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# Keep it simple: streamlining book illustrations improves attention and comprehension in beginning readers

## Introduction

Learning to read is a crucially important skill because reading provides a gateway for learning within and outside of school. However, many children struggle to acquire the fundamental skill of learning to read and one-third of U.S. elementary school students are not reading at grade level1. Many factors contribute to children’s difficulty in learning to read, including (but not limited) to: neurodevelopmental disorders, lagging pre-reading skills (e.g., phonological awareness), and vulnerabilities in general cognitive functioning2,3,4. This study focuses on one potential factor that has received relatively little attention in the literature, namely the design of reading materials for beginning readers.

Extraneous details—also known as seductive details—are often included to increase motivation and foster situational interest21. There is a substantial body of research on the detrimental effects of extraneous details in educational materials with adult populations. The inclusion of extraneous details has been found to hinder the ability to recall important ideas and comprehension of material in scientific texts22, in lectures23, and in online lessons24. The Cognitive Load Theory suggests that unnecessary or extraneous material reduces the number of cognitive resources available for the target task and decreases performance and learning outcomes25,26,27,28. Multimedia design principles based on the Cognitive Load Theory suggest that when learners have to divide attention between images and text (Split-Attention Principle) and process irrelevant information (Coherence Principle) comprehension is significantly reduced29,30. In contrast to the large body of research on the design of educational materials for adult learners who are reading-to-learn, relatively few studies have examined this issue in children who are learning-to-read.

Based on the theoretical framework of attention as a competitive process7,8,9, we expected that if text and illustrations compete for children’s attention, there should be a higher rate of gaze shifts away from the text in the Standard condition compared to the Streamlined condition. In line with the prediction of the Cognitive Load Theory30,34, we hypothesized that encoding extraneous illustrations in the Standard condition would negatively affect children’s reading comprehension compared to the Streamlined condition. To rule out the possibility the observed effects in the Streamlined condition stemmed from enhancing text saliency, we conducted a follow-up control experiment with another sample of 1st and 2nd-grade students (n = 60) implementing a Featureless Background condition (see Fig. 1 for a schematic depiction of reading materials in this condition).

## Results

Children were beginning readers as evidenced by their performance on the WRI, the independent measure of children’s reading proficiency (M = 68.87, SD = 18.89). The selected book was an appropriate difficulty level for independent reading based on children’s mean performance on the Running Record (M = 96.56%; SD = 4.15%). The manipulation to the book condition did not influence children’s decoding accuracy (Standard: M = 95.79%; SD = 4.13%; Streamlined: M = 95.78%; SD = 4.16%), paired-sample t(59) = 0.89, p = 0.38; Cohen’s d = 0.12.

### Eye-tracking results

Eye-tracking data from 1 participant were not included in the analyses due to a technical failure. There were no significant differences in total looking duration at the book pages in the Standard condition (M = 42,339 ms; SD = 30,459 ms) compared to the Streamlined condition (M = 40,325 ms; SD = 31,856 ms), paired-sample t(58) = 1.09, p = 0.28; Cohen’s d = 0.14.

#### Gaze shifts

To investigate our primary hypothesis—that removing extraneous details would improve reading comprehension—we assessed how well children could answer questions related to the content of the story they read in each book condition. To assess possible order effects and grade differences, we conducted a LMM on reading comprehension, with book condition, grade, and order modeled as fixed effects and subject as a random effect. Table 1 shows the estimations of fixed effects and the corresponding 95% CIs. There was a main effect of book condition, F(1, 59) = 65.80; p < 0.0005; Cohen’s d = 1.05. The fixed intercept value of 79.69 represents the mean comprehension scores (in %) for the Streamlined condition. The intercept for comprehension scores in the Standard Condition is 79.69−32.86 = 46.83, and this is significantly lower than comprehension scores in the Streamlined condition (t = −8.11, p < 0.0005, 95% CI for the difference is 24.75–40.96% lower). Follow-up pairwise comparisons after Bonferroni corrections revealed that on average, children scored 32.86% (SE = 4.05) higher on the comprehension assessment in the Streamlined condition compared to the Standard condition. There was one outlier with a comprehension score of 28.57% in the Streamlined condition. With the removal of this outlier, there was still evidence of a main effect of book condition on comprehension, F = 69.91; p < 0.0005; Cohen’s d = 1.05. There was no main effect of order, F(1, 57) = 1.16, p = 0.287; Cohen’s d = 0.16, or grade, F(1, 57) = 0.71, p = 0.402; Cohen’s d = 0.12, and no significant interactions between any of these factors and comprehension (all ps > 0.28; see Table S5 in the online Supplementary Material for LMM analysis with the interaction terms). These findings support the prediction that reading comprehension scores would be higher in the Streamlined condition than in the Standard condition (see Fig. 3 for paired box plot).

