What picture books are best for toddlers? A research study….

Addorable Toddler Boy Reading Alphabet BookFor Research Tuesday this month, I wanted to explore iconicity in pictures as related to toddlers. What is iconicity? Iconicity is the degree of similarity between a picture and a  real object.  A highly iconic picture is the actual photograph of the object. A less iconic symbol might be a black and white or color line drawing symbolizing the object. I am very interested in iconicity because as a speech pathologist who specializes in AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), the idea and understanding of iconicity for my clients is crucial when choosing an appropriate communication system and symbol set. The article I chose for this month explores how iconicity in pictures affects learning during book reading time in toddlers across different ages.

Which picture do you think is more iconic?

sundae collage

If you said the left one, you are correct. Now, how does this affect our toddlers when reading? When working in the field of early intervention, I have always used more photographs than line drawings with my little ones because I found them more engaged and interested in the photographs than the line drawings. I never knew at what age this was significant and this article began to answer my question about this. DeLoache & Simcock (2006)  discusses different ages and how they differ in responding to objects and pictures in picture books. Below is a summary:

Young Infant: Can discriminate between objects and pictures but cannot comprehend that the picture represents the object (DeLoache, Strauss & Maynard, 1979; Slater, Rose & Morrison, 1984)

9 Month Old: They explore pictures like they are objects (e.g. feel them, grasp them, etc). They engage in more exploration of pictures that are highly iconic and less iconic. For example, they will try to manipulate a photograph more than a line drawing (DeLoache et al., 1998).

19 Month Old: Label and point at pictures (DeLoache et al., 1998; Murphy, 1978)

18-24 Month Old: Learn the name of an object from a picture (e.g. pointing and at a picture of a ball and then went over to the actual ball and pointed at it) (Preissler and Carey, 2004)

24-30 Month Old: Can use a photograph to locate a toy hidden in  room (e.g. show the toddler a picture of a doll. child will search for the actual doll) (DeLoache, 1001; DeLoache & Burns, 1004; Suddendorf, 2003)

In this article, the authors sought out to see how iconicity affects 18-30 month old toddlers ability to learn from picture books. Each toddler was asked to complete a short sequence (e.g. putting a rattle together) after reading a short book. The groups were split and two different books were read. One book contained highly iconic pictures (e.g. photographs of the actual objects) and the other book contained line drawings that were less iconic and more abstract (colored line drawings). Half of the group read the book with highly iconic pictures and the other group read the book with pictures of lower iconicity (line drawings).  How did the children do? The youngest children were most affected by the iconicity of the pictures (18 month olds). These children had a hard time relating to the line drawings and weren’t able to follow the simple sequence of making the rattle with the line drawings. The group that read the book with the highly iconic photographs did much better.  The 24 and 30 month year old children performed well with both photographs and line drawings.

There was an additional experiment with color drawings and black and white line drawings that was conducted with 24 month old and 30 month old toddlers. Each age group read the book and then had to reenact the sequence of events that occurred in the story. The 24 month old children did better when reading the book with the colored line drawings than with the black and white line drawings. You may ask “Why?” Well, color line drawings are generally more iconic than black and white line drawings in general.

So what does this study have to do with your child? If your child is 18 months or younger, read picture books with high iconicity pictures (e.g. photographs). Look for books with highly iconic photographs and show the corresponding objects to your child as you are reading the book. Create your own books! Buy blank books, take some photos of your child’s favorite objects and create a book of your own. My own personal favorite picture books to read to my little ones were the Priddy Books . When reading to your young child with line drawings, try to show them the photograph or object to go along with the line drawing so they make a relationship more quickly. As your child gets older (around 24 months old), expose him or her more to line drawings during book reading. When playing at home or out in the community, bring along these books and point out different things to your child. For example, if you are reading a book with a picture of an apple, show your child that apple in the store.

To learn more about Research Tuesday, click here.


Simcock, G. and DeLoache, J. Developmental Psychology, November 2006; vol 42: pp 1352-1357. 


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  1. […] What picture books are best for toddlers? Rebecca Eisenberg, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist, author, instructor, and parent of two young children, who began her blog to create a resource for parents to help make mealtime an enriched learning experience . Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. […]

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