Picture books more educational than they seem

Study finds parents fill in the details for children


DETROIT – I love reading books to my kids. It's actually one of my very favorite things to do with them.

But there's one book I simply dread. I try not to cringe every time I see one of them carrying it my way. It's not a long book. It's actually very short. Here's the problem -- it doesn't have any words.

It's called "Goodnight Gorilla." Perhaps you've "read" it to your children. The whole book is a series of pictures that show a mischievous gorilla stealing the keys to the zoo cages from an unsuspecting zoo keeper and freeing all of the animals, who end up following the zoo keeper home.

It's a great story, but it's a lot of pressure to make it up every single time, over and over (and over!) again. But a new study suggests that may be time well spent.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo found children learn as much information from picture books as they do from books with more facts.

"Marketers tell parents and educators that vocabulary books are more educational, so picture books are often dismissed as being just for fun," said the study's author, Professor Daniela O'Neill. "But our findings show that reading picture books with kids exposes them to information about animals in a way that allows children to readily apply this knowledge more broadly. This is key to learning."

The study recorded 25 mothers while they read two books to their toddlers, each featuring six animals.

In one book, the animals were part of a story told in pictures. In the other book, a picture of each animal was presented against a blank background, in the style of "vocabulary learning" books.

Researchers found the moms in the study were often prompted by the pictures to use a special form of language called "generics" when reading the picture books to their child.

"Generic language tells children about animals in general, not just about one animal. It's the difference between saying 'This giraffe has a long neck' and 'Giraffes have long necks.' In the second case, we are more likely to learn something about all giraffes in general -- that they all have long necks," said O'Neill.

Researchers found the moms were also just as likely to provide facts about animals, such as "the squirrel likes to bury nuts" when they read the picture book as when they read the vocabulary-style book.

"Our results are significant because they clearly show that books of all kinds can build children's knowledge about the world, including picture book stories," said O'Neill.

I'll try to remember this the next time "Goodnight Gorilla" comes my way.

Although, perhaps I should Google some generic facts about gorillas first ...