Just read the words Mum

It is a well-established fact that a ‘good parent’ reads to their child.  Many of us are familiar with Albert Einstein’s quote that “If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want your child to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 

What many parents don’t know is that the most powerful storyteller in the house is the one who brings the story to life through conversation and play.  In fact, research shows that:

“Reading is most valuable when it is accompanied by interactive discussion, including questions to invite responses and opinions.” (Morrow & Gambrell, 2004; Storch & Whitehurts, 2002)

Below are 4 reasons why the most effective reader in your house is the person who doesn’t just read the words on the page, instead they turn ‘book-reading into a conversation’. Here’s why:

1. Children’s brains are built through conversation

Research from Harvard University’s ‘Centre for the Developing Child’ clearly shows that it is the ‘serve and return’ interactions between child and caregiver that actually build and strengthen the neural pathways in a child’s brain that help  develop communication and social skills.  

Dickinson and Tabors (2001) support this research and state that: “More opportunities with extended conversation predict better language and literacy outcomes.”

Picture books provide the perfect platform for these ‘serve and return’ interactions by taking turns with your child about a shared story or topic with illustrations to support comprehension.  In fact, it is well-established in the literature that “Shared storybook reading is an ideal context for teaching emergent literacy skills.” (Boudreau, 2008; Justice & Kaderavek, 2002)

Parent Tip:  Don’t forget that this ‘serve and return’ interaction does not always need to be verbal.  Watch for non-verbal cues as well. 

2. Children learn words through explanations NOT through context

One would think that the more you read, the better your vocabulary and this is true for adults with an already strong vocabulary.  However, for children, there are often too many unknown words in a book for them to be able to ‘learn the meaning of words through context’.  In fact, 92% of the words in a sentence must be known for new word learning to occur.  Therefore, research has shown that, up to as late as Grade 5, children learn words best (80%) through direct explanation from a parent or educator. 

Without making words ‘sparkle’, we rob children of truly visualising the story and the characters.  The gist of the story may be understood on a surface level but without deeply understanding the words in the story, you cannot unlock the deeper meaning.

“Vocabulary is the glue that holds stories, ideas and content together, making comprehension accessible for children…”  Rupley, Logan and Nicholls, 1999

Parent Tip:  Try giving a quick friendly definition of a tricky word as you read.  This is a definition that doesn’t use any sophisticated vocabulary and is usually accompanied by a visual prompt to assist in understanding.  “If you’re feeling conflicted, you are not sure what you want to do.  You just can’t decide.” [Show thinking facial expression]

3. Children can miss the hidden meaning in a story

“Teach a child how to think, not what to think.”  Sidney Sugarman

‘Language for thinking’ skills are a child’s ability to use language to critically think about the story and/or the world around them.  To deeply comprehend a story, children must learn to ‘read between the lines’ by: making comparisons and evaluations; linking the story to their own experiences; empathising with the characters; problem-solving alternative solutions; inferring the motives behind characters’ actions; and imagining you were in that situation.  This requires support from a parent, educator or caregiver who can discuss the story, the characters and the plot beyond what the words that are written on the page. Without this type of conversation, children will not learn to become critical thinkers and strong readers.  Picture books and parents are the powerful combination that teaches a child not what to think, but how to think. 

Parent Tip:  Pretend you are ‘thinking aloud’ about the story and talk about what is happening in the story.  Say something like “OK so the fox is tricking the birds because he wanted to eat the birds not help them.”

4. Children are ego-centric so play to their strengths

“Learning can only happen when a child is interested.  If a child is not interested, it’s like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it learning.”  Katrina Gutleben

Linking a story to your child’s previous experiences or to prior knowledge is a VERY powerful engagement strategy.  Sharing ‘experiences’ improves a child’s comprehension of the story as it clues them into prior knowledge and allows them to attach new information onto old. It also supports something known as ‘cognitive resourcing’. If a child is interested in a story or conversation, then their cognitive resourcing or brain power is not being exhausted on maintaining attention but instead can be utilised for language learning. 

Parent Tip: Sentence starters that support linking a book to prior experiences or knowledge include: “Tell me about a time when…” or “That reminds me of…” or “Have you ever…?” or “I know about…” or “What do you know about…?” 

Picture books are powerful beyond measure

Picture books have the power to change the trajectory of your child’s life but simply reading the words is not enough. 

If we imagine picture books are the ‘meat’ (or protein) in a child’s literacy diet, ‘parents’ are the vital ‘side of vegetables’ – nourishing and full of essential ingredients. 

Without valuable conversation, crucial oral language foundations are not laid and deep comprehension is not achieved.  Sadly, parents do not discover their child has any of these comprehension gaps until they learn to read more difficult books independently in Grade 3 or 4, and struggle to comprehend what they read.  This is known as the ‘middle years slump’ but is best addressed well before a child learns to read themselves. 

In fact, research shows that the oral language skills assessed at 3 years and 6 months had a direct influence on the development of reading comprehension at 8 years and 6 months.

So, when you are exhausted, itching for a glass of wine, adult conversation or a Netflix indulge, take a little longer and sprinkle your book reading with some conversation.  A few minutes extra today, can save you hours of time in the future!

If you would like to continue learning about RichREADING for your 3-5 year old, JOIN our 6 month membership and receive a themed book package with: a beautiful picture book; a RichREADING guide; and ‘beyond the book’ language and pre-literacy play activities.

Happy reading and talking,

Tania and Janice

Speech Language Pathologists, Little Birdie Books©