ABDVol.32 No.4

The Importance of Reading Picture Books to Infants
Nobuo Masataka

Our Earliest Memories

 What would your answer be if someone suddenly asked you, "What is your earliest memory and how old were you at the time?"
 Recently I posed this question to twenty-year-old university students and senior citizens in their eighties. The responses of the two age groups showed both an amazing similarity and a striking difference. The earliest memory of almost everyone, regardless of their present age, dated back to the time they were three. When it came to content, however, the answers of the two groups were very different. The most common first memory among twenty-year-olds was an injury, followed by becoming lost, suffering from motion sickness, wetting the bed, and being laughed at by adults, in that order. None of those over eighty, however, mentioned any of these things. The most common early memory of people in this group was the death of a loved one, followed by sickness or some form of natural calamity. The content of our first memories clearly differs depending upon the times in which we live, yet the inability to recall memories earlier than the age of three is common to everyone, regardless of when they were born.

The Importance of "Storytelling"

 In his autobiography, the famous Japanese author, Yukio Mishima, claimed to remember the grain of the wooden tub in which he was bathed just after birth. Such memories of early infancy, however, are impossible. Why is it that nothing from the first three years of our lives remains imprinted on our memories?
  The reason is closely related to the fact that young children up to the age of three have not yet fully developed the ability to manipulate language. Words play an indispensable role in storing information about individual experiences. Over the last few years, it has been shown that in order for children to remember things that they have seen or heard they must first have acquired the ability to "tell a story." A child will listen to his mother say, "Today we went to the zoo, didn't we?" and, mimicking her, he will falteringly attempt to tell stories in the same way with newly learned words. Only then is the content of an experience imprinted in his memory.
  When a child can follow a story line and systemize and connect what he has seen and heard, he is capable of storing information for the first time. Let us imagine, for example, a child who has just started attending nursery school at the age of three. The nursery school provides lunch for the children. If his mother asks him the next morning, "What did you have for lunch at nursery school yesterday?" most likely he will be unable to answer.
  What if, however, she asks him the same question on the evening of the same day? If the child had croquettes for lunch, he will probably be able to answer accurately, "Croquettes" because comparatively little time has passed since he ate that meal. It is quite usual for children of this age to forget the majority of what happened while they are sleeping at night. If, however, someone asks a child even once on the same day what he had for lunch and he answers, he will be able to respond correctly the next day as well. In fact, it would be quite usual for him to remember even two or three days later. Yet if you ask him what he had for lunch more recently, he will not be able to answer unless he has responded to the same question on the day he ate it. This is a fascinating phenomenon.
  Parents and educators of small children naturally hope that they will develop into special people who excel even if only in some small area. But if we look at their beliefs concerning the best way to realize that aim, the content is, more often than not, misdirected and ineffectual. Many start teaching their three and four-year-olds as many words and letters as possible. Even if the child is capable of memorizing them at the time, in the end he will forget them all because the parent or educator has neglected to nurture his ability to remember. Making a child memorize various kinds of information, such as words and letters, is not an effective way to develop his memory.
  The key to memory development in children is encouraging them to weave a story by piecing together the limited vocabulary they possess. The most important role adults play in this process is talking to their child about different things; a simple, mundane task. Our research has revealed that reading picture books together is one of the most effective means of establishing the "storytelling" custom between adult and child. Because I am involved in studying infants, I am frequently asked, "How should I play with my child?" When I suggest reading picture books, the response is often, "But what is the point when they understand so little?" Reality, however, is the exact opposite. Any person exposed to repeated storytelling will learn to tell stories. If, on the other hand, we sit idly by claiming that as infants lack understanding, there is no point in reading to them, we can expect no progress at all.

The Capacity of Infants to Remember Words

 My colleague Sachiyo Kajikawa recently concluded a successful experiment proving that infants of only nine-months already remember the words of stories read to them. In this experiment, Thumbelina was read aloud by a woman and recorded as the stimulus. The tape, which was six minutes and forty seconds in length, included fifteen target words; that is words identified as ones the child had never heard before.
  Over a two-week period, the tape was played for the infant participants twice consecutively on a total of ten days. Each infant was thus exposed to the stimulus indicator a total of twenty times. Their degree of familiarity with the target words was then verified. First we prepared a story tape of Beauty and the Beast read by the same woman that included fifteen words unknown to the child. We used this as a control stimulus, comparing the amount of interest evinced by the infant towards the novel words in this tape as opposed to the target words in the Thumbelina tape.
  The method of verification was extremely simple. Each infant was wrapped in a blanket when it was feeling both happy and attentive and set upon its mother's knee facing outwards in a soundproof room. The mother was sitting in a chair. When the test began, a card resembling the checkered flags used at the finish line in car races appeared in the partitioning wall towards which the infant was facing. When the infant noticed the visual stimulus and turned its head towards it, the audio stimulus was projected into the room by a hidden speaker located near the card. The sounds were either the target words or the control words. The tape continued to play while the infant's attention remained focused on the card and stopped when it looked elsewhere. Infants have very short attention spans, usually ten seconds at the most, after which they will turn their heads away.
  Known as the head-turn preference procedure, this is a typical experimental paradigm. Accumulative research has already demonstrated that infants are capable of understanding the association between audio and visual stimuli when the two are in close proximity and appear and disappear simultaneously. In other words, they can learn that as long they stare at the visual stimulus the sound will continue. Accordingly, it can be assumed that if they are interested in a particular melody when they hear it, their gaze will remain fixed on that spot. If an infant spends more time looking at the visual stimulus when he hears a certain sound, that sound is of more interest to him.
  The results of Kajikawa's experiment are as shown in the graph above, which compares the length of time nine-month infants spent listening to the target words and to the control stimulus. The time for the former was 13.4 seconds as opposed to only 10.8 seconds for the latter, and both exhibited statistical significance at the probability level of 5%. When the results were examined for each individual to see if there was a preference for one over the other, eleven of the fourteen were shown to exhibit greater interest in the target words. The experiment clearly showed that nine-month infants preferred listening to the target words included in the recitation they had listened to twenty times over the preceding two weeks than to novel words.

Finding Your Infant's Favourite Picture Books

 The general image of how infants acquire language is based on several misconceptions. Whether for better or for worse, adults have no memories of their earliest years. For this reason, they tend to overlap language acquisition with their memories of learning a second language. The image most Japanese have is of studying English in which the teacher first pronounces a phrase "This is a pen," and the students repeat it. In fact, however, the pattern for acquisition of one's mother tongue differs in many fundamental ways from acquisition of a second language.
  As has already been described, one difference is the fact that infants and children first store words as sounds in their memory; only after that do they use this vocabulary to speak. When we talk about language learning, we may imagine that it is a process of trial and error, but in fact infants never repeat words that they have only heard a moment before. For this reason, this method of language learning falls within the category of "memory-based learning." In contrast, parroting a teacher's pronunciation of such phrases as "This is a pen" is referred to as "action-based learning."
  Nine-month old infants are as yet unable to speak meaningful words, but they already remember the sounds of words they have heard. As they only begin to use vocabulary after memorizing the sounds, they will never learn to speak if we do not talk to them. This is also true after early development. A child's language ability develops gradually within the shower of words his caregivers direct at him and forms the foundation of his mental faculties.
  I often hear people talking about the "three-year-old myth," claiming that a person's intellectual ability is determined by the age of three. The grounds for this assertion, however, are extremely weak. When comparing the first three years in a child's life to the next three years from the age of three to six, there is no compelling explanation for why the first should be more important than the second.
  In the end, it comes down to the fact that we do not retain our memories up until the age of three. If someone insisted that intellectual capacity is determined between the ages of three and six, it is highly likely that people would protest, "Well, that's not true in my case." When someone claims, however, that such capacity is determined by the age of three, we are unable to judge the truth of this statement for ourselves because we have no memory of this period. This may be the sole reason for the persistence of this myth.
  There is absolutely no reason to become obsessed with early education. It is much more important to focus on ways to stimulate our infant's enjoyment of being read to. I believe there are two secrets to this. The first is to find books that the child loves. No matter how many different picture books a child is exposed to, he is bound to have a strong attachment to particular ones. Which books will depend on the individual. In most cases, adults are unable to understand why their child likes a particular book. Often they pick books that we ourselves would never imagine them choosing. You must never grudge the time and effort it takes to find your child's favourite books.
  Once you have found a book he loves, the second secret is to stick patiently with him, reading the same book over and over again as many times as they want. Adults often attempt to redirect their children's attention to something new or different, suggesting, "Let's try some other books, too," but such efforts are meaningless. If a child likes one book in particular, it is much more effective to exploit this preference. Your child may end up memorizing the content from cover to cover. But when he has, I believe that those words will have become rooted in his mind and form the foundation for nurturing his ability to speak by himself. Although testing a great variety of books until you find your child's favorite may seem prohibitively expensive, the public library makes the task easy and inexpensive.
(translated by Cathy Hirano)

Nobuo Masataka
Born in 1954. After graduating from Graduate School of Human Science, Osaka University, he studied at several research institutes in USA, Germany as well as in Japan. His specialty is comparative behavioral science and his main study theme is communication of primates including human beings. He has written and published many papers and books in his field.
Nobuo Masataka
Associate Professor, Cognition & Learning Section, Department of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Prime Research Institute (PRI), Kyoto University, Inuyama, Aichi, 484-8506, Japan, e-mail: masataka@pri.kyoto-u.ac.jp