### Association between eye gaze patterns and reading comprehension

We then examined the association between mean gaze shifts away from the text and fixations to extraneous details while reading and reading comprehension performance. It is plausible children looked away from the text more in the Standard condition compared to the Streamlined condition because children may attempt to use the illustrations as a strategy to help determine the meaning of unknown words. However, increased gaze shifts away from the text, r(57) = −0.62, 95% CI [−0.75, −0.43], p < 0.0005, and higher fixations to extraneous details r(57) = −0.42, 95% CI [−0.61, −0.18], p < 0.0005, were negatively associated with children’s comprehension scores in the Standard condition (see Fig. 4). In other words, the associations between reading comprehension scores with children’s eye gaze patterns indicate that not only are gaze shifts away from the text negatively associated with children’s reading comprehension performance, but children who often fixate on extraneous illustrations while reading have lower reading comprehension scores.

Next, we investigated whether reading in the Streamlined condition is especially useful for children with less developed attention regulation. For this analysis, a comprehension difference score for each child was calculated by subtracting the Standard condition comprehension score from the Streamlined condition score, such that higher and positive difference scores indexed greater gains in reading comprehension. Comprehension difference scores ranged from −57.14 to 85.71%, with a mean of 32.86% (SD = 31.38%). Higher gaze shifts away from the text r(57) = 0.63, 95% CI [0.45, 0.80], p < 0.0001 and higher fixations to extraneous illustrations, r(57) = 0.61, 95% CI [0.42, 0.75], p < 0.0005 were positively associated with how much children’s comprehension improved when reading in the Streamlined condition (see Fig. 5). Specifically, children who were more prone to look away from the text and who tended to fixate on extraneous illustrations while reading showed greater gains in comprehension when reading in the Streamlined condition.

To examine the extent to which fixations to extraneous details uniquely predicted how much children’s comprehension improved reading in the Streamlined condition, a multiple regression analysis was conducted that included extraneous illustration fixations, relevant illustration fixations, and WRI reading proficiency scores as predictors of children’s comprehension difference scores (see Table 2). The additive model accounted for 42.93% of the variability in comprehension difference scores (F = 13.79, df = 3, 55, p < 0.0001). The only significant predictor of comprehension difference scores was fixations to extraneous details (β = 0.95, t = 2.78, p = 0.007, 95% CI [0.27, 1.63]).

## Discussion

The reported results provide evidence that excluding extraneous illustrations from reading materials for beginning readers can enhance children’s attention to the text and improve reading comprehension. These findings are strengthened further by the results of the follow-up control experiment, which provided evidence that the benefits of removing extraneous illustrations for attention and reading comprehension were unlikely to be driven by greater text discriminability. Nearly all children exhibited fewer gaze shifts away from the text and obtained higher comprehension scores when reading in the Streamlined condition compared to the commercially available Standard condition. Furthermore, children who frequently shifted their gaze away from the text and fixated on extraneous details while reading in the Standard condition (presumably, due to less developed attentional control) exhibited the greatest gains in comprehension from reading in the Streamlined condition. Importantly, the regression model revealed that the associations between children’s eye-gaze patterns and comprehension were not entirely due to variance shared with overall reading proficiency or the ability to match words with referents: fixations to extraneous illustrations was the only significant predictor of gains in reading comprehension, while reading proficiency (WRI scores) and fixations to relevant illustrations were not.

In the Standard condition, children made frequent gaze shifts away from the text to the illustrations. Frequent switching between two different tasks—reading the text to understand the story on one hand and exploring engaging illustrations on the other hand—might place too much extraneous load on young children’s working memory resulting in decreased reading comprehension46. Because illustrations matched the story text in the Streamlined condition (i.e., illustrations reinforced the text without extraneous load), children did not have an opportunity to encode illustration details that were irrelevant to the text. Instead, the relevant illustrations may have helped children integrate nonverbal information and text to develop a better representation of the story (for relevant findings with proficient readers see refs. 47,48). Future research is needed to test this possibility by comparing beginning readers’ comprehension in a book that contains only relevant illustrations and no illustrations, a possibility we are currently exploring.

The inclusion of only relevant illustrations may be particularly beneficial for children who frequently look away from the text because these children’s ability to selectively attend to relevant information while suppressing irrelevant, extraneous information is less efficient. Prior findings suggest that children’s attentional control and ability to focus in preschool and first grade are significant predictors of reading achievement years later in fourth grade and even into adulthood at age 2149,50. These results point to the importance of taking attentional control—a foundational component linked to school readiness and reading achievement—into account when designing educational materials.

One limitation to this study is that the reading comprehension assessment primarily focused on the recall of key story events, and as such assessed both understanding and memory of the story. In future research, it would be important to incorporate multiple assessments of comprehension, including assessments that have lower memory demands. Another limitation is that this study did not include an independent measure of attention. Future studies should include independent measures of attention to examine whether modifying aspects of the book design is generally beneficial for beginning readers or whether this instructional support is particularly promising for specific populations of children.

In summary, the results of this study show that extraneous illustrations details increase gaze shifts away from text and decrease reading comprehension in beginning readers. Furthermore, higher fixations to extraneous illustrations during reading were associated with lower reading comprehension scores. It is important to note that we are not advocating for the removal of illustrations from books, but rather encouraging consideration of whether and how the design of instructional reading materials for beginning readers can be optimized by taking into account children’s developing attention regulation skills. In addition, the motivational and engaging aspects of illustrations in books for beginning readers should not be ignored: it is well-known that children like pictures. Alice, the beloved character of Charles Dodgson’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland51, famously wondered “what is the use of a book … without pictures?” In the present study the effect of removing extraneous illustrations on children’s engagement was not measured due to the nature of the within-subject design. However, children’s total looking duration and looking duration to pictures in the Streamlined and Standard conditions were approximately equal. Nevertheless, it remains to be explored in future research, whether removing extraneous illustration details may affect children’s motivation.

The nature of illustrations that accompany text may have important implications for attention and learning not just for students who are reading-to-learn but also for children who are learning-to-read. The findings presented here highlight the opportunity to improve the design of educational materials for beginning readers by limiting extraneous illustrations in order to better support children’s developing attentional regulation and reading comprehension. These findings suggest that enhancements to instructional reading materials should serve a clear purpose to engage the child with the story content while ensuring they do not interfere with performance and learning. The consideration of the potential costs of adding extraneous illustrations may be especially important for children with less developed attention regulation.

## Methods

### Participants

Sixty-six participants were recruited; however, only children who exhibited a minimum level of decoding proficiency on an independent measure of reading fluency (i.e., passed Level 1 on the Word Recognition in Isolation measure described below) continued with the study. Children who did not show the minimum level of reading proficiency to continue in the study, read a simpler book with the experimenter. The final sample consisted of 60 children (Mage = 7.56 years, SD = 7 months; 27 females, 24 males, and 9 children whose sex was not reported) in Grade 1 (n = 30) and Grade 2 (n = 30). See Table S2 in the online Supplementary Material for mean age and sex of participants by grade level. Primary school children were targeted for the present study as young children were hypothesized to be particularly susceptible to attentional competition between text and engaging illustrations due to the combination of their immature attention regulation system and developing decoding skills. Participants were recruited from schools in and around a Mid-Atlantic city in the United States. The race and ethnicity information for the sample reported by the parents was as follows: 41.7% White, 40.0% African American or Black, 10.0% Multi-Racial, 1.7% reported as Other, and 6.7% unreported. The experimental protocol was approved by the Carnegie Mellon University Institutional Review Board (protocol STUDY2017_00000301). Signed consent was obtained from the parents of participants. Children were tested individually by hypothesis-blind trained research assistants and children were given a small prize for their participation (e.g., a bouncy ball or marble maze toy).

### Design, materials, and procedure

To maintain a high level of ecological validity, children read a commercially available book entitled Good Job Dennis from the “Hooked on Phonics®” curriculum for first grade (“Hooked on Phonics®” is a trademark of Sandviks HOP, Inc. This publication is not sponsored or endorsed by Sandviks HOP, Inc.). Detailed descriptions of the materials (including minor modifications to the book to equate the number of words across conditions), instructions, and procedure are provided in the Supplementary Materials. A brief overview is provided below. See Table S4 and Table S6 in the Online Supplementary Material for descriptive statistics on the reading and eye-tracking outcome measures by book condition.

