Those beginner alphabet books you may have put away once your child started kindergarten should be put back on the shelf, according to a new U of G study.

Simply designed alphabet books are more effective than storybooks in helping children pay attention to text and to progress to the initial stages of reading, says Prof. Mary Ann Evans, Psychology.

“As soon as the text in a book exceeds a child’s reading ability, he or she won’t pay much attention to it,” says Evans, who worked on the research project with Jean Saint-Aubin of the University of Moncton. “Our findings suggest that a simple alphabet book that has one letter, one word and one illustration per page may act as a stepping stone for children to pay greater attention to print in books and to start engaging in conventional reading.”

In a previous study, Evans and Saint-Aubin found that when parents read storybooks out loud, young children focus mostly on the illustrations and pay little attention to the printed text. This follow-up study revealed that alphabet books encourage children to pay more attention to the printed letters and words.

Published recently in the journal Child Development, the study involved 20 children in senior kindergarten who had some alphabetic knowledge but could not read. They were asked to read an alphabet book while wearing a special headband with three cameras that tracked both eye movement and the duration of eye fixation on print and illustrations.

Overall, children still paid more attention to the illustration than the letter or word naming that illustration on the page, but Evans found the children with higher letter-name knowledge were more likely to pay attention to the word on the page and most notably the first letter of that word.

“This is important because if they look at the first letter of the word, that indicates an understanding that the letter goes with the word and the word starts with the same sound as the letter,” she says. “It appears that, along with a simple accompanying picture, these books help children learn the alphabetic principle that letters stand for sounds in words. This is a sign of the initial stages of reading.”

The children were also able to name letters in the book that they previously identified during a letter-naming test, she adds.

Studying the children’s eye movements, Evans found they would look at the letter and then look at the illustration before returning their gaze to the letter and naming it.

“This is good news because it suggests they may be using the illustration and its name to help them decipher letters they know less well.”

She emphasizes that the simple nature of these books is probably the reason for their effectiveness.

“These books are often bought for younger children, but this study suggests they have benefits for older children as well.”

As a follow-up to this study, Evans and Saint-Aubin are currently investigating what impact placing a child in the role of reader to an adult rather than listener may have on increased attention to print.