Choosing books for beginning readers: Sometimes less is more

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The most helpful books for beginning readers keep fancy details to a minimum, and this applies to imagery as well as to text. "Busy" illustrations can be distracting, and interfere with a young child's reading comprehension.

Books designed for new and emerging readers are sometimes very exciting to look at. The text is supported by eye-catching, colorful, highly-detailed illustrations. The better to entice your child to read, right?

But reading is a cognitively demanding activity -- especially for children who are just beginning to hone their skills. And research suggests that some illustrations are too interesting -- too detailed and distracting. They divert attention away from the text, and make it harder for kids to concentrate on the central tasks of reading.

In fact, there's evidence that young school children end up comprehending less of a text if it's accompanied by overly-detailed images.

To understand how this works, consider all the feats that young readers must perform.

  • They must recognize the letters on the page, and translate them into sounds.
  • They must string together the component sounds to "sound out" a spoken word.
  • Then they need to identify the meaning of this word, and keep it available in short-term memory while they proceed to decode the next word. 
  • When they've finished decoding all the words in a sentence, they need to be able to replay these words, in sequence, in their minds. They need to understand the grammar of the sentence. They need to grasp the overall meaning of the text.

What if the sentence is too long? Or one of the words is especially difficult to decode? This entire process depends critically on a child's working memory capacity.

We can only pay attention to so much at once. There are limits to how much information we can keep active and available for us to think about at any given time.

So if a sentence is too long, a child will likely lose track. By the time she decodes the last word in a sentence, she will have forgotten the first word.

Likewise, if there is too much new information to absorb, or a particularly tricky word to decode, the developing reader may get stalled.

Eventually, as the reader gains experience and skill, he'll be able to handle more complexity. He'll have learned to recognize many words automatically, by sight. He'll automatically decode certain prefixes, suffixes, and word roots. He'll have an intuition for spelling conventions, and common grammatical patterns. And these shortcuts will lighten the cognitive load of reading -- freeing up working memory for tackling longer sentences, and more complicated language.

But when the reader is starting out -- first learning to read, or building early literacy skills -- it doesn't take much to exceed his or her working memory capacity. Every aspect of reading requires conscious attention and effort. So it's important to keep things pretty simple.

Of course, that's why books for beginning readers feature simple language, like "Sam sat on a mat." But what about other elements of a book? What about the illustrations? Can the pictures in a book contribute to information overload?

That's what Cassondra Eng and her colleagues wanted to know, so they devised an experiment with 60 school children (in grades 1 and 2).

To begin, the researchers took a commercially-available picture book designed for early readers, and they modified it.

  • On some of the book's pages, the original illustrations were left untouched. These illustrations were rich with information, and included many details not directly relevant to the story.
  • On other pages, the illustrations were simplified. The researchers removed extraneous details, leaving only the bare essentials.

What did this look like? Here's an example provided by the researchers. It isn't from the specific book used in the experiment, but it gives you an idea of how much a "standard" page differed from a simplified, visually "streamlined" one.

"Standard" versus "Streamlined" page, by Cassondra M. Eng

Once the researchers had prepared the reading materials, they were ready for the big test.

Each child read both types of pages, out loud. And as children read, a portable eye-tracker recorded the movements of their eyes -- allowing the researchers to determine how much attention kids paid to the illustrations, and how much attention they paid to the text.

When kids had finished reading, they were asked a series of reading comprehension questions.

How did things turn out?

When kids were reading the original, unmodified pages, they spent more time shifting their gaze away from the text. They also spent more time looking at extraneous details in the illustrations. And both of these tendencies were associated with lower reading comprehension.

In fact, the difference in reading comprehension was substantial, with kids scoring approximately 33% higher in comprehension in the visually "streamlined" condition.

And some kids benefited more than others. They were especially distracted by the standard pages. So switching to simplified, streamlined imagery had a bigger impact on their reading comprehension.

What should we take away from this?

We shouldn't assume that content-rich imagery is always a bad thing for reading comprehension.

In fact, previous research suggests that older kids aren't fazed much by the images that accompany text. A study of fourth graders found that kids focused primarily on the text, and relatively little on pictures (Hannus and Hyönä 1999).

But this study suggests that younger, beginning readers are more easily distracted. And it makes sense given what we know about the many tasks that a beginning reader must perform to decode the text.

Beginning readers have more to juggle, more to things to consciously keep track of. No wonder if they are more easily derailed by engaging, entertaining visuals.

This study is also consistent with previous research.

For example, when researchers compared traditional, print books with digital, touch-screen books, they found that 7-year-old children showed higher levels of reading comprehension when they read the traditional print books (Ross et al 2016).

And other studies indicate that certain interactive features of digital storybooks (like games, "hotspots,"  and background noises) can distract kids from learning words (Sari et al 2019; Bus et al 2015).

So when it comes to beginning readers, less is usually more. Books with simple, minimalist illustrations can help kids focus -- and better understand what they are reading.

References: Books for beginning readers

Bus AG, Takacs ZK, and Kegel CA. 2015. Affordances and limitations of electronic storybooks for young children's emergent literacy. Developmental Review 35: 79-97.

Eng, C., Godwin, K., & Fisher, A. (in press). Keep It Simple: Streamlining Book Illustrations Improves Attention and Comprehension in Beginning Readers. Nature Science of Learning 5 (article number 14).

Hannus M and Hyönä  J. 1999. Utilization of illustrations during learning of science textbook passages among low- and high-ability children. Contemp. Educ. Psychol. 24: 95–123.

Ross KM, Pye RE, Randell J. 2016. Reading Touch Screen Storybooks with Mothers Negatively Affects 7-Year-Old Readers' Comprehension but Enriches Emotional Engagement. Front Psychol. 2016 Nov 16;7:1728.

Sarı B, Başal HA, Takacs ZK, Bus AG. 2019. A randomized controlled trial to test efficacy of digital enhancements of storybooks in support of narrative comprehension and word learning. J Exp Child Psychol. 179:212-226.

Title image of girl reading by Skolova / shutterstock

Image of the experimental pages is from the paper by Eng et al 2020, and published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Content last modified 10/2020

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