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Cognitive Elements in Picture Books


Disclaimer: I have not been paid to write this blog. I was not paid to speak on this subject either.

As promised in my last blog, today we are taking a slight detour from reviewing art books.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to my local writing group (of which I am a member) on ‘Adding Cognitive Elements in Picture Books’. I am hugely passionate about this subject. As some of you know, when I am not moonlighting as an illustrator and picture book writer, I teach children with learning disabilities.

So, what is the purpose of cognitive elements in picture books?

Most children love learning, and with good planning, an illustrator or writer can teach a child while they are being entertained with a good book.

Some children have cognitive deficits, e.g. The inability to see that a shape is still the same shape, even if it is rotated or flipped (visual-spatial difficulties); or to match or discern patterns or designs (visual discrimination); etc. Deficits invariably cause difficulties in academic studies.

Other children, though not limited by a cognitive deficit, have never been exposed to cognitive activities, and as a result, also struggle with academic exercises.

It is vital that children play with puzzles, strategic and logic-based games. These develop problem solving skills and mathematical ability. Simplistically, these activities are generally thought of as right-brain tasks.

It is just as important the children read. Reading books develops all language skills and linguistic tasks are regarded as a left-brain activity.

I know that ‘right-brain and left-brain’ categorisation is too simplistic, but for the sake of explaining why cognitive elements need to be added to books, I felt this was the most straight-forward route to take.

Picture books can be created which develop both groups of skills and also encourage memory development in young children.

Examples of picture books that develop cognitive skills:


Sequencing – Sequencing fits ‘hand-in-hand’ with memory development (sequencing is remembering the story, events, etc. in the RIGHT order). Sequencing is foundational in many traditional fairy tales and folk stories, e.g. ‘The Ginger Bread Boy’, ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘The Little Red Hen’, ‘There’s A Hole in My Bucket’, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’, ‘Chicken Little’ (‘Chicken Licken’), ‘The Enormous Turnip’, etc.

There are also lovely, contemporary books with strong story and illustration sequencing like: ‘Sydney and the Whalebird’, ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, ‘My Grandfather’s Coat’, ‘Adele and Simon’, etc.

Searching, discerning and verbalising subplots in illustrations is also fundamental in developing comprehension and inference skills. (Donovan Bixley’s books are great for this).

Wordless Books are one of the best ways to help children develop strong sequencing ability. Wordless books also build an understanding of inference and comprehension skills. Some of my favourite wordless books include: ‘The Red Book’, ‘Tuesday’ (but actually any David Weisner book is terrific!), ‘Journey’, ‘Quest’, ‘Return’, ‘The Lazy Friend’, ‘Dog on a Train’, etc.

Rhyming (identifying and generating sounds at the ends of words) – Rhyming is a critical and integral part of learning. I think it is a great pity that some publishers have decided that rhyming and alliteration is passé, as rhyme competence is the building block for language development necessary for reading and spelling. Nowadays, most children do not know a single Nursery Rhyme. Learning Nursery Rhymes builds language comprehension and memory skills. Many children who are not exposed to Nursery Rhymes struggle to learn to read and spell, as their cognitive language development is retarded. I see the result of this neglect every day, and the process for remediation takes a very long time. To help develop rhyming ability in children, read Nursery Rhymes and rhyming stories like those by Dr. Seuss, Julia Donaldson and Lynley Dodd, etc. which often become family favourites.

If you are a writer keen on writing a rhyming story, please try to avoid rhyming words that only rhyme colloquially. For example, in New Zealand, hair is often pronounced here, and so readers from other countries would be puzzled if they read a story with Kiwi hair rhyming with fear. Those words will not rhyme for them.

Alliteration (identifying and generating sounds at the beginning of words) – alliteration is used in Nursery Rhymes and Tongue Twisters (eg. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers; She sells sea shells on the sea-shore; etc). This skill is essential for reading and especially spelling.

Concise speech – there is an increase in ‘speech impediments, which leads to spelling struggles – ‘th’ (as in ‘these’) is pronounced ‘v’ or ‘d’; ‘th’ (as in ‘thing’) is pronounced ‘f’ – learning Nursery Rhymes or tongue twisters can help remedy these speech faults.

Phonological awareness – there is a dire need for good picture books teaching children the CORRECT sounds for alphabet letters. It is no good having albatross or ape for the basic, short ‘a’ sound. A good word for teaching basic, short ‘a’ would be ant. The entire word is phonetic. Alphabet books needs to be expanded to teach short and long sounds and the examples need to be correct. If you are interested in authoring an alphabet book, avoid words with vowel diagraphs at the being of words (like oar, ear) and also avoid following a vowel with a consonant that alters the sound of the vowel (like albatross or ark). Personally, I would love to see books teaching sounds including consonant diagraphs like ‘th’, ‘sh’, ‘ch’, etc.

Vocabulary extension – books like Gemma O’Neill’s ‘Monty’s Magnificent Mane’ is brilliant for vocabulary extension. Interesting adjectives and verbs are employed throughout the story. Enlarged font invites the reader to expand vocal tone or volume to create emphasis. Most kids lap up stories like this. They are so much fun to read and make the whole reading experience satisfactory for the adult reader, as well as the child. Generally, children who are read to, learn to read more easily. They learn more quickly, since they are not just learning from set readers (which expand word knowledge by only a few new words per book) but also from picture and story books, which are not required to abide by strict introductions for new words.

Creative Thinking and Visual Awareness:

Visual Spatial (the inability to see that a shape is still the same shape, even if it is rotated or flipped) – visual spatial concepts include shapes, puzzles, etc. Donovan Bixley’s ‘Looky Book’ has some really cool pages that cover visual-spatial activities. I feel there is a real need for more visual-spatial books for pre-schoolers and older children.

Please let me know if you are interested in knowing more about helping children develop visual-spatial understanding. I am happy to expand on this theme and also to recommend fantastic resources.

Number Concept – understanding the impact of numbers on life. Good examples of books that play with number concept are: ‘Where’s Wally’ (find 6 wizards, etc), search and find books (find 5 walruses), ‘Rats’ and ‘The Church Mice in Action’ (small children love to count – “Let us count the rats on this page!”), ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, etc. ‘Down in the Forest’ teaches basic counting, but also includes Kiwi flora and fauna and a rhyming story.

Directionality (the ability to discern left and right, and to be able to determine where you are and where you need to go {orientation in space} and how to get there – maps and mazes are very useful to teaching this. These are some of my favourite books that contain maps, mazes, aerial views, cut-away buildings, etc.

Visual Discrimination – the ability to understand what you see. Books like Donovan Bixley’s ‘Looky Book’, ‘Where’s Wally’, ‘Ballroom Bonanza’, etc. are great tools for helping children to learn to closely observe images.

Visual Figure Ground – the ability to sift information, ignoring what is non-essential and focusing on what is necessary. High-density images like those in ‘Ballroom Bonanza’, search books and ‘Where’s Wally’ are good for teaching visual figure-ground.

Comparison (teaching evaluation) – Goldilocks saw three bowls of porridge: a big bowl that was piping hot, a medium-sized bowl that was cold, and a small that was just right. Then Goldilocks saw three beds: One that was enormous and too hard, one that was too big and was far too soft, and one that was just the right size and felt perfect!


Nursery Rhymes – if you recite or sing nursery rhymes to children, they will learn them, without even realising it.

Folk Tales and Fairy Tales – ask children questions about what they have read or been read.

Repetitive phrases are easy to remember – E.g. ‘Little pig, little pig, let me in!”

“No! Not by the hairy of my chinny, chin, chin!”

“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!” or

“Grandmother, what big eyes you have!”“All the better so see you with, my child!”

Ask children to retell the story. You will quickly become aware if they have memory or sequencing issues if you do this. Many children struggle to retain what they hear. They may be able to remember the story whilst looking at the pictures, but will be incapable of recapping if the book is closed.

General Knowledge: This can be conveyed to children in beautiful, interesting books like the Dorling Kindersley books, but creative layout and/or concepts can also be used in non-fiction books. Here are examples of some of my favourite general knowledge books:

Wisdom – Many years ago, I was told that wisdom means learning from other people’s mistakes before making them yourself. I have never forgotten that. Sometimes wisdom can be imparted through the passive means of a picture book. Here are two of my favourite children’s book which I have found impart wisdom in a very charming manner:

Metacognition – definition: being aware of one’s thinking.

Metacognition can be prompted using books that could include riddles, puzzles and clues. Examples of books like these are books like ‘The Ocean’.  I think creating books for metacognition will be a challenging and satisfying work for a writer or illustrator. Metacognition books should encourage a child to think for themselves, prompt thought and do not tell the child what to think. The book does, however, need to provide the answer and explanation in the end so that the child knows if he or she is right, or how to understand the ‘puzzle’ if they could not work it out.

This blog has turned out very long, and is rather a bombardment of information, so I hope it is clear enough for my readers. Please let me know if you would like some clarification of any of the topics above.

My lovely friend and fellow blogger, Hannah Davidson, suggested I post picture book reviews. I am planning to do so. I look forward to wearing an additional hat: art book and material reviews, picture book reviews, illustration journey updates, etc. In my picture book reviews, I plan to cover the cognitive, illustrative and writing aspects of the book. I am very much looking forward to getting to work on these.

Until next time…

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