you can talk about those animals, where they live, and more.
Where’s Walrus? by Stephen Savage
This is the story about the adventures of an adorable walrus who has escaped a zoo, with the zoo keeper hot on its trails. Along the way, the walrus meets different people including artists, firemen, and shopkeepers. This fun book can lead to conversations about the different jobs people have and what your kids would like to do when they grow up.
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.