### Preliminary study: the classification of extraneous illustration details

A calibration study with adults (n = 15) was conducted to determine which illustrations were relevant and which were extraneous. Participants were presented with the book in the Standard layout and were given instructions to outline the details in the illustrations they believed were relevant to the story. The illustration details that participants reached over 90% agreement on were considered relevant illustrations and retained in the Streamlined condition, whereas the other illustration details were deemed extraneous illustrations and excluded.

### Measures

#### Eye-tracking measures

An SMI RED250 mobile eye tracker52 was used to measure children’s eye movements while reading. On each page of the book, we created areas of interest (AOIs) for text, illustrations, and white space. Relevant illustration AOIs were designated as the illustration details retained for the Streamlined condition (mean area covered by relevant illustrations was M = 686,807 pixels), while extraneous illustration AOIs were designated as the details omitted in the Streamlined condition (mean area covered by extraneous illustrations was M = 622,332 pixels; a schematic depiction of this classification is shown in Fig. 6; see Table S1 in the online Supplementary Material for total pixels per page, by AOI). SMI BeGaze Eyetracking Analysis Software was then used to calculate average gaze shifts away from the text, average fixations to extraneous illustrations, and average fixations to relevant illustrations.

#### Word recognition in isolation test (WRI)

The WRI—adapted from Morris45—was administered to children prior to reading the story. The WRI measures children’s ability to recognize and decode individual words. The measure consists of a series of word lists that are graded in difficulty. Scores were calculated as the number of words read accurately in 90 s out of 100 total possible words. The WRI has been shown to be a strong predictor of contextual and oral reading levels53,54.

While children read the book aloud, the experimenter manually recorded the child’s decoding accuracy for each word in the story using a running record44. The experimenter also recorded any prompts that were administered. For each condition, decoding accuracy was calculated as the percentage of correct responses.

Reading comprehension is a complex process that has been notoriously challenging to assess55,56. Asking open-ended recall questions about a story (e.g., asking individuals to recall the characters, settings, character goals and solutions from the narrative) is one of the most common approaches to reading comprehension assessments with young children57,58,59. Furthermore, early childhood educators also use open-ended recall questions as the primary instructional strategy for reading comprehension in school settings60. One limitation of this assessment and similar measures is that they assess both children’s understanding of the events described in the text and their memory of the events; nevertheless, open-ended recall questions are considered one of the most appropriate assessments of reading comprehension with elementary school children57. Following this common practice, we chose to assess children’s reading comprehension using the open-ended questions provided by the book publisher labeled for educators, parents, and children as “reading comprehension questions.” Although these questions probe both children’s understanding and memory of the story, for brevity and following the convention in the literature, we refer to this outcome measure as a ‘reading comprehension’ assessment in this manuscript.

The commercially available book used in this study incorporated six suggested questions to assess children’s reading comprehension. To preserve ecological validity, we used the comprehension questions suggested by the publisher with minor modifications that ensured the questions were linked to the content presented on specific pages, making it possible to clearly distinguish events from the first or second half of the book (see the online Supplementary Material for the comprehension assessment modifications). There were three questions for each half of the book (two 2-point questions, and one 3-point question). A total of 14 points were possible, 7 points per condition. For example, in the first half of the book the job of the main character, Dennis, is described; these story details are not part of the content in the second half of the book. For the 2-point story question, children were asked, “What is Dennis’ job?” Children received full credit if they identified that Dennis directs traffic and helps children cross the street, 1 point for a partial answer (e.g., he helps children), and 0 points if they failed to recall Dennis’ job or provided an incorrect response. In the second half of the book, various animals escape from a pet shop including cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, and frogs; these story details are not part of the content in the first half of the book. For the 3-point question, children were asked, “What animals get out of the pet shop?” Children received full credit if they correctly identified all of the animals that escaped, 2 points if they identified at least 3 animals, 1 point if they identified only 2 animals, and 0 points if they failed to recall the animals that escaped or provided an incorrect response. Reading comprehension was measured as the percentage of correct responses (out of 7 possible points in each condition). The story questions were scored twice by hypothesis-blind research assistants who were also blind to the participants’ condition assignment. Inter-rater reliability using Cohen’s kappa61 was 0.85, indicating substantial coder consistency.

