The Power of Wordlessness (Part 1 of 2)
by Jules Csillag
This is the first part of a two-part series on silent books and movies, and pictures. Today, we will look at why to use wordless activities, and next week, learn how to incorporate these into lessons, and read about specific, potential activities.
Aside from reducing your language in your classroom, and the importance of using visuals, there are benefits to using wordless texts (where “texts” can mean anything from images to books to movies) to autistic students.
Wordless texts can be used to address a variety of skills that autistic students typically struggle with, including diverse literacy skills, cognitive flexibility, and nonverbal communication. Removing words and auditory information also supports autistic students since integrating information from multiple senses can take longer in autistic individuals, particularly if this information is linguistic. Removing words can therefore positively influence processing (Boddaert et al, 2004, Stevenson, 2014)
Using wordless books or movies can build diverse literacy skills in terms of making inferences, understanding narrative structure, and using evidence to support a claim. All wordless “texts” support individuals’ ability to make inferences, which is helpful since research shows that “students with Asperger syndrome…had challenges in making inferences from the text” (Knight & Sartrini, 2014). Moreover, researchers have found that “similar processes contribute to comprehension of narratives across different media” (Kendeou, P. et al, 2009), meaning that addressing visual inferences can transfer to inferences made during reading. Images and silent books or movies necessarily require students to infer what is happening, who the characters are, etc.
Wordless books and movies are also an effective way of helping students’ reading and writing by helping them understand text structure, especially narrative text structure, which is the understanding that narratives all have similar structures (e.g. character, setting, problem, resolution). Wordless books and movies are an often fun way of teaching text structure, as well as theme, and these skills are worth teaching as they do not always come naturally to students on the spectrum (Zajic et al., 2014, Gately, 2008). Autistic students may also have difficulty citing evidence to support a position, as that requires perspective taking skills and organization of language, which can both be difficult for them. As with inferences, you can use an image to practice this skill (e.g. “I think it is summer because I see the characters sweating and the trees look really green”).
Given that images and wordless books and movies are open to interpretation, they also build cognitive flexibility, since there can often be multiple, logical ways of “reading” visual narratives. This can be helpful since cognitive flexibility is typically an underlying challenge with students with autism (Van Eylen et al., 2011). Cognitive flexibility is important for social situations (since perspective taking relies on cognitive flexibility), for problem-solving (since sometimes you need to attempt more than one solution), and for understanding any “grey areas” or subjective interpretations of an event or text.
Removing words also allows individuals to focus on nonverbal communication more. This has two distinct benefits: for one, it targets an underlying challenge many individuals with autism have in processing nonverbal information, “compared with both typical and atypical groups well matched for cognitive development” (Rogers, 2006). Furthermore, when there is a discrepancy between words and facial expressions, individuals with autism tend to give more weight to the words, so removing words naturally emphasizes the nonverbal communication and can thus put it on students’ radar and teach them its various functions (Watanabe et al., 2012). Emotional thermometers (Wesbty, 2004) to expand emotional vocabulary, and link to context, facial expression, tone of voice (where relevant).
Stay tuned for next week’s post on how to use wordlessness, and what tools may work!