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Picture books with more images makes it harder for children to learn new words

Publishers are trying to entice parents into buying more books for their preschool children by making them more colourful and with more pictures. But according to scientists, this visual overload is actually counterproductive as children will find it more difficult to learn new words. 

When looking for picture books to buy for preschool children, scientists advise parents to look for those that have fewer illustrations and are less colourful. According to a new study, the information overload that comes with powerful coloured and rich in cartoon books actually make children less likely to learn new words.

In order to find out which books are best for children, when it comes to developing their vocabulary, scientists read stories to three-year-olds that had either one illustration or with two illustrations. In the first case, the drawing was on one page while the second was left blank. In the second scenario, both pages contained illustrations.

What they found was that the children that only saw one image, presenting the new objects the kids were supposed to learn, they memorised twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations.

Further tests also revealed that hand gestures can be used as effective tools to make children concentrate on the images. A simple swipe of the hand, guiding the child’s attention towards the correct illustration before the page was read to them, was important when it came to two or more drawings being presented on the page.

“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 doctoral researcher and co-author of the study, Zoe 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.”

This is not the first time that scientists have pointed out that exactly what makes books more appealing to children, like sounds or pop-up animals, actually make them less effective as learning tools. But this is the first time that researchers linked the increased number of illustration to a decrease in learning.

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

The results of the study could also explain why e-books are efficient when it comes to learning as they present only one image at a time.

Sylvia Jacob

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