In Storybooks, Fewer Pictures Help Build Vocabulary Skills

Picture books should have no more than one illustration per page-spread to maximize word learning among preschoolers, according to a new study by UK psychologists at the University of Sussex. But in stories that do feature multiple illustrations on one page, it helps to point to the correct picture that goes along with the words being read.

The findings could help in the development of learning materials for young children and present a simple solution to parents and teachers to help build preschoolers’ vocabulary skills.

“Luckily, children like hearing stories, and adults like reading them to children. But children who are too young to read themselves don’t know where to look because they are not following the text. This has a dramatic impact on how well they learn new words from stories,” said doctoral researcher and co-author Zoe Flack.

For the study, researchers read storybooks to three-year-olds with one illustration at a time (the right-hand page was illustrated, the left-hand page was blank) or with two illustrations at a time (both pages had illustrations), with illustrations introducing the child to new objects that were named on the page.

The findings show that preschoolers who were read stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as those who were read stories with two or more illustrations.

In a follow-up experiment, researchers added a simple hand gesture to guide the children to look at the correct illustration that matched the words being read. They found this gesture to be effective in helping children learn words when two illustrations were present.

“This suggests that simply guiding children’s attention to the correct page helps them focus on the right illustrations, and this in turn might help them concentrate on the new words,” said Flack.

“Our findings fit well with 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.”

The study is one of many being conducted at Sussex in The WORD Lab, a research group that focuses on how children learn and acquire language. Previous studies have shown children learn more words from hearing the same stories repeated and from hearing stories at nap time.

“Other studies have shown that adding ‘bells and whistles’ to storybooks like flaps to lift and anthropomorphic animals decreases learning. But this is the first study to examine how decreasing the number of illustrations increases children’s word learning from storybooks,” said co-author Dr. Jessica Horst.

“This study also has important implications for the e-Book industry. Studies on the usefulness of teaching vocabulary from e-Books are mixed, but our study suggests one explanation is that many studies with e-Books are only presenting one illustration at a time.”

The findings are published in the journal Infant and Child Development.

Source: University of Sussex