Much has been said about pre-reading, and how much or whether it is even helpful when learning how to read. Let’s narrow this discussion to illustrations, and take a closer look at whether or not pictures help or hurt the reading process:
If a story has too many pictures in it that give away the whole plot, it defeats the purpose of decoding because we already know everything about it and there’s no motivation to read any further. If it has just a few illustrations, this can perk up the child and give him a sense of what the story is all about, hook his interest, and motivate him to go ahead and read it. However, some experts such as Robert Calfee say that any pictures at all distract from the decoding mechanism (Robert Calfee, “Memory and Cognitive Skills in Reading Acquisition,” Reading Perception and Language 1975)
We know that the left brain acquires knowledge in small, sequential steps, such as learning math and letter sounds. And the right brain acquires knowledge by seeing the whole picture, as with illustrations and sight words. And amazingly, researchers such as Schwartz and Begley (The Mind and the Brain) have discovered that activity in the right hemisphere of our brain actually suppresses the activity of the mirror-image region in the left hemisphere if introduced at the same time or too soon!
There is a way in which pictures are highly beneficial to the learning process when learning how to read, and that is to illustrate letters with pictures of words beginning with the sound being introduced. (It can be difficult to hear these sounds within a word when first learning, especially for English-language learners and students with learning disabilities.)
It’s especially effective to include multiple examples, as this imparts the subtle range and depth that make up each sound, much like a 3-D hologram. Listening for and identifying these sounds develops phonemic awareness, the important first step in learning how to read. Illustrating letter sounds as they are learned greatly accelerates learning, just as using Cuisinaire rods and other manipulatives accelerate learning mathematics. Here is an example: The Short Sound of E
The best example I can think of to demonstrate this concept is to try and read a Russian letter — Russian has different symbols for sounds and puts you in the shoes of a child trying to read without knowing letter sounds. Can you name this letter and say its sound? Mystery Russian Letter Hmmm…
Now try reading this letter again, this time with multiple pictures beginning with the sound of the letter. Just say the name of each picture, and note the beginning sound: Mystery Russian Letter. Simple, isn’t it?
Finally, look at it one more time and discover both the name and sound of this Not-So-Mysterious Russian Letter. See? Now you can read Russian!
Ernest Hemingway once said it takes a man half a lifetime to learn the simplest things of all. It took me that long to learn how to simplify and teach the English language.
Teaching reading is really very easy — anyone can teach it, and everyone can learn!