How wordless storybooks benefit your child

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

The University of Waterloo recently reported the results of a study that suggests reading wordless storybooks to toddlers may enrich their language development more than books with words.  They noted that “too often, parents dismiss picture storybooks, especially when they are wordless, as not real reading or just for fun,” said the study’s author, Professor Daniela O’Neill. “But these findings show that reading picture storybooks with kids exposes them to the kind of talk that is really important for children to hear, especially as they transition to school.”

So what kind of talk is “really important for children to hear”?  According to Dr. O’Neill, the mothers were much more likely to ask questions to the child about the pictures in the story such as “Where do you think the squirrel is going to go?” or elaborate on the story in other ways by linking elements of the story to real-life experiences such as “We saw a squirrel this morning in the back yard.”  

Mothers reading books filled with text were much less likely to provide such an enriched langage environment for their children.  The authors of the study note that “Books of all kinds can build children’s language and literacy skills, but they do so perhaps in different ways.”

Though longitudinal language development data was not included in the university report, the results are encouraging and worthy of further exploration.  One would be hard-pressed to deny that such an enriched language environment would not accelerate language development.  

In behavior analysis, research in generative instruction may be relevant to the present work.  For example, Axe and Sainato (2010) published a study in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) that employed “matrix training” with four preschoolers with autism.  One axis of the matrix contained six actions, while the other axis contained six pictures.  The children were explicitly trained to follow instructions to combine actions and pictures along the diagonal and then tested for the emergence of untrained combinations of pictures and actions.  Two of the children responded according to the untrained relations immediately, while the two others required further training to show the additional relations.  One could argue that finding ways to nurture such relational repertoires could be an avenue into behavioral research that dovetails nicely with Dr. O’Neill’s.

However, at least one study, by Dittlinger and Lerman (2011) also published in JABA,  suggests that combining pictures when teaching sight-word reading may actually hinder word acquisition in children with autism.  While O’Neill’s study was not investigating word acquisition, Dittlinger and Lerman’s study do suggest that pictures are not universally facilitative of language development, depending on the aspect of development targeted for study.  

Nevertheless, behavior analysts would do well to familiarize themselves with O’Neill’s line of work, particularly those interested in Relational Frame Theory.  You can visit Dr. O’Neill’s faculty page at the University of Waterloo here.

Do you have experience with reading programs?  Let us know in the comments below!  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive new articles directly to your inbox! 

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org.

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