We all assume that illustrations help with the reading of text, but research shows that the reverse is often true. At the University of Exeter, working with 23 teachers and their pupils in schools in the South-west over a year, we found that children cannot make sense of visuals unless they understand the scientific meaning of the words that go with them. And new evidence shows that, from infants to undergraduates, learners have difficulties extracting meaning from pictures, diagrams, and other visuals in science texts.
Authors assume a transparency of meaning in visuals that doesn't exist for most young readers. For example, we found at least a dozen different uses for arrows, but these were often ambiguous and rarely explained.
Children in primary schools have many problems with the visual images on a page of science text. Devices such as cross-sectional drawings, graphs, symbols, and the links between text and visuals and the format, are not easily interpreted. Boxed items are often ignored; icons are not understood. The sequence in which text and visuals is to be "read" is not explicit. All these problems are compounded when pupils are learning in an additional language.
The National Literacy Strategy Framework insists that children learn to use non-fiction texts. But at the same time it states explicitly that the literacy hour should not be used to teach science concepts: science books have to be used for literacy purposes only in the hour. Yet most science books and schemes for primary children are now dominated by visual images rather than the printed word. So too is most software, CD-Rom and video material. Literacy specialists rarely acknowledge that these visuals present problems for children.
Children are helped at school with reading at word level, sentence level and text level, but how often are they helped with the interpretation of visual images? There are many computer programs to help with spelling and a wide range of reading difficulties: how much software teaches visual literacy? Why this blind spot? Perhaps we assume that, since children often learn to read through picture books, they quickly become good at interpreting all visual images, with a little help. However, a story book with pictures has little in common with science text. Narrative has a familiar structure, sequence and repetition; the reader looks out for similar things ("Where's Spot?") on subsequent pages. Visual details are not necessary to making sense of the story . Not so in science books. We don't teach children to "read" the visual information.
Will an emphasis on information and communications skills in primary classrooms overcome this? Children are used to games, cartoons and non-instructional materials on their screens, but are not asked to extract meaning from visual detail to reach some conclusion about an abstract science concept. Glance at any recent Year 6 standard test in science: interpreting visual elements is crucial. Training courses for primary teachers should incorporate the teaching of visual literacy in non-fiction text. We need to rethink our notion of literacy.
Dr Alan Peacock is reader in science education at the University of Exeter, School of Education, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU