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The ability to accurately distinguish reality and fantasy may also be related to children's representational development. Corriveau and Harris found that 3- to 4-year-olds accurately distinguished historical and fantastical characters in narratives at the same time that they started passing false belief and false signs tasks, suggesting that an understanding of representation both mental and symbolic may underlie the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Picture books, both in terms of their prose and illustrations, may be designed to represent reality or to represent make-believe. Corriveau and Harris argue that children may have difficulty deciding which of the two functions a particular story may fulfill. Thus, children's ability to separate fantasy from reality may depend both on their recognition that a story stands for something and their ability to judge what that something is reality or pretend.

In addition, children's own experiences and background knowledge may influence the aspects of stories they view as realistic versus fantastical Corriveau et al. Books with unrealistic content, such as impossible events or anthropomorphic depictions of animals, may present a challenge to children in separating which aspects of the book apply to the real world and which belong only in the book.

Therefore, we again expect books with realistic content to be more supportive of learning transfer, especially when learning conceptual information such as scientific facts and concepts. Although these book features interact with the two other developmental factors discussed above—symbolic development and analogical reasoning—we also expect the developing ability to reason about what is real and what is fantastical to constrain or enable learning and transfer.

The following sections provide a review of how particular aspects of picture books such as genre, pictorial realism, and the presence of manipulative features interact with the three developmental factors we have proposed to influence children's transfer from picture books. Rather, we present information about how our identified developmental factors inform our understanding about children's learning from various book features and areas for further consideration in picture book research. We focus predominately on pre-readers who are listening to an adult read while they view the book's pictures.

Particular features of picture books, such as the specific content they incorporate, or the way in which the content is presented, may influence children's tendency to learn and transfer the educational content to real-world situations. Below we review studies that investigate some of these features, organized by the domain in which the educational content is presented.

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We have chosen this organization because particular features may be more influential in some learning domains than others. For example, visual features may be important when learning vocabulary, where children may be fairly successful at transfer on the basis of matching up perceptual features of objects. However, contextual information may be more important in science domains where transfer often takes place on a conceptual level. The domains we have chosen are primarily the domains in which the impact of picture book features on transfer of information presented in books have been studied.

In each section, we address the book features that have been studied in that domain, interpreted with regard to our three developmental factors.


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Future work is needed to address how book features influence transfer in other domains such as math and the arts, as well as how additional book features impact transfer. Picture books expose children to rich language. For example, picture books contain a richer diversity of words Montag et al. In addition, caregivers use a larger number and wider variety of words during reading than other activities Hoff-Ginsberg, It is not surprising, then, that joint reading has been associated with a variety of later language outcomes, including vocabulary growth and early literacy skills like letter knowledge e.

Here we are interested in particular features of books that may support the process of language learning from picture books on a less protracted scale—words and letters learned from individual reading sessions. We expect that symbolic understanding plays an especially important role in this domain, as transfer of a new word to a new context heavily depends on recognition of the labeled item in the book as representing objects in the real world to which the label also applies Preissler and Carey, ; Ganea et al. Thus, features of books that make the link between depicted objects and real world referents clearer or easier to discern should support transfer, whereas features of books that make these links more difficult to recognize may make transfer more difficult.

The book features that have been most studied in this domain include pictorial realism, manipulative features, and fantastical contexts. Picture books vary in the degree to which their pictures represent reality, from photographs to illustrations to cartoonish line drawings.


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An image that is highly iconic, or visually very similar to its referent, may highlight the relation between the picture book image and real-world instances. As such, we might predict photographs to be the most supportive of children's transfer of knowledge from books to reality. Newborn infants perceive and distinguish the dimensional nature of pictures from real objects. If presented with a complex object and a photograph of it, they clearly prefer the real object Slater et al. However, when presented with photographs alone, 9-month-olds interact with them in ways similar to how they would interact with the real object they represent—by hitting, rubbing, and grasping the photographs Pierroutsakos and DeLoache, Their behavior suggests they have not yet grasped the symbolic function of pictures.

As infants reach the middle of their second year, they begin to treat pictures referentially, by pointing and labeling the depicted objects DeLoache et al. Research also indicates that in their second year of life children understand the representational status of pictures Preissler and Carey, ; Ganea et al. Yet, children's transfer of novel words from picture books to the real world referent can be impacted by pictorial realism at these ages.

Ganea et al.

