The importance of visual learning by Susan Purcell

June 29, 2015

You wouldn’t expect a baby to walk before she or he had crawled. Nor would you expect someone to run before they could walk. It’s the same with reading and with all aspects of literacy and numeracy. Learning is a process, with earlier stages of the process being just as important as later ones. Children won’t be successful readers until they know the letters of the alphabet and the sounds those letters make, nor will they be able to do arithmetic before they are familiar with numbers. Similarly, they won’t be successful communicators in general unless they have a wide vocabulary and an understanding of how language works.

Picture books aimed at preschoolers are key stepping stones on the path to complete literacy and numeracy. Moreover, these books introduce children to the big wide world around them, and show them what it means to be a member of a community and how to function in that community.

It is counter-productive to skip or hurry the simple picture-book stage of your child’s development. For one thing, simple picture books teach many things to children apart from letters and numbers. By sitting with a care-giver and discussing the words and pictures, and by asking and answering questions, children learn that communication is all about interaction and give and take. They learn that words mean something; they are not just squiggles on a page, but represent objects and ideas. When you point to a detail in the picture, or encourage a child to find something on the page, you are showing that child how to search for information and hone in on detail – vital skills for people of all ages.

My Book of Words – My Book of... – Miles Kelly  My Book of Letter – My Book of... – Miles Kelly

Two of the best predictors of future success at reading and writing are alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness. Alphabet knowledge means knowing both the names of letters (i.e. how they sound when we recite the alphabet in order) and the sounds that these letters make. Phonological awareness means that children are able to distinguish one sound from another – cat from hat, or sheep from shop, for instance – and are able to break up a word into separate sounds and syllables. Point to the letters and words as you say them, and then draw the child’s attention to these familiar words and letters when you meet them on street signs, shop names, billboards and elsewhere, when you are out and about.

 My Book of Numbers – My Book of... – Miles Kelly

Young children are naturally curious about the world around them, and attractive illustrations will encourage this curiosity. A child is unlikely to come across a kangaroo or tiger in their everyday life, nor do the words pirate, hot-air balloon and wizard come up in most people’s conversations. Pictures and words in books, however, transport children to other worlds, real or imaginary. When you and your child look together at a picture of a tiger in My Book of Animals, who knows where the conversation will lead? Perhaps to discussion of what a jungle is, or why there are no tigers or jungles in the UK, which in turn leads on to a comparison of different countries, climates and lifestyles; perhaps to a discussion about why all animals are different; perhaps to a heart-to-heart about fear, which can lead on to exploring other emotions. All this from a simple picture in a book!

My Book of Numbers – My Book of... – Miles Kelly My Book of Animals – My Book of... – Miles Kelly

How can you get the most benefit out of the My Book of... series? First, make time in your busy day to read with your child, and take time to really enjoy the books. Don’t be in a rush to turn the pages, but look out for signs that something has caught the attention of your child and follow up on these. Encourage your child to search for detail by asking, for instance, ‘Can you find a dragonfly?’. Name and discuss what’s in the pictures. Ask lots of questions. Closed questions, such as ‘What colour is the balloon?’ lead to a one-word answer and certainly help children learn and practise the names of colours, but questions such as ‘What games do you like playing with balloons?’, ‘Do you remember what we did with the balloons at your party?’ or ‘What colour balloons should we buy for your party?’ will lead to a conversation and a sharing of opinions.

Put expression in your voice, and display a range of emotions, when you talk about the books, for instance by saying ‘Wow, isn’t he huge?’, ‘Ooh, he looks scary!’ or ‘Yum yum, I’d like to eat that cake, wouldn’t you?’. Children will thus learn that we convey our feelings and emotions through words and our tone of voice.

At the preschool stage, familiarity with vocabulary is the watchword. Children understand and learn far more if they are exposed to a limited range of words, rhymes and stories frequently, than if you try and cram their heads full of masses of new stuff. A well-thumbed, dog-eared book is a sign that lots of learning has taken place!

Take a closer look at My Book of Letters, My Book of Numbers, My Book of Words and My Book of Animals.

Read more from Susan Purcell, The Virtual Linguist, here.