Have you ever entered a Zoom meeting with the intention of fully focusing, only to find yourself answering emails, checking your calendar, or reading the news? Do you remember what you learned from that meeting? Neither do we. When attention is divided between multiple tasks, learning decreases. Living in a world full of distractions might make it especially difficult for students to focus, and the learning context plays a significant role.
The education market is saturated with storybook products, primarily targeting children. A common design of beginner reader (~Grades 1-2) storybooks often include entertaining and fun looking pictures. However, nonessential pictures unrelated to the story text - also known as extraneous illustrations - might be counterproductive as they may distract a child from focusing on learning the content. To add a layer of complexity, attention skills are still developing during the time when children begin formal reading instruction.
Our research study, Keep it simple: streamlining book illustrations improves attention and comprehension in beginning readers, examined whether extraneous illustrations in educational materials that are intended to engage a child’s interest, might do so at the cost of disrupting their attention and learning. Children in first and second grade read a commercial “Standard” book designed for beginner readers that intermixed extraneous with relevant illustrations (Figure 1); and a “Streamlined” book presented without extraneous illustrations (Figure 2). We measured their eye gaze patterns with a portable eye tracker, and afterwards, asked the children some questions about the story. Our findings showed that excluding extraneous illustrations benefited their comprehension of the text, and this format was especially useful for children who were more likely to shift their eye gaze away from the text while reading.
In the graphs, each line represents an individual child. Graph 1 (Eye Tracking Assessment) shows how often children looked away from the text while reading, and Graph 2 (Learning Assessment) shows children’s reading comprehension scores for the Standard vs. Streamlined designs. Children who read the Standard Commercial book learned less and were more easily distracted, as indicated by their eye-tracking patterns. This pattern was consistent across both grades, and demonstrated how books designed like the Streamlined version might benefit beginner readers at different stages of development. Children’s reading comprehension scores in the Standard condition (Graph 2) were also associated with their attention allocation (Graph 1): the more children looked away from the text while reading, the lower their comprehension scores were.
You might be wondering how we decided which illustrations were extraneous? We conducted a calibration study with adults who were presented with the Standard Commercial book and given instructions to highlight the illustrations they believed were relevant to the story. When 90 per cent of adult readers or over agreed particular illustrations were relevant to the story, those illustrations were retained in the Streamlined condition, while the remaining illustrations were deemed extraneous. Even though some features in pictures are interesting, if they are irrelevant to the story’s text, they may interfere with how beginner readers learn by distracting their attention away from relevant information.
This study provided insights into optimal book design for beginner readers, which may help enhance children’s reading experiences, as well as learning. Elementary school is the period when children are evolving into fluent readers and expected to read independently in the absence of an adult. Remote learning has accelerated the necessity for children to be autonomous readers, so a greater understanding of book design practices is needed to anticipate this demand.