Learning Words and Loving Pictures

Again, I find myself asking if the notion of book reading as a word learning exercise is gaining popularity? I sincerely hope not. A new research study has found that if the illustrations are too detailed, or if there is more than one illustration per double page spread, then children fail to learn new words.  It’s easy to see why this result has raised a bit of concern and outcry.  

Reading is play to children, and children learn best when they’re engaged and having fun

When I first read the headline and this article, I wasn’t surprised. If you think about the process of word learning then it would make sense that if you have more illustrations to look through, the word learning process may suffer. Children are constantly bombarded with extra information, and they have to use a range of strategies and techniques to help them understand.

Whether they’re in a room full of toys, reading a story, or even out and about, children are using different strategies to boost their language and learn more words. When a child hears a word they don’t know or understand, they often use contextual clues to figure it out – much like adults. If they’re asked to point out something they don’t know, they’ll use a process of elimination, and educated guessing to try to find out the meaning of the new word.

Without reading the actual research paper, it’s impossible to know if the words that children struggled to learn were concrete words (nouns) that were pictured in the illustrations or words like verbs (actions) or other word classes. Even so, it’s important to think about how we can boost children’s vocabulary and word learning through books, conversation and play.

If adults take the time to chat to children about the book, look at pictures together, and even do a bit of pointing and naming then all these strategies can help boost word learning and overall understanding of the story. Children will learn a word best when they have a chance to experience it – ask them to repeat it. Have fun playing and manipulating the sounds. Try using it in different sentences. Let children experience the joy of the word.

Of course, the real issue with studies like these is that they tend to imply that learning, including word learning, is the reason we read to children – and that idea in itself is a worry. This shifts the process of reading as a fun activity that boosts creativity and empathy to an activity intended to be educational. Reading is play to children, and children learn best when they’re engaged and having fun.