I recently sat in an IEP where the teacher suggested the use of pictorial aids to assist a 1st grader in reading. While the intention is good, and she reported having great success with this strategy, I saw the red flags a mile away. At Precision Teaching Learning Center, our students never see a picture. Most of the stories they read are simple text on a page without pictures. The Bob Book quick readers we utilize have minimal stick figure pictures that we cover with our hands to shift the focus back on the words.
There are a few problems to relying on pictures to decipher words. The first and most prevalent issue is that not every word has an appropriate picture for pairing. Further, if a picture is available, it may not address all of the words on the page. Two words that our students frequently confuse are “went” and “want”. The picture could be of a little girl in a candy store. The page could read, “Suzzie went to the candy store. She told the clerk, “I want a lollypop, please.” The picture does not assist the student with anything other than “candy store” and possibly “lollypop”. The picture doesn’t help the student identify the 10 remaining words on the page. It further doesn’t help him/her discriminate between the troublesome “went” vs. “want”.
The next big red flag that pops up is with respect to fading the stimulus control. When we teach kids to attend to the pictures to assist them in reading, it is the picture that controls the student’s reading ability. If we want them to truly read, that control needs to shift to the actual word, letters in the word, pattern of letters in the word, and the letter sounds. Even if there was some sort of picture that could assist with “went”/”want”, “say”/”saw”, or “eat”/”ate”/”at”, what happens when that picture is not available? Users of this strategy assume that the continual pairing of picture to word will inevitably transfer the stimulus control from the picture to the word. Maybe it will; maybe it won’t. Research shows that systematic stimulus fading aids with this shift where the original stimulus is lighter in color or becomes smaller, for example. However, this fading procedure is not possible when it is a random picture in a book. Teachers utilizing this intervention essentially “train and hope” with all fingers crossed that the child learns how to read the actual word in the absence of the picture.
Finally, this technique actually reinforces guessing, which is a really hard habit to break. The student will select a word that may be contextually accurate according to the picture but is nowhere near the topography of the actual word written on the page. For example, the student may read “forest” instead of “tree”. Here, the student is completely relying on the picture and didn’t even take the first step in problem solving using the actual word.
While this step may help with that one word for that one story on that one occasion with that one student, it rarely teaches the child to actually read the words in future settings unless a very systematic fading procedure is utilized. Some students may not require such intensive interventions. However, if a teacher is employing this technique, the circumstances are likely that the student struggles with reading and requires extra resources. In my opinion, it is better to teach that student the phonetic rules, the irregular vowel combinations, syllabication, and other strategies that can be applied and generalized. This way, you are building an amazing metaphorical box of strategies the student can rely on to attack novel words instead of praying he/she encounters a really descriptive picture in the next book.
As always, if your child tends to rely on pictures more than words, give us a call. We would love to help build your child’s box of reading strategies to overcome these hurdles to reading fluency!