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Illustrations can help beginning readers figure out the narrative and improve reading comprehension skills. This is especially true for visual learners who often have shorter attention spans. However, if children look away from the text to examine illustrations, they may be encoding irrelevant details into their working memory, disrupting text coherence and potentially lowering reading comprehension performance. Recent research indicates that removing extraneous illustrations from instructional reading materials increases text coherence and improves children’s comprehension scores, even when the material is more challenging than commercially available standard texts.
Early comprehension involves inferencing, the ability to make educated guesses about things you don’t know based on your prior knowledge, textual information and illustrations. Using illustrations to infer character feelings, plot and setting is one of the most important reading comprehension strategies students learn as they become proficient readers. However, when children frequently shift their gaze away from the text to explore engaging illustrations (as was the Standard condition), they may be encoding illustration details into working memory that are irrelevant to the story, potentially disrupting text cohesion and decreasing reading comprehension. Because attention regulation skills are still developing during this crucial period, it is important to consider such considerations when designing educational materials for beginning readers. The streamlined condition reduced these effects by only including relevant illustrations.
Young children often use illustrations to ask questions about the story they’re reading. They can talk about the characters, setting and what’s happening in the picture. This helps them develop their reading stamina to read longer texts without illustrations eventually. In one study, researchers compared children’s reading comprehension performance under two conditions: one containing extraneous illustration details and the other with only relevant parties. They used eye-tracking to measure children’s gaze shifts away from the text and fixations to irrelevant and relevant illustration details. These results suggest that the ability to glean and integrate visual and verbal information is important for understanding and remembering stories.
Children need critical thinking skills to learn, connect ideas, and understand the world around them. Holistic learning materials such as illustrated books help develop these skills by encouraging children to consider multiple viewpoints and examine supporting evidence. They also foster self-reflection and awareness, two key aspects of critical thinking. Earlier studies found that picture facilitation effects on preschoolers’ story recall are limited to the context of reading with parents. However, recent research suggests that illustrated book illustrations increase children’s ability to integrate nonverbal information and text to recall the story narrative. This effect is attributed to the fact that illustrations in the Illustrated condition matched the story text, so children did not have to expend extra cognitive resources to process irrelevant picture details. This streamlined approach to illustration may benefit young children who frequently shift their gaze between text and pictures.
In addition to their visual impact, well-illustrated books provide young readers with opportunities to discuss the story with their parents. This dialogue promotes the transfer of conceptual information between two domains, such as reading and speaking, which helps children develop their analytical and communication skills. For example, when a book highlights a character’s response to a situation, kids can ask their parents why that person responded that way or predict the outcome of alternative narratives. This type of interaction is especially important for beginning readers. Although previous studies have shown that story illustrations do not enhance memory for stories in a prerecorded reading context, limiting extraneous details in pictures might increase gaze shifts toward the text and improve reading comprehension for these learners.