Reading aloud to a preschool child is well known to be one of the best ways to help that child learn to read. As small children share books they learn to turn the pages, talk about the story and pictures, join in with repeated phrases or rhymes and gradually, to recognise the words on the page. But what are children actually doing during shared reading? Vincent Reid describes research carried out by developmental psychologists, Mary Ann Evans and Jean Saint-Aubin*.
When a child sits on an adult’s lap and reads a picture book, far more is happening than meets the eye. The known benefits of shared reading include an increased ability to concentrate and work independently in the early school years through to more stable attachments with caregivers in later life. Much research has shown that early shared reading influences the abilities of children, not least in the domains of reading and vocabulary. But what are children actually doing during shared storybook reading? What are they looking at and how does a preliterate child learn how to read? Surprisingly, this is an under-researched question.
Where the eye focuses
In the journal Psychological Science, two Canadian-based developmental psychologists have recently published their research on this topic. Mary Ann Evans and Jean Saint-Aubin used an eye tracking system to show where children of four to five years were looking during shared story reading. An eye tracker shines infrared light into the eyes of a person. Then a computer can tell where the pupil is focused, effectively telling us where the person is looking. The level of infrared light that is used is less than the amount that enters the eye when standing in sunlight, so it is a safe procedure.
What they found was completely unexpected: the children would look almost exclusively at the images, virtually ignoring the text. The eye scanner showed that children would gaze across text without fixing on it. To ensure that this result was not an effect of colourful illustrations being more interesting than black text, Evans and Saint-Aubin presented children with picture books that contained manipulations in how much text and how much illustration were shown. These manipulations made no difference. No matter what was presented, the children would always look at the images and spend almost no time looking at the printed matter.
Of course, there are some criticisms of their study. For example, the children did not have shared reading with a book; they were experiencing shared reading with a computer screen. This may have changed how the children looked at the page, but it is unlikely.
The relation of text to illustration
What these psychologists were interested in was how a preschool child learns about text and how they may relate words on a page to illustrations. Possibly the pictures would help the children understand the association between the text and the image and in so doing, help teach them the meaning of the words. If this were found to be the case, then reading programmes could be modified to facilitate reading skills. As this was not found, it suggests that children require direction in order to understand that words are more than black squiggly things. When put another way, it shows that to teach children to read you need to be explicit and direct their attention to words. Children won’t learn how to read by passively looking at books.
Perhaps the greatest advance in modern psychology has been the discovery that the ability to read is strongly related to an awareness of sub-letter components of words, known as phonemes. These are rather tricky things to learn as they are not written and do not necessarily correspond to letters. Also, English is regarded by many linguists as being one of the hardest languages to learn. It contains over 40 sounds, but has only 26 letters to represent them. The difference can be heard in the ‘a’ in pat when compared with the ‘a’ in apart. How children detect these differences and translate them into words is still very much a mystery.
Just being with books
Based on this research, it would appear that in the early years, learning to simply be with books is what is most important. It may sound obvious, but the fact that books contain information that can be easily interpreted may be difficult for a preschooler to grasp. Similarly, in terms of entertainment there are many other competing aspects of the family home that may make books seem less interesting. The availability of computer games, multi channel TV and videos all have an impact on a child’s inclination to read books.
The implications of this research are likely to be felt in practical ways. For example, what is the logic of publishing books for toddlers where half of each double page spread contains large words? It is unlikely that parents and caregivers of two-year-olds will be actively teaching them how to read. The shared reading experience will be just as effective, if not more so, if the text were incorporated into the images.
In all likelihood new technology such as the eye tracking system will eventually show us how children learn to read. What this research shows is that it makes sense to infect children with a wonder of the written word. When they realise the new worlds that reading can afford, they will stop at nothing to learn how to do it by themselves.
Vincent Reid is a developmental psychologist at the Max Planck Institute, Germany, specialising in infant and toddler development.
* Evans, M.A., & Saint-Aubin, J. (2005). What children are looking at during shared storybook reading. Psychological Science, 16(11), 913-920.