Contrary to popular belief, it seems pictures do not always help children learn to read. Dr PAMELA PROTHEROE discusses the decades of research that have led to this conclusion.

There is overwhelming evidence, gathered over the last six decades, that picture books interfere with children learning to read. The use of picture books may not account for all reading difficulties, but it is a major contributor.

In the middle of the last century there were concerns that children weren’t learning to read well. So while some people wondered if pictures were harmful, others claimed that pictures were helpful, or at least that pictures didn’t interfere with learning to read. For a while there was a flurry of research by both sides, and this research was reviewed comprehensively in 1970 by S J Samuels.

Let’s consider an example – using pictures to teach a sight vocabulary. As far as teaching a sight vocabulary is concerned, the researchers focused on whether or not they could use pictures in such a way that they would aid the children’s memory of the written forms of the words.

They tried showing the picture first, removing it, then showing the children the word. This technique produced bad results. The children didn’t learn many words. Then they tried showing the word at the same time as the picture. Still, dire results.

Undaunted, they tried showing the word first so the children could focus on the word. Then they showed the children the picture. Again, not good results. In desperation, they even tried projecting the word and the picture together, then fading out the picture. Unfortunately, the children couldn’t remember many of the words after this, either.

The only method that resulted in the children remembering most or all of the words was the method that didn’t involve using pictures. In some studies, the children learned twice as many words without pictures and, in one study, four times as many words.

There were many other studies of how pictures affected learning to read that went beyond word recognition. For example, researchers tested to see whether or not pictures aided understanding text. They didn’t.

Gathering the results of this research, Samuels had to conclude that pictures did indeed interfere with learning to read. Even those who began their research convinced that pictures actually helped children learn to read had to admit, somewhat reluctantly, that pictures caused problems. These experiments showed that it wasn’t simply that pictures did not help children learn to read, but that pictures.

actively interfered with children learning to read. It wouldn’t be a worry if pictures were just attractive additions to the text that didn’t cause harm.

Unfortunately, pictures do cause harm. In the 1990s, Wu and Solman, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia, repeated many of the experiments that had been done more than 20 years previously. Wu and Solman got the same dire results, no matter how they tried to use the pictures.

Unsurprisingly, Wu and Solman concluded that the most effective way to use pictures when teaching children to read was not to use them at all.


Do picture books motivate children to read?

Do not confuse a child’s delight at looking at beautiful pictures with the delight a child gets from building their own mental model in response to text. A child cannot process a picture and build a mental model at the same time. Children love making their own mental images in response to text, but pictures prevent this.

Back in the 70s, Samuels was worried. What if pictures had a positive effect on children’s attitudes to reading? However, Samuels could not find a single study to answer this question – and neither can I. Nevertheless, it worried Samuels because if it were ever discovered that pictures did build favourable attitudes toward reading, then educators would find themselves on the ‘horns of a dilemma’. That is, they would have to choose between keeping pictures out of books to facilitate learning to read, or including pictures in order to build favourable attitudes toward reading.

As it turned out, the ‘horns of a dilemma’ that Samuels worried about have been successfully avoided. Somehow all this research about the negative effect of pictures on learning to read has been kept from teachers. What Samuels should have worried about was that all the research would be ignored.

In his book, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (1981), Rudolf Flesch was interested to know how schools managed to prevent children from reading, and why their inability to read persisted throughout their schooling. Flesch says that the publishers of reading material for beginners periodically present their new batch of reading material to educators as if they were in a beauty contest – year after year churning out reading material for learners that
is ever more gaudily illustrated. Flesch focuses on the finding from the research that the more attractive the illustration is, the more it will interfere with word learning. He makes the link between this beauty contest between publishers and the ever increasing failure of so many children to learn to read.

Research shows that boys are especially prone to the detrimental effect of pictures on their attempts to learn to read. The OECD report for 2013 showed that on average in New Zealand, girls outperformed boys by 15 points, higher than the average OECD gap of nine points in reading literacy, maths and science.

Pictures prevent some children from learning how to comprehend

In conducting research for my doctorate, I found that for some children pictures prevent them from practising the skills they need if they are ever going to understand text.

For most of the children – good comprehenders as well as poor comprehenders – pictures interfere in a measureable way with them practising these vital skills. I found that boys are more adversely affected by pictures. I also found that most children, even the good readers, understand better when there are no pictures. Other researchers have found that even the best readers read more slowly and make more mistakes when pictures are present.

The easiest route to learning is not always the best route

Wu and Solman concluded that the problem with trying to use pictures to help children learn to read was more than simply a case of the pictures distracting the children from the text. They found the problem stemmed from ‘psychological blocking’. Psychological blocking is caused by a known source of information blocking the learning of an unknown source.

Let’s say a child hasn’t yet learnt what the word ‘rabbit’ looks like, but they know what a rabbit is. The easiest source of information for their brain to use is the picture, not the word. As a result, their brain blocks the processing of the word, and just uses the processing of the picture. When this happens, the child won’t remember the word when they see it again.

No one’s brain can consider all things at all times – billions of items of information are received by the brain every second. A child’s brain has areas that are best at processing visual information. A child’s brain also has areas that are best at processing language.

But most brain areas can process most input to a certain extent – the area that is best at language processing can also process visual information (but not well) and the brain area that is best at processing visual input can also process language (but not well).

To cope with this, the brain has a ‘reciprocal inhibition mechanism’. This mechanism’s job is to focus on and use the information that is most easily processed by the area of the brain most suited to processing it.

A child’s brain will use the brain areas best at processing language to control linguistic behaviour, and their brain will use the visual processors to control responses to visual input.

It is possible, however, for one area of the brain to be primed to ‘take over’ what is usually best done by another area. When this happens, the area of the brain best suited to do the processing is not the one that will be in control over the child’s response.

The child’s brain has considered the word ‘rabbit’ and processed it. But if there’s a picture present, this picture will inhibit this information about the word from being retained or saved in the child’s memory. The processing of extraneous information has to be inhibited. So the child, who is unskilled at reading, has their memory of the word ‘rabbit’ overridden by the dominant activity of attending to the picture of the rabbit.

A typical argument against the research

After hearing my ideas about picture books inhibiting learning to read, a parent explained why she thinks the pictures are a good idea. She said, for example, that when she was hearing her child read, he could not read the word ‘pirate’ – so she directed him to the picture and he guessed that the word was ‘pirate’ and then was able to read the word and carried on reading the text.

She felt that this was helpful to him in learning the word. It would be interesting to see if he could recognise that word ‘pirate’ again when he didn’t have a picture or whether ‘psychological blocking’ occurred.

If you are a teacher, you have nothing else to use besides picture books, so in the final chapter of my doctoral thesis I make suggestions that you might find helpful. You can find my thesis on the internet by putting the title into your search engine: The Effect of Illustrations on the Ability of Children to Draw Inferences while Reading Narrative Texts. If you want to read more about the research into the effects of using pictures, my book Picture Books and the Literacy Crisis contains a useful reference list and can be found on Amazon.


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