Do you enjoy reading illustrated children's books with your own child in your lap? Who doesn't, right? Well, it turns out that may be the best way to help children learn.
A recent study used MRI's of young children's brains to compare the effectiveness of animated cartoons, audio tapes and illustrated picture books. The review of the three methods is best framed using the terminology of Goldilocks.
An NPR article does an excellent job summarizing the research:
"In the audio-only condition (too cold): language networks were activated, but there was less connectivity overall. 'There was more evidence the children were straining to understand.'
"In the animation condition (too hot): there was a lot of activity in the audio and visual perception networks, but not a lot of connectivity among the various brain networks. 'The language network was working to keep up with the story,' says (lead author Dr. John) Hutton. 'Our interpretation was that the animation was doing all the work for the child. They were expending the most energy just figuring out what it means.' The children's comprehension of the story was the worst in this condition.
"The illustration condition was what Hutton called 'just right'.
"When children could see illustrations, language-network activity dropped a bit compared to the audio condition. Instead of only paying attention to the words, Hutton says, the children's understanding of the story was 'scaffolded' by having the images as clues.
"'Give them a picture and they have a cookie to work with,' he explains. 'With animation it's all dumped on them all at once and they don't have to do any of the work.'
"Most importantly, in the illustrated book condition, researchers saw increased connectivity between — and among — all the networks they were looking at: visual perception, imagery, default mode and language."
In our Montessori preschool classrooms our teachers use books that have simple illustrations along with a few sentences of text. This has proven to be the most effective way to teach children over the years. The books have just enough illustrations to help the children scaffold, but not too much "jazz" to excite the children and hinder their learning. One of our favorites is the EPS Primary Phonic Series. It was reprinted in the mid 1980's, but it's been around forever, I believe since the 1960's.
Sometimes old school is best.