Is Word Learning the Reason We Read to Children?

Lift-the-flap books are often a popular choice with families. Most children will love looking under the flaps to see what or who is hiding. This excitement adds another level of engagement and interaction. In my opinion they add some other very important elements – fun, laughter, and enjoyment. Manipulating flaps also helps children develop their fine motor skills.

A recent article in The Telegraph reports that ‘lift-the-flap books may stop toddlers from learning new words’. This is a dangerously misleading headline, probably designed to draw in more readers. But I can’t help but worry about the knock-on effect of this uninformed, subjective article.

Word learning is a complex process. Linguistically, we use lots of different strategies to help us learn new words.

The article presents a recent research study that measured children’s word learning using a flap, or a non-flap book. Children were asked to look through a book which showed different fruits, including a starfruit. After reading the book, researchers tested the children to see if they remembered the word starfruit, as this was considered to be a new word for all of them. Of the 31 toddlers in the study, the children who were using non-flap books were better able to remember the starfruit.

Without the actual study, it’s impossible to know the finer details. Were children tested on immediate recall? How long did the researchers wait before asking them to identify the starfruit? I’m curious about how the book was read, and what the book looked like – was it one image per page with a label? Or was the new fruit woven into a more detailed picture? Was starfruit the only novel word in the book? There are a lot of unanswered questions.

Word learning is a complex process. Linguistically, we use lots of different strategies to help us learn new words. Non-verbal cues, such as gesture and eye gaze, are an important part of the learning process, especially when we are reading and singing with children. The mutual-exclusivity principle uses what we already know and attempts to assign unfamiliar labels (in this study, starfruit) to unfamiliar objects. Words are rarely learned from isolated encounters – to be properly learned and understood, we need a chance to see, hear and experience the word on a repeated basis. Being able to recall a word, or use it out of context, does not necessarily mean that the word has been learned.

If children are engaged and see books as fun and relevant, then they’ll naturally learn from them – flaps or not

I think what worries me most about this article, however, is the suggestion in the headline that a flap book will stop 'learning'. This focus on learning outcomes suggests reading as an education tool as opposed to something fun for the child. When reading with children, developing a love of books, and making books fun, exciting and enjoyable should always be our primary goal. Parents shouldn’t worry about using books to teach their children. Parents should be able to focus on the shared enjoyement and special time spent cuddled up, sharing a story. If children are engaged and see books as fun and relevant, then they’ll naturally learn from them – flaps or not.

As with all studies, I encourage you to read the piece for yourselves and make your own judgement. I just hope that others, like me, still see the benefit of sharing a range of picture books with their children – and choose books based on what brings joy to the reader and the listener.

 

This research was presented at the British Psychological Society’s Developmental Psychology Section annual conference.