How storybook illustrations impact word learning

By Zoe Flack

My research area is developmental psychology. In particular, I am investigating how different aspects of storybook reading with preschool children can help (or hinder!) word learning.  Luckily, children like hearing stories, and adults enjoy reading them.  But in addition to the enjoyment factor, children also learn new words from the storybooks they hear. This means that storybook reading is a great activity to help children increase their vocabularies—which has many benefits, especially for school readiness.

Research has shown that storybook illustrations are important. For example, we know that children learn words better if illustrations are realistic.  We also know that children look within illustrations for the things they hear in the story: so if the story mentions a girl dropping an ice-cream, children will look at the ice-cream in the illustration.  But when there are multiple illustrations displayed at once, how do young children who haven’t yet learned to read know which illustration to look at while listening to a story?

Children’s storybooks are designed with eye-catching illustrations, and many books display multiple illustrations per page (see e.g., The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers contains 6 illustrations on pages 7-8).  Even if children understand that the left page is read before the right page, they will not necessarily know when the reader moves from one page to the other.  At its worst this may mean children are trying to search through the wrong illustration for clues to make sense of new vocabulary, or that they search through more visual information than necessary.

We tested this in the WORD Lab with 3½-year-old children.  We read children three stories from a set of storybooks, arranged in one of three ways.  Storybooks with two illustrations displayed at a time (i.e., one illustration on the left page and one on the right), one illustration displayed at a time (i.e., left side blank, one illustration on the right) or with one large illustration. We included the large illustration format to check that image size could not account for any effects we found. The large illustration format (A3) was the twice the size of the other books (the two illustration format is two A4 pages, so has the same surface area).


Set within the books were two novel objects, which were named and depicted twelve times throughout three books.  (Research shows children can learn about 1-2 words from a storybook at this age.)  After hearing their three storybooks read, children were asked to identify each of these objects twice from an array of other similar novel objects.  This is a standard testing method for word learning research of this kind with children of this age.

Children who were read the two page illustration versions of the storybooks learned significantly fewer words than those who were read the one illustration, or the large one illustration storybook versions.  In our study, children in the one illustration conditions had fewer illustrations to search through to find the relevant information.

Since these children can’t read, it is likely they learned fewer words because they did not know where to look. We wondered if providing a supporting gesture to guide children toward the correct page might help.  So we read another group of children the two illustrations books, but this time we used a sweeping gesture to highlight which page we were reading from.  These children performed as well as the children who had seen the one illustration storybooks in the first experiment. This suggests that simply guiding children’s attention to the correct page helps them focus on the right illustrations, and this in turn might help them concentrate on the new words.

Our findings fit well with Cognitive Load Theory, which suggests that learning rates are affected by how complicated a task is.  In this case, by giving children less information at once, or guiding them to the correct information, we can help children learn more words. We are excited by the findings, which could also shed light on discrepancies between research comparing print storybooks and e-books, since e-books often present just one illustration at a time.

We have some exciting ideas for follow up studies, so, if you know a child aged 3-4 who might like to visit us to hear some stories or play some games at WORD Lab, please sign up here.


Zoe is doing a PhD with Dr Jessica Horst in the WORD LAB. This post is based on the presentation Zoe gave in the School’s PhD Presentation Conference in June 2016, where she won the best presentation award.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology.

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3 comments on “How storybook illustrations impact word learning
  1. Roibene says:

    Some very interesting points.
    A3 books are classified as ‘big books’ and therefore did point size of text have any influence?
    As always, there are tradeoffs. Do you want 3 to 4 year old to learn to recognised words, or to engage in the story being told and and how they spark imagination. What is the key purpose of text in picture books?

    • Maria Balboa Carbon says:

      Thank you for your comments. We agree word learning is just one aspect of hearing stories read by an adult, and engagement and imagination are hugely important in fostering a love of books. Recent research suggests children do not pay attention to text until they begin to learn to read. In this study children were 3.5-year-olds, so were not yet readers. Children at this age are learning new words from a number of sources, such as everyday conversation, but shared reading/picture books are a particularly important source. Our study does not suggest providing fewer illustrations, but helping children by identifying which illustration goes with which part of the story so they pay attention to the most helpful pictures at the right time. There is no need for a tradeoff here! Children in our study enjoyed the stories the same even when we gestured to the pictures.

      Zoe Flack

  2. Alfred says:

    Really nice to read this blog. I am agree with your line ” Luckily, children like hearing stories, and adults enjoy reading them.” its really show our true relation between us.

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