Busy pictures make it difficult for children to read

PICTURE: An example of a page in a book from which young children read. see more

Credits: Carnegie Mellon University

Reading is the door to learning, but one-third of elementary school students in the United States do not read at the grade level. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are investigating how the design of reading materials influences literacy development. They find that an overly busy page with foreign images can divert the reader’s attention from the text, resulting in a lower understanding of the content.

The results of the study are available in the September issue of the journal Science of Learning.

“Learning to read is hard work for many children,” said Anna Fisher, an associate professor of psychology and senior author at work.

A typical book design for beginners often includes interesting and vivid illustrations that help define the characters and setting of the story, offer context to the text, and motivate young readers. Fisher and Cassondra Eng, doctoral students in CMU’s Department of Psychology and the first authors in this paper, hypothesized that foreign images could distract the reader’s eyes from the text and disturb the focus needed to understand the story.

Researchers have tried to understand how to support young readers and optimize their experience as they become more fluent readers. In the study, 60 first- and second-graders from the greater Pittsburgh area were asked to read from a commercially available book intended for reading in this age group. Half of the book consisted of a published design, and the other half was simplified by removing redundant images. Each child read from the same book. Using a portable eye tracker, the team tracked how many times the child’s gaze deviated from the text to the images on the page.

To develop a simplified version of the book, the researchers had a group of adults identify the relevant images in the text. To differentiate, foreign images are defined as entertaining but irrelevant images for understanding the story. For the simplified version, the researchers retained images that 90% of adult participants agreed were relevant illustrations. All other illustrations have been removed.

Although the time each child spent on the page was similar, the researchers found that almost all children who read the simplified version have a lower view that deviates from the text and a higher grade on reading comprehension compared to the text in the commercially designed version of the book. In particular, children who are more inclined to look away from the text have benefited the most from the simplified version of the book.

“During these elementary school years, children are in a transition period where they are increasingly expected to read on their own, but even more so after being ordered to stay home because children use technology with less personal guidance from teachers,” Eng. “This is exciting because we can design materials based on learning theories that can be most helpful to children and enrich their experiences with technology.”

Fisher notes that one limitation of this study was that her team read only one book.

According to Fisher, these findings highlight ways to improve the design of educational materials, especially for novice readers. By simply limiting foreign illustrations, children can focus more easily and as a result have a better understanding of reading.

“This is not a silver bullet and it will not solve all the challenges in learning to read,” Fisher said. “But if we can take steps to make reading practice a little easier and reduce some of the barriers, we do it [can help children] deal with printed material and enjoy this activity. ”


Fisher and Eng were joined by Karrie Godwin of the University of Maryland at Baltimore in a project called “Keep It Simple: Simplifying Book Illustrations Improves Attention and Understanding in Beginners.” The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

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