Oy! What a couple of weeks! Unfortunately, my son and I were hit with a nasty, nasty bout of stomach flu. We're talking about 10 days of 'round the clock misery. Poor thing missed a week of school. I apologize for the blog neglect, but am happy to say that we are all mended (I actually slept through the night last night, in my own bed, without a bucket within reach!) and now it's time to think about more stimulating things.
Too weak or interested in much else, we have both been doing a lot of reading - separately, together, out loud, silently, to each other and everything in between. At some point I was thinking of how far we've come on the literacy front (he's 5.5 now) and it occurred to me that I was pretty lucky to be armed with some very useful information about children's books and reading in the early years, information that you may benefit from too.
Of course, there is a lot to be said about appropriate themes in the reading material for young children, but what you might not be as aware of is how much research has been devoted to the more basic topic of how young children think about the symbolic information in books (the letters/numbers, pictures etc.). It's part of a much bigger research enterprise on how we come to understand symbols in general (not just pics and letters/numbers and language broadly speaking, but maps, models, videos, graphs etc), so this could easily turn into a mini-series. Let's start with some basics that might help in your selection of reading materials for your very young ones and see where it leads us.
First off, you probably already know all about how important it is to read with your child, even way, way before they are anywhere near getting ready to read. Even if they are getting little more than just a glance at a picture and some (usually) black blobs on the page (that would be the letters), the research is clear that just learning the rituals of early reading - page turning, reading and pausing as appropriate, pointing to the pictures that go with your words etc. - bode very well for future reading and for academic achievement. I started reading to my son at about 3 months of age and we've never looked back.
You should know that babies need to learn about the differences between real 3-D objects and their 2-D depictions. Even if the picture of the object is highly realistic - like the digital pic you just took and uploaded moments ago - don't assume that they appreciate it's symbolic nature. Researchers have found that even though 9 month olds perceive depth cues and can tell objects from pictures of objects, they don't seem to get the significance of those cues. In other words, they don't really get the 2-D nature of the pics. So they tend to grasp, rub and pluck at the object in the picture as though they are trying to pick it up. The more realistic the picture, the more likely the manual exploration. I remember noticing my son trying to remove trucks from his pajamas! It was good to have this knowledge tucked away back then. No cause for alarm. If we want to read a short'ish and sweet version of this, try here.
Did you know that at first most kids don't even care if you read a book to them upside down? Yup. Before the age of 18-24 months children who are read to from an upside down book will go along with this quite happily. After this age, they are more likely to turn the book the right way around. Try it and see what happens. Don't be alarmed if your little one is still merrily "reading" upside down. Many things about printed matter are about convention remember...they are still working it all out.
What about learning from books? This is actually a very interesting issue. So you're thinking it's time to introduce some books, get little so-and-so up to speed on the alphabet, numbers and so in, in prep for preschool. You're a busy, modern mom. Probably going to hit up Amazon or something. What you'll find is an incredible array of early books on the topic. Lots of colourful stuff, some pop up, some very stylized (hey, I like pretty things too, why wouldn't my offspring you think), some with your favourite characters from when you were little like Curious George, Noddy (yup, I'm that old), Mickey and so on. Lots of books are made to be very attractive to young children and it seems reasonable to think this might help kick start that interest in learning. But you guessed it...the research suggests that we should think again.
Recent work has shown that young children are actually more likely to learn e.g. the alphabet, from books with very simple, clear depictions compared to books with more stylized renderings. Young children were taught the alphabet using books with either plain black letters on a simple background or using the more stylized (though fun) example you can find here (you may need to click on "search inside this book" and then on the first page. You should see an alligator with an "A" artfully placed in his mouth). The researchers tested the children's knowledge of the alphabet before and after the reading sessions. They found that the group that had learned from the simple depictions learned more.
Finally, other work shows that young children learn more from books with pictures that are also highly realistic, or visually similar to the thing they represent (so e.g. books with realistic photographs or with line drawings) compared to books with more artistic, less-realistic pictures such as cartoons. In one study, 15- and 18- month olds were taught a novel word "blicket" to go with a novel object by reading them picture books that contained the target information. The reading sessions were very low key, much like the type of parent-child reading that goes on at home, where Mom (or whomever) points out new words, interesting things in the pics etc. The researchers then tested whether or not the children extended those words from the pictures to the actual objects (and vice versa). Both groups of children could extend the words in both directions (pics to obs and vice versa), but the extent to which they could do so really depended upon how much the pics and objects resembled one another. In a nutshell, there was better word learning when the pics were photographs or line drawings of the objects, compared to when the pics were cartoon versions of the objects.
So what's the deal about the simplicity and the realism, and learning? The short story is that children can get distracted by the perceptual features of the material (the pop up, the fun artwork etc.) and this can detract from attending to the content, or the material you want them to learn. Think about this in the context of early elementary text books and you get a hint of where some of my research is heading.
I know where you're going with this. Isn't it a privilege of childhood to enjoy all those beautiful, artistically appealing, fun, imaginative books? What about budding artists? It's not all about learning letters and numbers etc. The answer is yes, of course it isn't! Am I saying that you should you stay away from the pretty books? Well, no. If your goal is entertainment - to enjoy reading, art and a fun interactive activity - then you're home free as to what you choose (on age-appropriate topics of course) . But if your goal is educational, then it's worth choosing more carefully.
I'd love to hear about our experiences with any and all of the above. If you can, and want to send in pics or direct me to books, I'm happy to take a look.