When It Comes To Teaching Children, A Picture Is Not Worth A Thousand Words

Some interesting research was published last week that, to begin with, seemed a little counter intuitive to me but actually makes sense when you look at it a little more deeply.

It concerns teaching words to pre-schoolers and how best effectively to do that. They probably pick up most words just from having conversations with their parents, but they will also pick some up from being read to and making connections between the words they hear in the story and the illustrations that go along with that story.

It stands to reason, then, that the more pictures there are to go with the text the more words the child will pick up. Except that isn’t what actually happens. In the study, published in Infant and Child Development, groups of 3.5 year old children had stories read to them. The stories either had one picture per double page with accompanying text (the other page was just blank), or a picture on both pages with accompanying text.

The stories deliberately had two unusual objects in them that the children would not have encountered before and, having had the stories read to them, they were later tested to see if they had picked up the name of the novel objects.

When children were read the stories with one picture per page they were generally able to learn the new words. When there were two pictures per page, however, they generally failed to pick up either new word. The author’s explanation for this is that it is extremely difficult for children of 3.5 years of age to focus on one thing for a long time. Also, it is particularly hard for them to change from focussing on one thing to focussing on another. This goes along with Cognitive Load Theory which basically says that the more complicated a concept is, the more difficult it is to learn. Plus, the brain architecture of young children just doesn’t allow them to switch their focus around multiple images and fully take in what is there; their pre-frontal cortex simply isn’t developed enough.

The researchers, from the University of Sussex, UK, were keen to point out that they are not making the case that children’s story books should have fewer pictures in them. They subsequently ran a second experiment where they used the same one or two illustration books but this time, as the stories were being read to them, the reader would use a sweeping hand gesture to indicate that they had moved from the first page to the next. The gesture was kept deliberately vague so as not to bring inadvertent attention to the new words.

In this experiment the children performed even better than in the first experiment, generally learning both of the new words.

By all means, then, by nicely illustrated books for your children; but help them out. Show them where to focus their attention. When you say an object, point to it in the picture. There is also a lot of evidence to show that children will take in more if you discuss what’s happening as you read it or ask them simple questions about what is going on. If nothing else, in my experience, it makes it more interesting for you too. I love the Gruffalo, it’s a great book; but when you are reading it for the nth time you need all the help you can get.

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One thought on “When It Comes To Teaching Children, A Picture Is Not Worth A Thousand Words

  1. 40’ish years ago I used flash cards for basic words and all my kids learned to read them easily. Made learning to read books much easier for them as they had some understanding of what a word was, and the idea of the unique (mostly) graphic representation. This went alongside having books read to them and talked about.

    Liked by 1 person

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