One of the characteristics of beginning readers’ picture books is that they have, well, pictures. And usually lots of them. A new research study, though, is challenging the idea that more is better when it comes to pictures and reading comprehension. According to the paper published in npj Science of Learning, more pictures can actually distract young readers and hinder their ability to understand the story itself.
The authors noted that books for beginning readers often include engaging, colorful, and detailed illustrations. The reasons for including such illustrations are to define the setting and characters, contribute to text coherence, reinforce the text, provide additional information, and motivate the reader.
However, since attention is a competitive process, and since only a portion of the information a book provides can be held in visual working memory, too many illustrations may be too much for students to grasp. Beginning readers haven’t yet learned to make reading an automatic skill, so that large and colorful illustrations, especially those that don’t further enhance the story, can compete for their attention with the text itself. If that’s so, then including too many pictures serves to undermine children’s reading comprehension, because looking away from the text at those pictures encodes them in their working memory instead of the text that carries the meaning.
At the same time, students’ attention regulation skills are still developing at the time they first learn to read, so unnecessary illustrations may attract their attention away from the story to details that are irrelevant to proper decoding of the text and to overall learning. The possibility that this may be occurring is important to note particularly in light of recent research that’s shown individual student’s differences in selective attention are related to individual differences in their overall reading skills.
The researchers used eye-tracking studies of shared story-book reading in pre-reading children and of individual reading with older children who are now reading to learn. The data suggest that the younger group overwhelmingly paid attention to the images and only minimally to the text, whereas by fourth grade, it was exactly the reverse.
They concluded that the nature of illustrations used along with text may have important implications for attention and learning both in students who are learning to read and those who are reading to learn. Their intent was to highlight the opportunity to improve the design of educational materials for beginning readers by limiting extraneous illustrations. That would allow the material to engage students with the story content and whatever illustrations are important to help decode the text, while ensuring that extraneous information doesn’t interfere with attention and learning.
 Eng, C.M., Godwin, K.E. & Fisher, A.V. Keep it simple: streamlining book illustrations improves attention and comprehension in beginning readers. npj Sci. Learn. 5, 14 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-020-00073-5