drawings of cars with the printed word car on or under the image with each image crossed out and the caption, how to avoid the reading instruction pitfall of the picture blocking effect

How to Avoid the Picture Blocking Effect

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When teaching children to read, using images to support reading is a common practice. Pictures used in the right way can facilitate the development of comprehension skills; however, using pictures can also have an adverse effect. The picture blocking effect can occur when pictures are introduced with new words.

Research on the picture blocking effect

The participants in the follow studies included children with mild intellectual disability.

  • New words are learned more quickly if presented without corresponding images (Didden, Prinsen, & SIgafoos, 2000).
  • “Virtually all beginning reading texts used to teach initial words to young children contain pictures and words. Our finding suggest that acquisition of basic written words can be more rapid if texts with only words are used” (Singh & Solman, 1990, p. 531).

When should pictures be used in reading instruction?

Pictures, photographs, and objects are all very useful for developing language comprehension skills. When a word is matched to a corresponding image, the child can learn what that word means. This is particularly helpful for children with limited language skills. For autistic children, the printed word can even provide a visual basis for learning language.

If using pictures while teaching reading, there are definite procedures that should be avoided and ways to limit the picture blocking effect.

Here’s what NOT to do:

drawing of a car with the word car under it drawing of a car with the word car superimposed on the car

Instead of the above you can limit the picture blocking effect by:

  • Have the word and corresponding image on a separate card and create matching activities.

drawing of a carthe printed word car





  • Expand the activity by matching various representations of the target word to the printed word. For example, with the word car, you might match it to a toy car, a real car, photos of different kinds of cars, etc.
  • After initial matching activities have been mastered for several words, you can also create matching pages for independent practice. See the sample below.

a matching activity. The words horse, car, tree, and dog are in the left column. Corresponding pictures are in random order in the right column. There is a line matching the word horse to the picture of a horse.


The picture blocking effect occurs when teaching children to read when presenting pictures and words together. For children who are learning to read who have limitations in language development, pictures and other visual representations are very helpful in developing comprehension skills. To limit the picture blocking effect, introduce images after the printed word has been mastered or keep the printed word on a serrate card from the image. In general, avoid reading programs and curricula that present pictures and words together.* The Edmark reading program follows the correct procedure. Words are introduced in isolation first, and then picture are introduced in comprehension activities.


*Some research has supported teaching new words through superimposing printed words on images. In these studies a very systematic procedure was used to fade out the images (Redhair, McCoy, Zucker, Mathur, & Caterino, 2013).


Didden, R., Prinsen, H., & Sigafoos, J. (2000). The blocking effect of pictorial prompts on sight-word reading. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33, 317-320.

Redhair, E. I., McCoy, K. M., Zucker, S. H., Mathur, S. R., & Caterino, L. (2013). Identification of printed nonsense words for an individual with autism: A comparison of constant time delay and stimulus fading. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 48, 351-362.

Singh, N. N., & Solman, R. T. (1990). A stimulus control analysis of the picture-word problem in children who are mentally retarded: the blocking effect. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23, 525-532.

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