Children were also asked to orally recount the story as an additional measure of reading comprehension. The retelling measure was administered before the comprehension questions. Overall, children struggled with retelling the story, consistent with findings reported in prior literature suggesting that even on-grade readers tend to retell few main ideas and text details without question prompts62. Due to concerns about the overall low level of performance on the retelling measure, we report the details on the retelling measure administration, scoring, and results in the Supplementary Materials (pp. 20–22).

### Statistical analyses

A LMM was applied with maximum likelihood method to determine the main effects of condition (Standard or Streamlined), grade, and condition order on gaze shifts away from the text and comprehension scores. A random intercept model was applied. The effect of condition was treated as a repeated measure with “Unstructured” as the repeated covariance type. Neither the condition × grade interaction nor the condition × order interaction was found to be significant during the model selection process. Therefore, no interaction terms were included in the final LMM analyses63. Follow-up pairwise comparison with Bonferroni confidence interval adjustment was used to compare mean gaze shifts away from the text and comprehension scores between conditions. Differences of means and 95% CIs were determined using the LMMs. Effect sizes were determined using Cohen’s d and calculated using mean differences from the mixed model, the standard deviation of the means, and the correlation between the two conditions for the within-subjects variables:

$$d = \frac{{M_1 - M_2}}{{\sqrt {\mathrm{SD}_1 + {\mathrm{SD}}_2 - \left( {2r\mathrm{SD}_1\mathrm{SD}_2} \right)} }}$$
(1)

and calculated using mean differences from the mixed model, the standard deviation of the means, and the sample sizes for the between-subjects variables64:

$$d = \frac{{M_1 - M_2}}{{\sqrt {\left( {n_1 - 1} \right){\mathrm{SD}_1^2} + \left( {n_2 - 1} \right){\mathrm{SD}_2^2}/n_1 + n_2 - 2} }}$$
(2)

Based on the Fisher r-to-z transformation, 95% CIs for Pearson Correlation Coefficients were calculated utilizing the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient observed within the sample and the number of paired observations of the sample65. Alpha was set at 0.05 for all statistical tests. All tests for these and other analyses were two-tailed. All statistical analyses were conducted in IBM SPSS Statistics V26.

### Reporting summary

Further information on experimental design is available in the Nature Research Reporting Summary linked to this article.

## Data availability

The data reported and sample videos of children’s eye gaze patterns during reading are accessible in the Open Science Framework repository66, https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/FRGW8, https://osf.io/frgw8/?view_only=42259f9134024b54bd5adae2da7f9c2a.

## Code availability

We used SPSS (v.26) to perform the analyses. The scripts used to analyze these data can be found in the Open Science Framework repository66, https://osf.io/frgw8/?view_only=42259f9134024b54bd5adae2da7f9c2a.

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## Acknowledgements

This work was supported in part by a National Science Foundation award (BCS-1730060) to A.V.F and K.E.G. and by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through grant R305B150008 to Carnegie Mellon University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education. We thank Kristen Boyle, Melissa Pocsai, and Oceann Stanley for assistance with data collection; Xavier Artache, Marie Shaw, Emery Noll, and Kristy Zhang for assistance with the systematic design of the storybook pages and AOIs; Priscilla Medor, Amy Lin, Rebeka Almasi, Hyunji Do, Graciela Garcia, Sara Jahanian, Elaine (Zhuyi) Xu, Smriti Chauhan, Isabel Rozario, and Matt King for assistance with coding data; and Dr. Howard Seltman, Junyi Zhang, Rebecca Gu, and Dejia Su for assisting with the eye-tracking data preprocessing and analyses; and Maanasi Bulusu with assistance in the design of the schematic illustrations. We are grateful to the children, parents, and educators who made this project possible.

## Author information

Authors

### Contributions

C.M.E. contributed to the design and implementation of the experiments and data analyses; K.E.G and A.V.F. contributed to study conceptualization and supervised the work. All authors contributed to the conception of the work, interpretation of the data, drafting and revising the work, approval of the completed version, and accountability for all aspects of the integrity of the work.

### Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cassondra M. Eng.

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### Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Eng, C.M., Godwin, K.E. & Fisher, A.V. Keep it simple: streamlining book illustrations improves attention and comprehension in beginning readers. npj Sci. Learn. 5, 14 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-020-00073-5