If you’re a parent or teacher, you’ve likely heard that reading to children is important. This is true! But there’s more to it than that. Research shows that interactive and dialogic book reading are the most effective ways to read with your children to build language and literacy skills.
How can you read with children?
Before we jump into research and strategies, let’s talk briefly about the difference between these reading strategies.
Shared book reading
Shared book reading is just what you think it is! Anytime you snuggle up with your child on the sofa and read a book or gather your classroom for storytime, you’re doing shared book reading.
More specifically, shared book reading puts you in the role of the storyteller and the child(ren) in the role of the audience. You read the words pretty much as they are written without adding any of your own touches.
Interactive shared book reading
Interactive shared book reading elevates the basic idea described above by inviting you to add to the story. Adding to the story before reading, during reading, and after reading helps involve and engage children with it.
Some ideas for interactive reading include:
- asking the children to make predictions before reading the story
- stopping to ask questions or have students complete sentences while reading
- starting a group discussion and making real-life connections after reading
Dialogic reading is a type of interactive shared book reading. It uses a more defined system for engaging children. Its goal is to place the child(ren) in the role of the storyteller, while you become the audience.
We’ll talk more about this system later, but for now, know that dialogic reading provides a 4-step process for engagement and five types of prompts to use during the process.
What does the research say about interactive and dialogic book reading?
In 2007, a CELLreview looked at three research syntheses from What Works Clearinghouse. The reviewers analyzed research on the three types of reading strategies we talked about above: shared book reading, interactive shared book reading, and dialogic reading.
They found that of the three reading strategies, interactive and dialogic book reading resulted in the most improved language and literacy skills. And, this was true even if children experienced more shared book reading than they did interactive or dialogic reading! These positive outcomes were seen in oral language, print knowledge, phonological processing, and early reading and writing skills.
Additionally, Brannon & Dauksas found that family members who learned to use dialogic reading techniques had longer conversations with their children and used more positive communication behaviors. And, the children showed improved development in many areas, including:
- spoken language
- early literacy
- cognitive development
- social skills
- emotional maturity
- vocabulary development
It’s worth noting that the greatest gains following interactive and dialogic book reading have been early literacy skills. Other skill improvements—like spoken language, cognition, and social skills—were not as different between the three types of reading strategies.
What are these language and literacy skills—and why do they matter?
Okay, so we’ve established that interactive and dialogic book reading improve a lot of language and literacy skills.
But what exactly are those skills and why are they so important?
Let’s look at a few of them in detail.
Oral language is how we use spoken words to express ourselves. Developing strong oral language skills is necessary for speaking and listening. But, oral language skills are also a very strong predictor of reading and writing skills!
There are five areas of oral language: phonology, syntax, morphology, pragmatics, and vocabulary. To break that down further:
- Phonology is being aware of sounds.
- Morphology is understanding the meaning of word parts.
- Syntax is understanding word order and grammar.
- Pragmatics is understanding social communication rules.
- Vocabulary is understanding the meaning of words and phrases.
Let’s look at a phrase and break down how we use oral language skills to communicate.
“Let’s go, John!” John picked up the boxes and headed for the door. But, on his way out, he was distracted by baby foxes playing in the yard.
You have to understand the sounds you’re hearing. This is particularly important when you’re discriminating between similar sounds. For example, in this sentence, we have the word “boxes” and “foxes.” These words rhyme, but have different beginning sounds. You need to be aware that sounds are different so that you can hear different words.
We also have to understand word parts. In this sentence, we have the plural suffix -es on the words “boxes” and “foxes.” Knowing that the suffix -es makes a word plural helps you understand that John grabbed more than one box and saw more than one fox.
We’ll also look at the order of the words and the grammar in the sentence. Recognizing that the verbs are “picked” and “headed” helps us understand what is happening in the sentence. Also, a lack of transition or temporal words (like “before”) in the second sentence helps us understand the order John did things.
Understanding social communication gives us an idea of the attitudes in this situation. The exclamation point and use of John’s name suggest that the speaker might be annoyed or in a hurry. Additionally, knowing that John got distracted might help us understand why!
We have to know the meaning of all (or at least most!) of the words in this sentence to know what’s happening. If you don’t know the word box or fox, you won’t understand the meaning of this sentence.
Most of us go through this process now without much thought. But we’ve all developed these skills from the time that we were small through conversation and, of course, book reading!
In the same way that oral language forms the building blocks for communication, print knowledge forms the building blocks of literacy.
