Everyone knows that reading picture books to children is good, but what you might not know is that NOT “reading” books might be even better. Don’t worry…I’m not suggesting that you part with your child’s personal library quite yet. However, rather than simply reading the words on the page to your child, there is a better way to approach story time backed by scientific evidence that can dramatically help improve your child’s language skills. That approach is called dialogic reading.
The research behind this method originates with a 1988 paper called “Accelerating Language Development Through Picture Book Reading” by Whitehurst, et. Al. In this study, 30 kids between the ages of 21 and 35 months were selected from middle class families in Long Island, New York. These kids were randomly divided into two groups. At the beginning of the study, each group had about equivalent language abilities. All the families that participated in the study were told to audio record their storytime sessions with their child 3 or 4 times in the week.
The control group was given no additional instructions. They continued to read to their kids the same way they always had. The experimental group was given two 30 minute lessons on how to read with their kids, one at the beginning of the month-long study and the other half way through. At the end of the 4 weeks, all the children were evaluated using common tests of verbal ability. On one test, the kids in the experimental group scored 8.5 months ahead of their control group counterparts. On another test, they were 6 months ahead. Although the differences decreased slightly over time and were less statistically significant due to kids dropping out of the study, the kids with parents who had been coached on how to read to their kids were still advanced 9 months later.
Crazy, right? So what is the magical formula for improving kids language skills through picture book reading? Basically dialogic reading boils down to having a dialogue with your child while reading. The more you can get your kid talking the better. I know many parents, including myself, are often eager to get through the bedtime routine, but there is a legitimate and really important reason why we should remember to slow down.
Here are some techniques the parents in the study were trained to use to get their kids talking:
- Instead of just reading the words on a page, ask your child questions. I’ve created a free, printable bookmark and poster as a “cheat sheet” to get you started.
- Make sure your questions progress along with your child’s advancements. On the free bookmarks, the easiest questions appropriate for the youngest kids (even those who may not be talking yet) are listed first. However, as your child masters labeling objects, make sure to move on to the more open-ended questions.
- Repeat and expand on what your child says. If a toddler correctly labels a dog in the picture, respond with something like, “You’re right. That is a big, brown dog. Isn’t he acting silly?”
- Give feedback. Make sure when your child gives you an answer, you praise or correct as appropriate. I thought it was interesting that according to the paper, praise went “down over time in the control group while going up in the experimental group.” I honestly don’t know why that would happen and the authors didn’t speculate, but engagement with your child is clearly an important component of this technique.
- paper for printing Dialogic Reading cheat sheets in bookmark and/or poster form
- 1 or 2 laminating sheets (the bookmarks kind of need to be laminated in my opinion. the poster is optional.)
- laminator (affiliate link)
Supplies & Tools:
- Print out the bookmark and/or poster Dialogic Reading Cheat Sheets.
- Laminate the bookmarks (and the poster if you want).
- Cut out the bookmarks.
- Keep the bookmark or poster handy when you are reading aloud to your child to remind yourself to engage your child in conversation during story time. The questions on these cheat sheets can give you a starting point to begin your conversation, but feel free, of course, to come up with your own questions. The most important aspect of this technique is to have a dialogue with your child and keep him or her talking as long as possible.
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