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Reading: Books with busy pictures 'make it harder for kids to focus and understand the story'

Illustrating children’s books with too many detailed, non-essential pictures makes it ‘harder for kids to focus and absorb knowledge’, a study has demonstrated.

Colourful pictures intended to motivate young readers may achieve the exact opposite by drawing attention away from the story text, US researchers warned.

Although reading is considered a ‘gateway for learning’, around 20 per cent of children in the UK do not meet the minimum level of literacy proficiency.

Children’s books typically include eye-catching illustrations to help readers visualise the characters and setting of the story.

However, eye-tracking studies found that too many pictures can prove distracting. 

Illustrating children's books with too many detailed, non-essential pictures makes it 'harder for kids to focus and absorb knowledge', a study has demonstrated. Pictured, a picture book

Illustrating children’s books with too many detailed, non-essential pictures makes it ‘harder for kids to focus and absorb knowledge’, a study has demonstrated. Pictured, a picture book

Colourful pictures intended to motivate young readers may achieved the exact opposite by drawing attention away from the story text, US researchers warned. Pictured, an example of a children's reading book, with text highlighted in blue, essential images in green and distracting, non-essential illustrations highlighted in red

Colourful pictures intended to motivate young readers may achieved the exact opposite by drawing attention away from the story text, US researchers warned. Pictured, an example of a children’s reading book, with text highlighted in blue, essential images in green and distracting, non-essential illustrations highlighted in red

‘Learning to read is hard work for many kids,’ said paper author and psychologist Anna Fisher of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

‘Extraneous images may draw the reader’s eyes away from the text and disrupt the focus necessary to understand the story.’

In their study, Dr Fisher and colleagues gave a group of adults a book designed for children’s reading practice and asked them to identify which pictures within were entertaining but not essential to understand the story.

These extraneous pictures were then removed from the second half of the book before the work was given to 60 US first- and second-grade students — that is, those aged between 6 and 8 — to read.

A portable eye-tracker was used to monitor the number of times each student shifted their gaze away from the text to images across the page.

The team found that children shifted their gaze less when reading the streamlined half of the book — and achieved higher comprehension scores.

‘During these primary school years, children are in a transition period in which they are increasingly expected to read independently,’ said paper author and psychologist Cassondra Eng, also of the Carnegie Mellon University.

This has become even more so amid COVID-19, she added, which has forced children to learn with less in-person guidance from teachers.

The findings of the study, she said, will allow us to ‘design materials grounded in learning theories that can be most helpful to children and enrich their experiences with technology.’

Those children who were the most likely to look away from the text while reading were also the most likely to benefit from the streamlined version, the team found.

Dr Fisher and colleagues have suggested that authors, illustrators and publishers consider removing distracting and unnecessary pictures from educational materials for first-time-readers. 

In their study, Dr Fisher and colleagues gave a group of adults a book designed for children's reading practice (pictured, top) and asked them to identify which pictures within were entertaining but not essential to understand the story. These extraneous pictures were then removed from the second half of the book (bottom) before the work was given to 60 US first- and second-grade students — that is, those aged between 6 and 8 — to read

In their study, Dr Fisher and colleagues gave a group of adults a book designed for children’s reading practice (pictured, top) and asked them to identify which pictures within were entertaining but not essential to understand the story. These extraneous pictures were then removed from the second half of the book (bottom) before the work was given to 60 US first- and second-grade students — that is, those aged between 6 and 8 — to read

‘This is not a silver bullet and will not solve all challenges in learning to read,’ Dr Fisher cautioned.

‘But if we can take steps to make practicing reading a little bit easier and reduce some of the barriers, we can help children engage with the printed material and derive enjoyment from this activity.’

The researchers cautioned, however, that the study was limited by its evaluation of children’s reading patterns based on only a single book.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

WHY ARE GIRLS BETTER THAN BOYS AT READING AND WRITING? 

Research shows that girls typically score better than boys in standardised literacy tests.

The trend is seen as early as age 10 and continues until the age of 18.

Previous research has shown women and men use their brains differently.

Girls use both brain hemispheres for reading and writing, while boys typically rely on just one.

Boys are also exhibit more disruptive behaviours than girls in the classroom.

They are more likely to be inattentive and interrupt teachers.

Scientists also suggest that reading and language are seen as feminine skills, even from a young age.

This means boys are less likely than girls to push to improve these skills.

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