In their early delight with books, kids love to boast, "I can read that page! Look at me!”

It often turns out that something quite different is happening: they’re sneaking looks at the pictures to fill in words, jumping back and forth between text and illustration. To worried parents, this looks like cheating.

But primary reading teachers have some reassuring advice: relax! This is a normal, important, and useful stage in learning to read – and for emerging readers, parents should encourage it.

True, as they advance, young readers will need to learn to get meaning from text alone. But a wealth of research shows that this is a multilayered process for children. It’s a big jump. They’re moving from concrete, realistic images – like those brightly colored pictures – to abstract letter codes. When new readers peek at a picture in the midst of stumbling with a word, they’re not cheating. They’re using important “context clues” to check the meanings they aren’t sure about.

Think of the pictures as visual training wheels. As they move forward, children will need them less and less, and will be able to rely on “sounding out” and other ways of cracking the code of letters. Even so, “context” remains a very important tool for all fluent readers. When you come across a long word you don’t recognize, chances are you make sense of it by looking at where it falls in the sentence, and what the rest of the paragraph is saying. You’re doing, as an adult, what your child is doing with pictures – and it’s a solid, valuable skill.

So what can parents do when a child “reads” with pictures? Well, jump right in! Enjoy the splashy art on the pages, and encourage your child to comment and explain. If he does read a printed word flawlessly, that’s great! But when there’s a harder word, go ahead and point to relevant pictures, and then move your finger to the corresponding text. Help connect letters and sounds as you go. Then, because practice makes perfect, return to the book a few times – reinforcing connections as your child becomes more comfortable with new letter combinations and words.

Above all, remember to treasure this time with your child. Keep your tone light and supportive. Reading is a gift to savor for a lifetime – and beautiful pictures are, too.