I always loved giving my son a picture book rich in detail and watching him get lost in it, thereby gaining a few moments of peace and grown-up solitude—but now science is telling me I may have made him dumber.* According to a very cruel study at Carnegie Mellon University, in which researchers removed extraneous imagery from children’s books and then forced a cohort of poor wee tykes to read them, fancy illustrations distract from the text to a degree that may inhibit the development of reading comprehension. Unsurprisingly, the first and second graders who read the streamlined texts were better able to follow the content of the written storylines (while the other group had more fun?).
While I concede that this study, which can be read in full at npj Science of Learning, is well-intentioned—we need every kind of tool we can muster to improve America’s woeful literacy rates—its premise seems deeply flawed. Flattening the experience of an illustrated children’s book, in service of narrative clarity, seems like exactly the wrong thing to be thinking about when trying to create enthusiasm for books. Focused pedagogy is very important, but foreclosing on the pleasures of getting lost in a book—even if it’s in the pictures!—at age five, smacks of an assembly-line approach to education that we should be moving away from, not towards.
And honestly, for parents who have to read these books to their kids, the pictures are often the only thing that makes them bearable. #SaveOurPics.
*This is fine, I’ll save money on college tuition.