After being read the book by a researcher told the names for the pictured objects , children of both ages were able to recognize the labeled object they had seen in the book regardless of the type of image. However, children who were read the cartoon book did not generalize to a picture of a new exemplar different in color. Eighteen-month-olds transferred the label to its physical real-word referent across all three conditions, but month-olds did so only in the photograph and drawing conditions.

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Taken together, these findings suggest that transfer from the photographs was easiest for children, and transfer from cartoons the most difficult. With age, children get better at transferring from perceptually dissimilar depictions to real objects, although there is evidence that the iconicity of pictures continues to play a role in some picture transfer tasks even at 3 years of age Callaghan, ; Mareovich and Peralta, The impact of iconicity on young children's learning from picture books has also been found with other measures, such as imitation Simcock and DeLoache, Thus, at young ages, when children are first beginning to think symbolically, their understanding that pictures stand for real objects interacts with the type of depictions in books.

These features may be entertaining for children, but research suggests they may not be optimal for learning. One reason they may not be optimal for learning is that they may draw attention away from links between the book and the real world.

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Using books designed to teach children animal names, Tare et al. Children were read a book by a researcher featuring 9 animals either using a commercially presented manipulative book with flaps and pull tabs or a scanned copy of the book without manipulative features. At test, children who had seen a copy of the book without manipulatives correctly generalized a new animal name to new pictures and a replica of the animal.

Children who read the book with manipulative features did not perform above chance. In another study, researchers compared to month-olds' learning of letters from a manipulative alphabet book with pulls, flaps and textures to a book without these features Chiong and DeLoache, Children learned more letters from the simple alphabet book than the manipulative one.

The authors argued that the salience of manipulative features may render them more like objects themselves and less like symbols that stand for other objects than their 2D counterparts. Another possibility is that children's mental effort is engaged with interaction with the features rather than attending to the content. Flack and Horst read 3- to 5-year-olds books with one or two regular-sized illustrations per page spread or one large image per spread.

New objects in the pictures were labeled with new words during reading. At test, children were asked to identify the referent of the labels by pointing to the correct objects on a book page. Children were more successful when they had seen one illustration, regardless of size, indicating that two illustrations may have resulted in cognitive overload. The researchers did not assess transfer of learning. In a follow-up study, a hand gesture that directed children to the correct illustration supported learning from the book with two pictures per spread.

In light of these effects of cognitive overload on children's learning, more research is needed to determine whether manipulatives are particularly disruptive of symbolic insight, whether they result in cognitive overload, or both. Research shows that not all manipulative features are detrimental to children's learning. A recent meta-analysis of studies involving electronic books with considerate enhancements like animated pictures, music, and sound effects were supportive of vocabulary learning for preschool and elementary children Takacs et al. While we know of no similar results with manipulative features of print books, one study suggests that manipulatives designed to draw attention to the educational content, in this case the shape of letters, did not distract 3-year-olds from learning the letter names Chiong and DeLoache, For both word and letter learning, the manipulative features traditionally found in print books do not appear to facilitate learning and transfer, and in cases when the features are irrelevant to the book's educational content, may even interfere with it.

Content-central manipulatives that highlight educational content, such as highlighting the visual shape of a letter—the crucial component for transferring the letter name to new instances of the letter—may hold promise in facilitating symbolic insight, and thus transfer. Research in this area will become especially crucial as the features available in digital books continue to expand.

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In picture books both fantastical and realistic, children may encounter new and unusual vocabulary. However, we might predict that realistic story contexts provide more cues to children that they can use to match story depictions and contexts with real-world situations. The similarity between the learning and transfer contexts can provide support for symbolic insight—recognizing the similarity between a symbol and its referent—as well as for analogical transfer. A recent intervention with low-income preschoolers investigated the effect of fantastical or realistic content on children's word learning Weisberg et al.

Children were presented with a set of realistic or fantastical commercial picture books and toys. The researchers measured children's comprehension of the vocabulary presented in the books and toys receptively and asked them to tell everything they knew about the tested word e. Across both conditions, children showed similar gains in identifying the tested objects. However, children in the fantastical condition were able to provide more information about the objects when given open-ended prompts.

This study suggests that children learned more about the target objects in the fantastical contexts. Importantly, however, this study did not assess any type of transfer to the real world, and no distinction was made between fantastical and realistic information in explanations given by children. How fantasy may influence children's ability to transfer labels to new exemplars or real-world referents remains to be investigated.

Consideration of the developmental factors we identified here—symbolic insight, analogical transfer, and reasoning about fantasy and reality—would lead one to predict that children will have more difficulty transferring labels from fantastical than realistic books to real-world referents.