Early Childhood

Fewer Pictures in Storybooks Help Students Learn New Words, Study Finds

By Marva Hinton — July 14, 2017 2 min read
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A new study suggests less may be more when it comes to illustrations in storybooks for young children.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom have determined that preschoolers learn more words when there is only one illustration per page.

Their study, “Two Sides to Every Story: Children Learn Words Better From One Storybook Page at a Time” was published online in June in the journal Infant and Child Development.

ImageExperiment One

The researchers divided 36 3 ½ -year-old children into three groups. One group was read a storybook with one illustration on the right page and the left page blank. Another group was read a storybook with an illustration on both pages. A third group acted as a control and was read a storybook with one oversized illustration on the right page.

All of the children heard the same story and saw the same illustrations.

At the end of the story, the children were asked to rank their enjoyment of it. The researchers found no difference in the children’s enjoyment based on which book had been read to them. But when they tested the children on the new vocabulary that had been introduced to them in the books, the children who had been read stories with just one illustration learned twice as many words as the children who had been read stories with illustration on each page.

Experiment Two

The researchers added 12 more children of the same age and read them the storybook with an illustration on both pages. But this time the reader used a sweeping gesture across the page to indicate which page he or she was reading.

These children were also asked to rank their enjoyment of the story and then were tested on the new vocabulary presented to them in the book. These students learned just as many new words as the students who had been exposed to only one illustration per page in the first experiment, and they enjoyed the stories equally.


So should early childhood educators and parents look for books with fewer illustrations?

Zoe Flack is the doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex who designed the study with her advisor. She also ran the study with the help of some fellow students.

“We certainly wouldn’t advocate avoiding any types of books—developing a love of books early is helpful for later life and different books provide different experiences, all of which are important,” wrote Flack in an email. “At this young age though, children are still learning how to learn from books. So helping them get the most out of storybooks, without taking away any of the pleasure can really boost their chances.”

She says that can be accomplished through simple gestures.

“I think the main message should be for adult readers to be guiding children’s attention towards the page they are reading from as a minimum,” wrote Flack. “Pointing to features in the illustrations children may not know the words for, whilst reading, is also a really good way to help them pick up new words too.”

Photo: These are the three books that researchers read to the preschoolers in the study. Courtesy Zoe Flack

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.