One of my fondest memories as a father was coming home from work and being greeted by my two young sons who could barely talk or, for that matter, walk across the room. After a quick hug, we would head to the nearest couch, and I would read at least one, if not two or three picture books to them before I did anything else that evening.
To be totally candid, I read picture books to them because it was a fun way to transition from a stressful day at work to relaxing at home with my family. I didn’t realize that reading to them would benefit their cognitive development or contribute to paternal bonding. We shared picture books because it was a fun way to reconnect.
With school starting this fall, I wanted to return to a topic that continues to fascinate me. Why do so many adults push kids to prematurely abandon the comfort and sense of discovery that illustrated stories provide?
Like many aspects of modern life, a lot of decisions are made without thoroughly considering the benefits, as well as the unintended consequences. So I thought it might be helpful to review the many unique contributions that picture books make to developing healthy kids who also love to read.
Let’s start with the fact that before kids can read, they enjoy looking at pictures to decode the meaning of words as they listen to a story. Think about the unique contribution that illustrations make to highlight, clarify and reinforce a story. As a child listens to a parent, an older sibling, or a teacher read a story, they can scan the illustrations to understand the action and to gain a better sense of the plotline.
Literacy experts point out that the vocabulary, the sentence structure and therefore the storyline for text only stories need to be much simpler than stories in picture books. Well-illustrated books not only make a story more entertaining, the pictures add meaning and increase comprehension of the text narrative. For example, in a text only story, any descriptions of the characters or the action need to be very limited to match a child’s reading vocabulary. Otherwise, a young child simply won’t be able to follow the storyline in a text only book.
For young, emerging readers who are growing their vocabulary, text only stories typically aren’t nearly as interesting or exciting as stories that use illustrations to add more depth, context and detail. Illustrating a character’s expressions like a raised eyebrow, an amused grin or any angry scowl adds subtle details, and a story becomes more engaging.
When a picture book highlights the responses of the characters or reinforces the intensity of an action, the child has a unique opportunity to dissect the action and interpret its meaning. They can discuss the motives of the characters, the significance of a particular gesture, or predict the consequences of alternative narratives if a character responded differently. These types of discussions inspired by the illustrations also help develop stronger analytical and communication skills for young children.
Another unappreciated benefit of well-illustrated picture books is that beautifully depicted scenes may actually develop a child’s reading vocabulary more effectively than reading written text alone. When a story is text only, without any pictures to support or complement the action, every aspect of the story has to be limited to the child’s reading vocabulary which is at a lower level than his or her speaking vocabulary.
Ironically, when picture books use higher level vocabulary words, they also expose kids to more sophisticated storylines, that also happen to be more interesting stories. In text only stories, a character’s choices can’t be too complicated or ambiguous for kids who are still developing their basic vocabulary. When illustrations are used to make the story richer and more exciting, a story becomes far more interesting, and kids typically become more immersed in the action.
By experiencing more interesting stories that appeal to their personal interests or sense of adventure, kids may become more curious about the setting, the back story or the relationships between characters. By appealing to a kid’s natural sense of curiosity, illustrated stories may also motivate kids to develop stronger reading skills faster than when a child is reading chapter books exclusively.
Since illustrated stories can expose children to more intriguing stories that are more immersive, picture books may be more effective at motivating kids to read independently. As a result, kids may even begin to read for their own amusement sooner than if they had been pushed to read chapter books with more limited storylines, that were simply less interesting.
When a child is pushed to read text only stories or chapter books prematurely, we may in fact be undermining their joy of reading and inadvertently slowing their growth as independent readers.
It makes sense to me that picture books may actually be far more productive in learning to read because of the combined impact of more sophisticated vocabulary, more intriguing storylines, and more complex sentence structure that encourage kids to want to read for pleasure.
Each child’s affinity for reading is unique and needs to be patiently nourished. It is very easy to undermine a child’s love of stories, and even with the best of intentions we can end up quashing their natural curiosity or their desire to read independently by pushing chapter books too aggressively and forgetting how much value is contained in lovingly illustrated picture books.