Curious Parents

Picture Books Might Do More Harm Than Good When It Comes To Learning To Read

Everybody knows that pictures are the training wheels of reading. How is a little learner supposed to start in on letters and words without colorful drawings as a stepping stone? But maybe we're not giving our kids enough credit. A brand-new study from the University of Sussex is just the latest in a series of reports on the (often detrimental) effects that illustrations have on learning to read.

(Don't) Picture This

In this most recent release, researchers found that the fewer the pictures in the book, the faster children learned their words. The study sat 3-year-olds down with grown-ups for story time. One group was given books with illustrations on both the right- and left-hand pages, and the other had books with illustrations on the right only. The kids whose books had two pictures turned out to be much worse than the other group when it came to retaining the new words they'd learned.

When they ran the test again, the adults reading two-picture books gestured towards the right image when they used a vocabulary word, which entirely canceled out the detrimental effects of using two pictures. To the researchers, that suggested that the problem was kids getting distracted, confused, and overstimulated by the extra visual info. Co-author Zoe Flack summed it up nicely, saying, "By giving children less information at once, or guiding them to the correct information, we can help children learn more words."

This study hones in on some of the possible reasons that illustrations can hinder, rather than help, reading efforts, but it's hardly the first to notice a connection. One especially interesting study from 1976 presented kids with vocab words and either a) no picture, b) a picture of the appropriate object, c) a picture of an unrelated object, or d) a doodled picture not representing anything real. The kids who had no picture remembered their words the best, and the ones with a picture of the right object scored the worst of all. But if it's so well documented that learning to read is easier without pictures, then why are so many kids' books full of pictures?

The Case For Picture Books

The answer may lie in not looking at pictures as being "good" or "bad" for reading, but instead as playing a role that is better at supporting reading in some ways than it is in others. When you're learning vocabulary words, surprisingly enough, a picture won't help. But when it comes to parent-child bonding, a picture book might be just what the doctor ordered. The Children's Book Review noted that the multi-sensory experience of reading a picture book levels the playing field between grown-up and little-kid conversations, and gives readers of all ages some common ground to share.

Another study suggest that that strengthened bond between adults and kids could actually mitigate the unhelpful effects of pictures. When interactivity between readers and kids was emphasized, the kids with the illustrated storybooks demonstrated better comprehension and better retention than those without pictures. What's the moral of this story? Basically, however your kid likes to read is probably just fine — but if they absolutely have to remember something, skip the pictures.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas July 18, 2017

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