Story Outlining and Retelling Using a Wordless Book

The Red Book by Barbara Lehman is a wordless picture book, so it may not be the first to come to mind when considering a book to “read aloud” to a class. However, because the illustrations tell the story, The Red Book can be an ideal book to use as students practice outlining and retelling stories.

So students can practice reading response by “reading” a wordless picture book together. Yes, it is lacking the words required to “read aloud.” But as we examine the pictures together, it is obvious that a story is occurring.

Wordless books like The Red Book allow students to practice outlining and understanding a story and allow them to retell it creatively if they desire.

Ways to Summarize Literature

In second and third grade, Raisin and I learned a few ways to approach literature. In the co-op class I taught, we learned about a story arc and practiced finding the beginning, middle, and end of a particular story. We observed how characters often changed over the course of a story.

One approach to summarize a story is to liken the plot to a roller coaster: the story starts slow, then gradually builds up to a main point. The highest point of the roller coaster is the climax of the story. A climax is where there is a turning point in the plot. After the climax, the downward “roller coaster” or “falling action” is much shorter than the build up has been. Now the story resolves itself nicely because the main “change” has already happened.

Related to that is the observation of characters. How does the main character change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story?

Also, we often can look at a story in terms of a problem that needs to be solved. It is a progression from problem to action to resolution. This does not mean a “problem” is always obvious. In The Red Book, for example, the girl’s problem is related to the finding of the red book. It is more of a mystery than what we’d think of as a “problem.”

When we learned about ways to respond to literature we used these notebooking pages from Nicole Shelby and Lovin Lit.
When we learned about ways to respond to literature we used these notebooking pages from Nicole Shelby and Lovin Lit.

Reading a Wordless Story

Students should begin by gathering their initial thoughts on the illustrations in The Red Book. Here are some questions students can answer as they first begin reading, along with my thoughts.

  • What emotions do the colors and illustration style suggest? Do the things that are happening in each illustration fit those feelings? Think about the gray cityscape and the bright red book.
  • What character appears to be the most important? Why do you think he/she is the most important? My daughter is convinced the main character is a boy. I think she looks like a girl.
  • Where does the setting appear to be? In what era of history does the story appear to take place? What evidence in the illustrations helped you come to that conclusion? I believe this book is a contemporary story because the cityscape and the classroom set up look modern.

It is important that teachers/parents allow students to come to their own conclusions. While the gray color in the book does suggest to me a depressing atmosphere, maybe the student finds that the red book is hopeful or the snow is cheerful because they love snow, winter, and cozy gloves. The great thing about literature is that as long as students can reference the text, their own experiences and opinions can change their approach. There is often no right or wrong in responding to literature.

Understanding a Wordless Story

After initial observations, students often may want to consider the beginning, middle, and end. The beginning sets up a scene with an interesting action. The middle is typically the longest portion in which the most action takes place, and the end will be when things have been “resolved.” For these, consider:

  • What is the first event that makes this a story that we’ll want to read? I believe finding the book is such an event. Maybe students observe a different interesting first event.
  • What does the main character want at this point and how does he/she go about getting this? My son and I disagreed on what this would be. I believe she wanted to get out of the cold winter. My son thought the girl wanted to meet the boy more than anything. I like how we could both disagree and it does not make who is “right.”
  • At what point has the main character changed and you feel his or her story is over? 

Another way to get a general feel for a story is to try to fill in the blanks for a sentence like this: Somebody ____ Wanted ____ But _____  So ______ Then ______.

By outlining the main plot points of The Red Book, students can practice outlining a story. Then they can retell it in their own style.Outlining a Story for Retelling

When outlining a story, it’s important to not try to cover every single portion of the story. For example, we don’t need to have a sentence for every picture of the book.

In the printable I’ve prepared, I’ve provided a few boxes in which to capture some of these main points. Sentence frames in the boxes and questions in the margin may help students gather the main points, rather than trying to capture every single thing.

My son found this really difficult. He was concerned that there were not enough boxes. He wanted to start with the first page and write details for each page. It took a lot of convincing that outlining requires less rather than more. It is not a summary or outline if we cover every page!

Retelling a Story

After the main points are written, then the student can revisit it by retelling and embellishing with their own details.

This is the time when students can put the emotion and feelings back into the text. With the initial reading and understanding of the text (in this case, The Red Book), the students covered the emotions and feelings that came with the illustrations and the character. With the outlining, the students captured the main plot points. Now the student can put them together in their own creative way. Using a wordless picture book gives them freedom with words.

For example, in The Red Book, there is no dialog. What does the girl say or think when she first sees a bright red book in the snow? For that matter, what is the girl’s name? What class is she staring out the window during? When did she decide to buy balloons? Who is the boy who eventually picks up the book in the end (hint: I believe he is on the page when the girl is leaving her classroom!)

The sky is the limit on retelling a story like this. There are many options. It may take some convincing to help students let go of the structure they are familiar with. But capturing the spirit and story of the book will be much more fun if they begin outlining first rather than trying tell every detail upon initial reading.

Download the Lesson Idea

I’ve put together some simple worksheets to go along with the process I describe above. If you’d like it, download it from my shop!

This is the first in a 5-day series of Picture Book Writing Prompts for Elementary Students. See my landing page for links to more posts and ideas like this one and check back tomorrow morning for more.

Picture books are not just for little kids. Big kids may be inspired by the language, stories, and characters in picture books. Check out these writing prompts for ideas on using picture books with older elementary-aged kids.

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