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Using Pictures & Illustrations with Beginning Readers—Is it Helpful or Hurtful?

Learning to read can be such a difficult task for young readers. Research shows that beginning readers who use pictures and illustrations to assist with learning to read have several advantages. However, when addressing reading difficulties, those illustrations can sometimes hinder progress. Using illustrations helps with children learning to decode (sound-out) words, make predictions, sequence plots, make connections, and enhance their comprehension skills. Yet, illustrations can also impede in children learning to read accurately, especially when those struggling readers already have difficulty decoding.

How is it helpful?

Illustrations can assist beginning readers in decoding words. They help to provide context, which in turn helps children make educated guesses about unfamiliar words. A child can think about what the picture shows, then look at the beginning letters of the unfamiliar word to make connections between the picture, letters, and sounds. Making predictions with illustrations helps develop strong comprehension skills. Readers are encouraged to pause on a page and make predictions based on what is read and what the picture shows. Answering questions about the picture encourages readers to notice details and think about what might happen next. Using illustrations also teaches children about sequencing a plot due to the story being in chronological order. Illustrations help beginning readers make connections by engaging more deeply to the content. For example, a book about animals might bring back memories about a time when your child went to the zoo and saw those animals. The illustrations can assist in your beginning reader “seeing” what is important in the story and helps teach them specific vocabulary. Struggling readers frequently get stuck on decoding unfamiliar words, so comprehension of the meaning of the story suffers. Pictures and illustrations help readers focus on the meaning and the author’s intent before reading any text.

How is it hurtful?

Children who are struggling to read might overly rely on the pictures and illustrations in texts. Those children who have difficulty decoding texts often guess words based on the illustration and insert incorrect words into the story. Without adequate phonological awareness skills (the ability to use, discriminate, and manipulate sounds), decoding and comprehension will ultimately suffer once those illustrations aren’t there anymore. When I started working with *Shelby, this is where using pictures and illustrations had a negative impact on her reading abilities. She couldn’t decode accurately, so when we would read simple stories she would guess words based on the context of the story and the illustrations she saw with it. She used this and the first letter of the unknown word to guess what she thought belonged there. As stories got harder with more words, more complex sentences, longer stories, and less pictures, Shelby’s comprehension was affected due to guessing words when she didn’t have the phonological awareness skills to appropriately sound out an unknown word.

In many schools today, reading instruction for beginning readers is based off a whole language approach. This approach encourages children to be able to recognize the core words in a sentence rather than having to decode each the words phonetically. Based on this approach, children don’t necessarily need to be accurate when reading all the words in a story. They can improvise, as long as it fits into the context. In the long run, this approach can hinder comprehension due to decreased phonological skills. Being able to hear, identify, and manipulate specific sounds is an important piece of reading texts, and beginning readers who lack those skills will have a very hard time learning to read. They’ll be unable to recognize and sound out new words and spelling also might be affected if they don’t receive adequate phonics instruction. Struggling readers ultimately need more organized learning methods in order to be a successful reader.

Thankfully, the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading is used for those “at risk” beginning readers because they are taught to read using the 4 pathways in which we learn best- visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), tactile (touching), and kinesthetic (movement) pathways. For example, at the beginning of this program children are taught to trace and say each letter and their sound, this uses tactile, visual and auditory skills to help them remember. This enhances their phonological awareness skills to learn to read with more success.

Needless to say, using pictures and illustrations with beginning readers has more advantages than not, but for struggling beginning readers, it is crucial to determine that they have the age-appropriate phonological awareness skills to succeed.

Authored by Sydney Hanks M.S. CF-SLP