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Interactive Reading Helps Put Children on the Road to Reading
“If you want to maximize early language development and put young children on the road to reading, this is it; this is the most efficient, evidence-based approach.”
Parents generally know reading books to their children is a good thing to do. What they may not know is that there is a research-based approach proven to be among the most effective in helping toddlers and preschoolers get ready for kindergarten and get ready to read.
The interactive reading approach calls for adults to share storybooks with children in a way that invites children to help tell the story. Essentially, reading becomes a shared, social experience and a powerful way to teach children new words and how books “work.” Parents ask their kids to explain what is happening in a story, praise their efforts, and expand on their answers.
Why is this interactive style of reading better than simply reading books to your children? In a series of studies, University of Washington researchers have shown interactive, or dialogic, reading is one of the most effective ways to develop critical early literacy skills. It helps toddlers and preschoolers expand their vocabularies, distinguish sounds and understand what printed words are. It also introduces basic grammar.
A goal of shared reading is to create what is known as moments of joint attention, when a parent and child focus on the same thing, says University of Washington researcher Colleen Huebner. Learning happens within these moments, and lays the groundwork for reading, comprehension and eventually kindergarten.
“If you want to maximize early language development and put young children on the road to reading, this is it; this is the most efficient, evidence-based” approach, says Huebner, a lead researcher on a series of studies of shared reading, and an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health. Plus, she adds, it “makes reading fun.”
Toddlers and preschoolers could use the help of knowledgeable adults. The most active stage of early language development occurs between the ages of two and four, yet during this time children often are not connected with an institution or system, like an elementary school, that supports their development. Even if they are in preschool, and a third of four-year-olds are not in early learning programs[i], their teachers may not be trained in how to support young children’s language development. To fill this gap, shared reading taps into a child’s most important, if sometimes underutilized, educational resource: parents.
Another compelling reason to focus on early reading skills is that the nation’s students are falling behind. More than one third of fourth graders cannot read well enough to understand a paragraph in their textbook, Huebner says. Parents can help prepare their children to succeed in school by using interactive reading to share stories, Huebner suggested in the 2006 book “Sharing Books and Stories to Promote Language and Literacy.”
“Why act early? By waiting, risks can become realities. Children who enter kindergarten with large vocabularies, knowledge of the sounds of language, and a habit of home reading will learn to read more quickly and better than children who lack these skills. Unfortunately, children who start behind, stay behind.” – Excerpt from the book “Sharing Books and Stories to Promote Language and Literacy.”
A growing body of research at the University of Washington and elsewhere has shown shared reading helps children start kindergarten ready to read. In one study, the creator of the reading method, Grover Whitehurst, found children who engaged in interactive reading at home were, on average, 8.5 months ahead of children in a control group on a test of descriptive skills and 6 months ahead on a test of single-word vocabulary after four weeks.
How to Start
Interactive reading offers an efficient and accessible tool to build early reading skills. Typically, parents can learn this style in a couple of coaching sessions and it has been proven effective with parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
“You are showing parents how to shift the balance in behaviors that are familiar to them, rather than asking them to learn something completely new,” Huebner says.
For example, instead of asking yes-or-no questions when reading a book, pose open-ended queries. Don’t say: “Oh no, should the mouse take a bath? Ask: "Oh boy, what's that mouse going to do now?"
Another principle of interactive reading is that you teach your child by expanding upon his or her answers. Here is how “Clifford the Dog” can teach a toddler basic grammar and vocabulary:
Mom or Dad: "Oh, where’s Clifford going?"
Child: "He go home."
Mom or Dad: "That's right. Clifford *is going* home."
Mom or Dad: "What else do you see?"
Child: "Clifford house."
Mom or Dad: "Yep, there is *Clifford's* dog house."
Think of interactive reading as creating a story with your child. This means your child should sometimes take the lead.
Allow your son or daughter to choose a book. It may drive you crazy, but it’s OK for them to choose the same book over and over, every night for weeks – they are learning about story structure and probably memorizing whole pages. Once you decide on a book to share, let your child skip ahead or go back in a book. But, even though your child takes the lead, you should create reading sessions that are a little beyond what your child can do alone.
Huebner stresses that interactive reading is not designed to replace your evening reading, which can act like a lullaby. There are lots of ways to enjoy books together. The techniques of interactive reading are designed to make the most of shared reading to promote your child’s early language skills.
And don’t stop sharing books with your child when your child gets older or even limit the interaction just to books. The ideas behind this way of supporting early learning are far broader and can be used when taking a walk, driving to school or even waiting for the bus. You are also building a foundation to have more involved discussions as your children get older. That’s because interactive reading is about engaging your child in a two-way dialogue, not simply reading to them or talking at them.
“They (parents) can do it on the fly. They can do it at the bus stop. They can do it while they are waiting for an appointment,” says Heubner. “It is an incredibly portable activity.”
[i] U.S. Department of Education 2007