Basically, print knowledge is understanding what print is and that it has a purpose. One of the most frequently used examples is how children recognize the M outside of McDonalds and know that it represents their favorite Happy Meal.
Children who have good print knowledge understand that letters exist, that they’re put together to make words and sentences and that those words and sentences have meaning, that we read them left to right and top to bottom, that books have parts like a front cover, and more.
Understanding how print works is a vital first step toward being able to read.
Early Literacy (Reading/Writing)
Reading and writing skills are collectively known as literacy.
Literacy is so important.
It serves a very functional role in our lives—like being able to read job descriptions and fill out job applications.
Literacy plays a role in our personal enjoyment—like reading books for pleasure and exploring Wikipedia articles on our favorite actors.
Strong literacy skills are also proven to reduce inequality and prevent and lift people out of poverty.
Literacy encompasses many things, but at the beginning of its development, children will learn some of the skills we’ve already talked about—like print awareness, vocabulary, and phonology skills.
Early readers will also learn their letters—recognizing them, knowing what sounds they make, and writing them—and the structure of a story, also called narrative skills.
Being exposed to these early literacy skills when they’re young prepares children to begin formal reading instruction in kindergarten and sets them up for a successful school career.
Cognitive development usually refers to a child’s ability to learn and remember information and solve problems.
Some early cognitive skills include:
- Paying attention to the things they see and hear
- Remembering familiar songs and rhymes
- Finding hidden objects
- Solving logical problems
- Understanding similarities and differences
Cognition is important to the development of all the other skills we’re talking about!
For example, children can’t develop phonological skills if they’re unable to pay attention to spoken information.
They won’t be able to develop letter recognition if they’re unable to remember information.
They’ll struggle to develop a strong vocabulary if they don’t understand similarities and differences.
Developing strong cognitive skills are another vital part of early childhood development and future literacy skills.
Social and emotional skills help children have meaningful interactions with the world around them. You might remember we talked about pragmatics earlier—social and emotional skills tie right in!
For younger children, some social and emotional skills that are developing include:
- Helping adults with tasks
- Responding to adults
- Beginning social interactions
- Making friends
- Taking turns
- Participating in small group activities
- Developing self-awareness
- Coping with their emotions and feelings
- Coping with the emotions of others
Developing these skills not only improves the child’s wellbeing but also benefits society as a whole.
Children who have strong social-emotional skills are able to recognize their emotions and adjust appropriately to the environment around them. This not only means that they make friends and develop healthy relationships; it also improves their academic outcomes. Good self-awareness also increases the chances that they will seek help if they experience mental health problems in the future.
As far as benefiting society is concerned, strong social-emotional skills reduce “conduct problems and risk-taking behaviors.” This means classrooms run more smoothly for everyone, which improves learning outcomes for all! And later on, these skills benefit workplaces and communities.
Let’s talk more about interactive shared book reading.
Interactive shared book reading puts children in a more active role when listening to a story. Instead of just sitting quietly and listening to a story read word-for-word, children are encouraged to ask and answer questions, make predictions, narrate, and discuss the story.
Some of the more common strategies the reader uses are:
- asking WH (who, what, where, when, why, and how) questions
- asking for descriptions or explanations of the illustrations
- prompting for elaborations on what the child has said
- asking the child to fill in the blank of a sentence about the story
- adding to or expanding on something the child has said
- talking about the meaning of familiar and unknown words
- reading the same book multiple times
If you’d like to see interactive book reading in action, check out this video.
Now, let’s talk about dialogic reading.
I mentioned earlier that dialogic reading is a type of interactive book reading. Instead of just using the strategies listed above, you follow a process.
First, use the PEER model.
Prompt the child to say something about the book
Evaluate the child’s response
Expand on the child’s response
Repeat the prompt to make sure the child learned from the expansion
Additionally, dialogic reading uses five types of prompts that can be remembered by CROWD.
Completion prompts: start a sentence and have the child fill in the blank
Recall prompts: ask questions about what has already happened
Open-ended prompts: ask the child to explain what’s happening in the illustrations of the book
WH prompts: ask WH questions about the story
Distancing prompts: ask the child to relate the illustrations or the story to their own life experiences
You can see dialogic reading in action in this video.
What are some good books to use with interactive and dialogic book reading?
The great thing about interactive and dialogic book reading strategies is… they can be used with almost any illustrated, narrated book!
Of course, it’s important to think about your child(ren)—their age, their attention span, their culture—when choosing the best book. You can also check out popular picture books by talking to your librarian, looking at your local book store, checking out Amazon’s bestseller page, or consulting lists, like this one from Time.