No words to say it? Connecting and learning through wordless picturebooks in multilingual spaces and contexts of crisis

Why would one speak of “silent” picturebooks in a conference on language and linguistics? Because, as studies have shown, “silent” or “wordless” picturebooks can offer the opportunity for reflection on cultural identity, intercultural understanding and visual literacy as well as the development of language and reading (Arizpe 2013; Arizpe, Colomer & Martínez-Roldán; Colón & Tabernero-Sala 2018; Marciano, Rackley & Vaughn (2017); Lysaker 2019; Terrusi 2018). In this talk I will argue that these texts can be used effectively in the contemporary language classroom but that their affordances also make them ideal partners to work with in more complex spaces. I will begin by discussing the concept of the “wordless picturebook” and reflect on studies which have used these books in the ELT or ESL classroom as well as research carried out in different multilingual educational contexts, some of them international, over the last decade. These projects provide examples of how wordless picturebooks engage children in collective meaning making where connections go well beyond image and words, into reflections on language and culture, and provide a safe place for these conversations. In a world in which the demand for safe spaces for children has increased and looks set to increase further due to natural disasters and political and social crisis, the classroom can become a refuge along with non-formal emergent spaces. This became evident during the covid-pandemic lockdowns which witnessed the emergence of many non-traditional spaces for learning and entertainment. These spaces often imply a “thrown-togetherness” (Massey 2005) as groups of different ages and cultures, with a range of language and literacy levels, have to engage with each other and their context, and deal with differing emotional and educational needs. I argue that children’s literature can be used to support connections and learning through examples of practice from the research network ‘Children’s Literature in Critical Contexts of Displacement’ and the accompanying Toolkit which also includes wordless picturebooks.