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What to Look for in a Story Book for a Toddler

Less is more when it comes to helping small children learn new vocabulary from a picture book, according to a new study. While the story book with the murals and exciting text might be more enticing, psychologists have shown that having more than one illustration per page results in poorer word learning among preschoolers.

“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,” explained Zoe Flack, doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex and co-author of the study.

Three-year-old were read a story book with one illustration at a time (the right-hand page was illustrated, the left-hand page was blank) by researchers, while other three-year-olds were read a story book with two illustrations at a time (both pages had illustrations). The illustrations in each story book introduced the children to new objects that were named on the page.

They found that children who were read children’s stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations.

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In a follow-up experiment, researchers added a simple hand swipe gesture to guide the children to look at the correct illustration before the page was read to them. They found this gesture was effective in helping children to learn words when they saw two illustrations across 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,” Flack said. “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.”

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

Bottom line? When you’re looking at illustrated books for toddlers, pick a story book that has minimal illustration, so they have an easier time matching the word to the image.

The study was published in the journal Infant and Child Development.

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