Children’s Books Illustrations Linked to Decreased Word Learning in Preschoolers

Hold up. Before placing the newly minted children’s book on the counter at the bookstore, you might want to take a peek inside first. Look at the illustrations. Are they colorful and bright? Do they show more than one thing happening on a page? If so, put it down for second and listen up.

A new study published in Infant and Child Development shares how a group of researchers from the University of Sussex found that having more than one illustration on a page can result in poorer word learning in preschoolers.

That sound a little strange? Don’t kids enjoy reading stories with pictures? Yes and yes, but to a point. The researchers are saying that a younger child viewing a page with more than one illustration or reading a book with flaps, make it more difficult for them to follow. Essentially, there’s too much going on to focus.

Co-author of the study Dr. Jessica Horst said, “…this is the first study to examine how decreasing the number of illustrations increases children’s word learning from storybooks.”

For the study, they read three stories from a set of storybooks to a group of three-year-olds. The first book had one page of illustrations, and the other page was blank. The second story had illustrations on both pages, while the third had one large illustration. What they found was that the children learned twice as many new words after reading the book with a single picture on a page.

Does this mean you need to go through your child’s bookshelves and start cleaning house? Not exactly. In a follow-up study, they found that merely pointing to the illustrations on the pages with multiple images before reading was more beneficial when guiding the children to learn new words.

“Our findings fit well with the Cognitive Load Theory, which suggests that learning rates are affected by how complicated a task is. In this case, by giving children less information at once, or guiding them to the correct information, we can help children learn more words,” said Zoe Flack, Doctoral researcher and co-author of the recent findings.

In addition to reading stories with fewer illustrations, how about the many times your child begs for you to read the same story over and over again? Believe it or not,  it may not be a bad idea to listen. Horst shares that after reading the same story multiple times, the child gets something new out of it. For example, the first time they are just enjoying the story while the subsequent reads they begin to notice details and listen to the words being said.

The silver lining in all of this is just to keep reading to your children. By exposing them to texts and sharing the love of reading with them is a gift in itself.

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