Picture Books: A Colorful Learning Tool

Jason Davis | Staff Photographer

I will be the first to admit that I am 21 years old and I still love to read picture books. They bring me back to my childhood, to a time when the hardest decision I had to make was whether I wanted my mom to read “Madeline” or “The Little Engine that Could.” Though my literary tastes have changed drastically since those days and I now lean more heavily toward books like “In Cold Blood” or “Into the Wild,” I occasionally visit my childhood favorites, many of which I still keep on my shelves.

Much of my love for reading can be attributed to the picture books I read when I was younger. I loved the stories and the characters, but what I loved the most were the pictures. My mind’s eye was exercised by those images – I could see the worlds the artists were creating and I could join them in imagining these places. Even when I couldn’t read by myself, I could get lost for hours in the pages of a book, dreaming my own variations of stories based solely on those pictures.

So when I read an article on the New York Times website about the slow decline of the role of picture books in children’s learning – as parents and schools begin to favor longer, more text-heavy chapter books – I was shocked, appalled and saddened. The article talks of the decline in picture-book sales at bookstores as a result of parents pushing their children, often as young as kindergarten and first grade, to read chapter books, “mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.”

However, picture books are just as important as chapter books in the development of a young child’s reading comprehension. According to Professor of cognitive sciences, Virginia Mann, “picture books set the context for what the child is reading. Take, as a simple example, the book ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear.’ You read ‘Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?’ and what’s on the page is a bear. The pictures make the language easier for the child to understand.” In this way, children are able to correlate the words they are reading with the pictures they see, allowing for the expansion of vocabulary and the understanding of words in a context.

Additionally, the illustrations are often just what are needed to keep a child engaged, which is a critical part of early language and literacy development. It is common knowledge that most children have fairly short attention spans, and many simply do not have the capacity to read for periods of time longer than several minutes. Picture books offer visual stimulation, which can keep a child captivated and interested in the story.

What is more important than whether a child reads picture or chapter books is how engaged he is or how appropriate what he is reading is for his age. Chapter books can be a wonderful way to challenge children and introduce more complex storylines and vocabulary, but they can also detract from children’s experiences with the literary world.

Mann asserts that “the danger [with pushing children to read chapter books too early] is that you don’t read something that’s age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for the child … If you use the chapter book and the child is having trouble with language and can’t keep up with the reading, you’ll only alienate the child from reading.”

It seems that, at the heart of the decline of picture books, is the focus on academic achievement, rather than fostering a love for reading. Our school curriculums, and an increasing number of parents, focus more heavily on the literary texts that standardized tests favor, novels that are supposed to be big and important, but do nothing to inspire or captivate. I’m not saying that texts (like Shakespeare, for example) that are unpopular with students should be stricken from academic curriculum altogether – quite the opposite, actually – I just don’t understand why there is so much of an emphasis on academia, rather than the enjoyment of reading. I believe that engaging children and students with the written word and encouraging a love for books is just as important as what is read.

By the time I was four, I was reading my picture books aloud to anyone who would listen. By the time I was six, I had “graduated” to longer, more complex chapter books, and have been challenging myself ever since. Not everyone needs to love reading books but I do believe that the written word is a wholly important part of everyday life and I am a strong believer that reading is something that is meant to be enjoyed. Perhaps if children are allowed to develop an appreciation for books on their own terms, reading wouldn’t seem like such a burden later in life.