Before working at Help Me Grow Utah, I spent ten years as a children's librarian and fell in love with early literacy. No, I was not teaching toddlers and preschoolers to read, but I was instead teaching parents to put into practice the underlying skills kids need to be good readers when they are ready. Those practices boil down to things parents do with their kids all the time, like talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing!
The best thing you can do to raise a reader is to read together on a regular basis and also let your kids see you read for pleasure often. It's got to be an enjoyable experience--something both parents and kids look forward to. How do you do that with a wiggly kid whose attention doesn't seem to span more than two minutes or a preschooler who wants to read the same (boring-to-you) book over and over again?
If I asked for ideas to make read-alouds more enjoyable, I think most of us might think of using animated voices for different characters, but beyond that, we'd be hard-pressed. Using a fun voice is great, but it is still something that the parent does. We are delivering the story and our child is receiving it (sometimes passively), and then we get frustrated when they lose interest.
The key is for a child to be the teller or the active participant in the story, and the parent(s) to play more of a tour guide role by questioning and listening. This is called dialogic reading or having a conversation about books.
First step: Which Books Are Best for Dialogic Reading?
Best Beginnings, Alaska's early childhood investment program and Utah Kids Ready to Read, recommends books with one or more of the following:
Rich illustrations that carry the story • Interesting characters, appealing to the child • Situations that require thinking or problem-solving • Interesting words – chance to expand vocabulary • Wordplay or rhymes, so you can draw attention to the sounds of words • Big enough print so you can point to words from time to time • Predictable stories and repeating words and phrases • Wordless picture books -- child tells the story by looking at the pictures • Activities already familiar to children that they can connect to their life
Second step: How does the adult guide or initiate the book conversation?
- Prompt/ask questions to encourage the child to say something about the book
- Evaluate the child's response (Is his answer accurate?)
- Expand the child's response by rephrasing and adding information to it
- Repeat the prompts to find out if the child has learned from the expansion
Third Step: What prompts/questions can I use?
- Completion: Leave a blank at the end of the sentence and have the child complete the word or rhyme
- Recall: Questions about what happened already in the story
- Open-ended: Ask what is happening in the pictures
- Wh-prompts: Who, what, when, where, why, how questions
- Distancing: Ask questions to help relate the story to the child's own life
If time allows, read the same book twice, perhaps even on two separate occasions. The first time around, just read the book through normally and enjoy the book for what it is (especially if the book has rhyming so you don't interrupt the flow). The next time around, your child will already be familiar with the book. You can ask questions, and your child's answers will direct the experience and guide you through the book.
Don't force it! Keep it fun! Dialogic reading is not about grilling your child about a book. It is about exploring, talking about, and enjoying a book together. You don't have to use dialogic reading all the time, and you can use different prompts and mix things up. Remember, follow your child's lead!
For further reading, here is a two-part article about how one mom used dialogic reading with her children: