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Word Imageability: Being Able to Picture a Word Helps Children Learn to Read It


By: Mia Daucourt

Learning how to read a word is a complex process for kids. They have to understand what the letters are that makeup the word, how each letter sounds, and how those letters sound together. Then, they have to figure out what that word means, so they can store it in an organized way with other related words in their memories. For kids that are new to learning how to read, trying to keep track of all this information so they can piece it together to properly read a word is a whole lot for them to keep up with.

One word feature that makes it easier for children to store and later call on all this word-related information to fluently and accurately read a familiar word is the word’s regularity. Regularity refers to how straightforward a word’s pronunciation is based on how things are usually pronounced. Are the letters and letter combinations in a word pronounced like most instances in which those letters and letter combinations are used? For example, the word fluff is not very hard for kids to remember because the way fluff is spelled tells you exactly how it should be pronounced, based on the most common way that its component letters (f-l-u-f-f) usually sound. F sounds like “eff”, u sounds like “uh.” It is easy-peasy and comfortable because it’s so pleasantly regular. This makes it easier for new readers to learn such regular words. In contrast, irregular words are harder for new readers to learn. The word enough is an example of an irregular word. Although enough and fluff rhyme, enough does not give us any of the warm, fuzzy regular feels that fluff does because enough’s component letters and letter combinations are essentially weird. Now, instead of an f signaling an “eff” sound, -ough is making that “eff” sound. It’s prickly and uncomfortable. Think about it this way: children’s first guide to how letters should sound is learning the alphabet, so the easiest foundation for reading are letters that sound like their letter names. That’s why it’s easy to pronounce the f’s in fluff as “eff.” However, understanding that -ough should make the same sound as the letter f takes time for kids that are learning to read. Enough is just irregular.

Another word feature that helps children learn how to read a word is its imageability. Imageability refers to how easily a word can elicit a mental image in the reader. When you read the word can you picture the thing or meaning the word represents? Words that represent common animals, for example, are extremely easy to picture in our heads. The word dog instantly musters the mental image of a dog. Some people may picture a Labrador retriever, while others picture a dachshund, but across the board, it’s safe to say that everyone can muster up a mental picture of a dog, making the word “dog” very imageable. The reason word imageability is so important is because images are some of our strongest mental representations. When we read, hear, or learn about a new word or concept, the more likely we can imagine it, the more efficiently we can store it and retrieve it later when we need to. That’s why word imageability is so useful. It provides us with an image to use as a really effective retrieval cue to call on that word later on. In contrast, words with low imageability (i.e., hard to picture) are abstract words like suggest. The word suggest represents something that is not concrete and is hard for us to think of a single mental image to represent its meaning. Therefore, the word suggest is more likely to be harder for children to learn to read fluently than the word dog. Of course these words also have different numbers of syllables and may also vary in their regularity, so there are many word features that may make one harder or easier to read than the other, but these examples are simply illustrative to better understand the terms.

A recent study by Steacy & Compton (2019) investigated how the word features of regularity and imageability impacted how quickly and accurately first- and second-graders with low reading ability were able to learn to read new words. Specifically, they conducted two experiments. For Experiment 1, they tested a group of 47 at-risk readers to see whether these two word features could predict how quickly and accurately children read new words. For Experiment 2, they tested a group of 78 at-risk readers to see whether they could improve how quickly and accurately children read irregular words by training them on how to create mental images of those words (i.e., imageability training).

Results from Experiment 1 confirmed that imageability plays an important role in how children learn to read words, especially for irregular words and for children who struggle with reading. When words are spelled in a way that is not consistent with how its component letter and vowel combinations are pronounced most of the time, the word’s imageability can help or hinder how children learn to read it. Irregular words that are highly imageable, like foot, eye, and laugh are easier for children to learn to read than irregular words that are not imageable, like false, learn, and lose. This is most likely driven by the fact that children can create a more complete mental representation of a new word when they can easily create a mental picture of that word’s meaning, and that picture will always be tied to their mental representation of that word. This make their word learning more efficient too, which was supported by the findings in Experiment 2 that irregular words that are more easily imageable take less repetitions in order for children to master them. The irregular word representations that were more complete because of including an image to go along with the word’s meaning were easier for children to learn more quickly. Overall, these findings suggest that word imageability significantly affects both word reading accuracy and rate of word learning for children struggling with reading. This is important for instructors and parents to understand in order to help support children’s word learning through the use of pictures and other visual representations during word learning.


Citation: Steacy, L. M., & Compton, D. L. (2019). Examining the role of imageability and regularity in word reading accuracy and learning efficiency among first and second graders at risk for reading disabilities. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 178, 226-250.