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News Release

November 03, 2005

Kids Not Looking at Words During Story Time, Study Finds

Reading to preschool children has developmental benefits, but it’s unlikely that they learn much about letters or how to read words during this activity, according to new research by a University of Guelph professor.

During shared reading activities, young children’s eyes focus on the words for only a few seconds per book, Guelph psychology professor Mary Ann Evans found. The rest of the time, they are looking at the pictures.

The research by Evans and Jean Saint-Aubin of the Université de Moncton appears in the November issue of Psychological Science, the journal of the American Psychological Society.

Shared reading is often cited as being the most common and valued home literacy activity, Evans said, but few studies have investigated how it relates to young children’s emerging literacy skills. “To learn to read, children must develop print awareness — familiarity with letters, word recognition, etc. For shared reading to be beneficial to this process, children need to be paying attention to the text.”

She and Saint-Aubin set out to determine where children are looking during story time and whether book design, such as colourful illustrations, influences their attention to words. They conducted two studies with groups of children between the ages of three and five that involved parents reading their offspring stories presented on a computer screen. Pictures, story length, print type, and the amount of text per page varied by story.

In a research first, the preschoolers wore special headbands with three cameras that tracked both eye movement and the duration of fixation on print and illustrations.

The studies found that young children rarely look at text and focus instead on the pictures. On average, the preschoolers spent only five seconds per book fixated on the words, regardless of the length of the book, the amount of text per page or type of illustrations.

The only thing that varied was the length of time the children studied the illustrations — the more words on a page, the longer they looked at the pictures, even when they were only simple black and white line drawings, the study found.

“This research lead us to seriously question the effect of shared reading on print knowledge,” Evans said.

She added the results don’t suggest that reading to young children doesn’t aid in cognitive development. “Rather, the focus and benefits should centre on meaning, comprehension and the rhythms and patterns of language. It’s also a wonderful activity that can enhance a child’s interest in books and is a great shared experience.” Illustrations also play a valuable role in helping children to follow and recall the storyline, Evans said.

The research was supported by the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, one of the country’s Networks of Centres of Excellence. Formed in 2001, the network brings together leading scientists, students, educators and partners focused on improving and sustaining children’s language and literacy development.

Prof. Mary Ann Evans
Department of Psychology
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 53080

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