The role of book features in young children’s transfer of information from picture books to real-world contexts

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Cognitive Psychology | Developmental Psychology | Educational Psychology


Picture books are an important source of new language, concepts, and lessons for young children. A large body of research has documented the nature of parent-child interactions during shared book reading. A new body of research has begun to investigate the features of picture books that support children's learning and transfer of that information to the real world. In this paper, we discuss how children's symbolic development, analogical reasoning, and reasoning about fantasy may constrain their ability to take away content information from picture books. We then review the nascent body of findings that has focused on the impact of picture book features on children's learning and transfer of words and letters, science concepts, problem solutions, and morals from picture books. In each domain of learning we discuss how children's development may interact with book features to impact their learning. We conclude that children's ability to learn and transfer content from picture books can be disrupted by some book features and research should directly examine the interaction between children's developing abilities and book characteristics on children's learning.

On the bookshelf of a pre-reader, one may find storybooks that take children to magical worlds with fantastical characters, to faraway lands with unique animals and customs, or keep them close to home with tales about backyard bullies or trips to the dentist. Alongside these, one may also find factual books about outer space, underwater creatures, or pre-historic dinosaurs. These books may differ from one another in a number of their features, including their genre, presence of fantastical elements, pictorial realism, and use of factual language. Children are expected to learn facts, concepts, or values and apply them to real life. The current body of evidence on whether children can learn and transfer new content from picture books suggests that it is important to consider both the dimensions on which the books vary and children's developing abilities. In this review we summarize the existing evidence on the effect of book features on young children's learning and transfer and outline three developmental abilities that may interact with whether children's learning will be impacted by the presence or absence of those book features.

The majority of past research on picture books has focused on the nature of the book sharing interaction between adults and children (e.g., Fletcher and Reese, 2005). This large body of research demonstrates that different picture book features shape the interactions that take place between dyads; for example expository texts lead to more maternal teaching during reading than narrative texts (Pellegrini et al., 1990), less specific language (Nyhout and O'Neill, 2014), and more maternal feedback (Moschovaki and Meadows, 2005), whereas high quality illustrations lead to more child labeling of pictures (Potter and Haynes, 2000). Mothers are more likely to point and label letters for their young children when interacting with a plain book than a book with manipulative features and children also vocalize most often about the letters and pictures in the plain book (Chiong and DeLoache, 2012). Thus, aspects of the book can alter what both parents and children focus on. Recently the impact of book features directly on children's learning from print picture books has also received increasing attention in developmental research. Two recent reviews have provided targeted overviews of features that support vocabulary learning (Wasik et al., 2016) and learning from fictional media more broadly (Hopkins and Weisberg, 2017). These reviews indicate that children are selective in their learning and that properties of media can affect children's learning. In the current review, we focus specifically on learning from picture books, with the goal of outlining how three key developmental factors (symbolic development, analogical reasoning, and reasoning about fantasy) may influence young children's learning and transfer from books that vary across various dimensions. We will focus on domains of learning where most of the research on picture book features so far has been conducted with pre-readers: learning of words and letters, science concepts, problem solutions, and morals.

One goal of educational book-sharing interactions is for children to build generalizable knowledge they can learn and transfer outside of storybooks to everyday situations. By learning, we refer to the child's ability to recognize or recite information presented in a book. By transfer, we refer to an ability that goes beyond such learning: the ability to apply newly-acquired information to new exemplars or contexts. By picture books, we refer to books designed for pre-readers that contain pictures and may also contain text. We first present three developmental factors that may constrain learning and transfer from picture books. They have been selected because of their importance in supporting transfer of information across contexts, which is the focus of the studies we review here. We then provide a summary of studies investigating how features of picture books influence children's learning and transfer across a variety of educational domains by either reinforcing or working against the developmental processes presented. We conclude with ideas for new research and ways in which parents and educators can scaffold children's learning and transfer from picture books.

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Frontiers in Psychology