Kidaptive Blog

How to read with your preschooler, deluxe version


You’re probably already reading with your preschooler regularly.  But are you doing it the best way possible?  This post will describe an interactive reading method that you can use at home to maximize learning during story time.

Reading experts say literacy development begins at birth.  Scary thought, isn’t it?  Fortunately, they don’t mean we should start our children on ABCs worksheets as soon as the umbilical cord is cut; for that, we should wait at least 3 weeks (just kidding).  Really, what the experts mean is that parents can do tons of activities with their youngsters to prepare children to pick up reading smoothly once formal instruction begins.

Many of the activities, you’re probably doing already if you’re a parent of a preschooler: talking to your child, pointing out words, reading storybooks together, etc.  These interactions foster what is called “emergent literacy,” a sort of fledgling version of literacy that eventually facilitates learning to read.

In case you’re wondering how to make these activities support emergent literacy the best they can, one easy rule of thumb is that more is better: more talking, more pointing out words, more storybook reading.  But you can also make the activities really pop educationally by doing them a certain way. This post will focus on storybook reading and how to really put it to use it for emergent literacy.  I’ll describe Dialogic Reading, a method that has been shown to lead to greater language improvements than standard storybook reading.  Dialogic Reading was developed and tested by Grover Whitehurst and colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Standard Storybook Reading
We’re all familiar with standard storybook reading.  You, the adult, read the story aloud while the child listens and looks at the pictures. The end.

Dialogic Storybook Reading
Dialogic Reading is less like reading to a child and more like reading with them. The basic idea is to read the story aloud like usual, but to supplement it by asking the child questions throughout, and responding meaningfully. This prompts the child to think about the characters or the plotline.

For example, for young preschoolers, you can point out a character or event and ask, “What is this bulldozer doing?  What does it look like?”  For older preschoolers, you can ask questions relating the book to personal life, such as “Have you ever seen a bulldozer before?  What was it like?”  Or you can ask the child to speculate about the story’s events, e.g., “Why do you think the bulldozer is digging this big hole?”  When the child answers, respond by repeating or rephrasing their idea and augmenting it with more information.

Generally, try to ask questions that encourage children to talk rather than point to the page. The goal is to use conversation with the child to prompt her not only to understand the story, but also to think beyond the written word, thereby expanding the story-reading experience.

You can further elicit the child’s engagement by praising her efforts to understand story and pictures, and by responding thoughtfully to her unprompted reactions and questions. As time passes, you will be able to have increasingly complex discussions about stories you read together, and her language skills will improve.

By incorporating fluid dialogue into the reading experience, Dialogic Reading blurs the line between adult and child as storyteller.  The thing I find most impressive is that not only does it cause a bump in language skills, but the advantages last for at least several months even if you stop using the method. Recently, researchers have even reported that reading with children in an interactive style increases children’s IQ by over 6 points (Of course, whether children’s IQ is an idea we should worry about is up for debate, but I won’t go into it here). Finally, my guess is that many children really enjoy reading this way; perhaps they learn more in part because they are more engaged in the story.

Coming back to emergent literacy, there are many components of emergent literacy, including

  • Language skills like vocabulary,
  • Knowledge of the conventions of print, such as the left-to-right and top-to-bottom flow of print, and
  • Knowledge of letter names and sounds (phonemes).

Storybook reading in the dialogic style targets primarily language skills, but may also help children with other components of emergent literacy through sheer exposure (particularly if parents include discussions about print conventions and letters during story reading!).

If you try Dialogic Reading at home, leave a comment here telling us how it’s going! We’d love to hear about your experience.

1. Pressley, M. (2002). Before reading instruction begins. In M. Pressley, Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching (2nd ed., pp. 90-133). New York: Guilford.
2. Protzko, J., Aronson, J., & Blair, C. (2013). How to Make a Young Child Smarter Evidence From the Database of Raising Intelligence. Perspectives on Psychological Science8(1), 25-40.
3. Whitehurst, G. J., Falco, F. L., Lonigan, C. J., Fischel, J. E., DeBaryshe, B. D., Valdez-Menchaca, M. C., & Caulfield, M. (1988). Accelerating language development through picture book reading. Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 552.
4. Whitehurst, G. J., & Lonigan, C. J. (1998). Child development and emergent literacy. Child Development, 69(3), 848-872.

3 thoughts on “How to read with your preschooler, deluxe version”

  1. My sister is a children’s librarian. She came to visit and started reading to our boys (3 & 2 years old) in the dialogic fashion you describe. They loved it and I’ve been doing it ever since. I had previously been just reading the book to them and it never dawned on me to do it this way. Makes me wonder what other great parenting “patterns” I might be unaware of and how to find them.

    By the way, perhaps “enacting” a book would be another reading style to mention. Sometimes the kids like when I stand up and try to perform the story with a lot of energy, different voices for characters, etc. – it’s especially good for books with conflict, Green Eggs and Ham has been my favorite to do this with.

    1. Thanks, Mark! One of the purposes of the blog is to let parents know about helpful (and research-based) “patterns” they can use with their kids. I hope we’ll be able to continue to provide good tips!

      I like your idea about enacting a book. Making the story more real or interpretable by acting it out can help children relate to the story, which we know increases their learning from the text!

    2. Yes, acting out well loved stories is something my child thoroughly enjoys now at 5 years old. His school, Spring Hollow Early Learning Center, uses books throughout the day and encourages children to act out stories often!

      He wanted to and brought Jan Brett’s “Gingerbread Friends” to school today. He can even note the complexity and dual story line in the book.

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