Toddlers find photos easier to learn from than drawings

It's a quintessential part of many a childhood: sitting atop mum or dad's knee while they read in soothing tones from a beautifully illustrated picture book. But just how much can young children learn from picture books, and does the quality of the pictures matter?

Gabrielle Simcock and Judy DeLoache read a picture book aloud twice to dozens of children (aged either 18, 24 or 30 months), ensuring they drew the children's attention to the pictures. The book described how a rattle could be made using a stick, a jar and a wooden ball. The experimenters then presented the children with the materials and observed whether they built the rattle.

If the book was illustrated with photos, then regardless of their age, the children got a lot further building the rattle (although few completed it) than a control group of children who weren't exposed to the picture book. Crucially, however, if the book was illustrated with coloured line drawings, then only the 24 and 30-month-old children showed signs of learning from the book whereas the 18-month-olds did not.

The researchers explained their finding was consistent with the idea that the older children get, the better they become at realising the connection between abstract representations and their real-life counterparts. Eighteen-month-old kids it seems could recognise this connection in photos but not drawings.

A second study tested a new group of 24- and 30-month-old children's ability to learn from black and white line drawings. In this case only the eldest children showed any evidence of learning how to build the rattle.

Dr Simcock told the Digest that these findings show “the degree to which very young children learn new information from interacting with a picture book depends on iconicity - how similar the pictures are to the real objects and events they depict”.

So for very young children, should parents be using books with photos rather than drawings? “If the goal of using a particular book is for very young children to learn something from it, parents and teachers would do better by choosing books with highly realistic pictures” Simcock told us.

Simcock, G. & DeLoache, J. (2006). Get the picture? The effects of iconicity on toddlers' reenactment from picture books. Developmental Psychology, 42, 1352-1357.
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