Benifits of introducing children to books at an early age and Reading Aloud
Educational researchers praise the practice of parents and teachers reading to children. In a book aimed at helping parents provide their children with useful learning experiences, for example, Butler and Clay (1999) asserted: “There is no substitute for reading and telling stories to children, from the very earliest days” (p. 17). Based on his review of the literature on reading to children, Teale (1991) concluded that “reading to preschool children . . .
Is an activity through which children may develop interest and skill in literacy” (p.
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902). And in Becoming a Nation of Readers, Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, and Wilkinson (1995) cited reading to children as “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading” (p. 23). Moreover, a number of correlational studies have linked activities in which adults and preschool children share book reading to the children’s beginning reading success in school (Hewison & Tizard, 1990).
Such unabashed praise for reading to children is intriguing because it begs for elaboration: Why is reading to young children thought to be so beneficial? What knowledge do children acquire from it? Although asserting the value of the practice of reading to children, researchers have given little attention to what children learn from it. Interactive story reading is a joint use of picture books to talk about the pictures, read the text, and discuss the story ideas.
Central to this definition is the notion that the adult and child (or group of children) construct an understanding of the book together. It is because of this emphasis on the joint construction of meaning that we prefer this term over others, such as shared reading, story reading, reading aloud to children, and guided reading that have been used in the research literature to label the event of reading to children. When adults read stories to young children, they usually do more than read the words aloud.
They ask meaningful questions about the stories. To make sure children understand the story, they paraphrase or interpret as needed, and they answer the children’s questions about it. From the research that has examined parent-child story reading, it is possible to explain the social nature of the event and to make deductions about what young children learn during it. The research on parents reading to children is based primarily on middle-class mothers reading to their preschool children at bedtime.
Moreover, the studies are often descriptions given by highly educated mothers reflecting on their practices with their children. A seminal work of this type is the Ninio and Bruner (1998) study in which it was found that highly ritualized discussion sequences between parent and child occur during story reading, and that these sequences are the primary means through which toddlers learn to label pictures.
Ninio and Bruner found that mothers interpret children’s smiling, babbling, vocalizing, reaching, and pointing as either requesting or providing labels. For example, a baby reaches toward one of the pictures in the book, and the mother extends that gesture by saying the name of the picture. Moreover, if the baby vocalizes or gestures toward the picture when the mother gives a label, the mother assumes that the baby is attending to the name she gave, furthering the likelihood that she will continue to provide labels.
These parentchild interchanges are orchestrated into turn-taking sessions, with parent or child initiating a communication. At about the same time that Ninio and Bruner were reporting their work, Snow (1993) began reporting her analyses of mother-child discussion during book sharing. She posited that the features of the interactions that support oral language acquisition are the very same features that promote beginning reading and writing development.
She highlighted four such features: (a) semantic contingency, or the adult continuing a topic introduced by the child’s previous statement through expansions, extensions, clarifications, or answers; (b) scaffolding, or the steps the adult takes to minimize the difficulty of the activity; (c) accountability procedures, or the way the mother demands the task be finished; and (d) the use of highly predictable contexts for language use that help the child move from the concrete here and now to the remote and abstract.
Elaborations on these four features illustrate how children learn about reading through social interactions during interactive storybook reading. The use by adults of semantic contingency, or meaningfully extending a child’s comment to facilitate oral language acquisition, has been well documented (Cross, 1998). Snow (1993), however, argued that when adults expand on or clarify text during storybook reading, they facilitate the development of literate behavior.
For example, adults can answer children’s questions about letter names and words, they can clarify story meaning, and they can extend children’s understanding of story concepts such as what direction one reads print or where a word begins and ends. Not only is the discourse during interactive story reading expansive in nature, Snow argued, it is scaffolded. Drawing from Bruner (1998), she defined scaffolding as the “steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task, so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill he is in the process of acquiring” (p. 170).
Scaffolding occurs in oral language development. For example, although young children often say only one word for a whole sentence when they are learning to talk, parents respond by treating the word as a complete and sophisticated statement. In story reading, scaffolding might include parent reminders to the child about the name of the story, who the important characters are, or what the story problem is. The parent might point to a picture and then its printed label, hesitate to see if the child fills in a story word or phrase, or encourage the child to help tell parts of a story.
Snow also argues that parents challenge their children during reading sessions by holding them accountable for what they do to help construct the session. Snow and Ninio (2006) proposed seven tenets of literate communication from the interactions during the reading event that, although not explicitly taught, help children become literate. These tenets are (a) that a book is for reading rather than manipulating, (b) that a book controls the conversation, (c) that pictures are events, (f) that book events occur outside of real time, and (g) that books are an independent fictional world.
It is clear that parents help children take over storybook-reading talk, and that this practice encourages children’s later strategies for talking about and interpreting books. The descriptive research shows clearly that children experience opportunities for learning from engaging in interactive story reading with parents, and that the interactions have characteristic patterns that children imitate and that could promote literacy development.
The nature of the dialogue that occurs during interactive book reading is affected by factors that include the size of the group, the competency of the participants, and the familiarity and type of the text. Yet a basic framework can be seen. When parents or teachers model, read, and talk to children about a text, they provide a structure that helps children understand and remember the story content.
By promoting socially interactive story reading in which both reader and listener actively participate and cooperatively negotiate what is important and what things mean, teachers engage children in a process of learning through social interaction. It appears that, not only do children internalize the social conventions of stories when they talk with adults about them, they take away specific knowledge from hearing stories, such as the syntax, organization, and word forms used in written language, and knowledge of its elements – words and letters themselves.
Explanations of how children move into independent word reading have assumed a strong relationship among letter knowledge, phonological awareness, and reading (Ehri, 1999). Reading requires children to attend to the sounds in words and to the letters that symbolize those sounds. New evidence from interactive reading studies suggests that interactive reading may be another way to draw children’s attention to print and to the ways that letters sound in words. through interactive reading, children begin to remember the story dialogues.
In the process, they acquire written language structures and new vocabulary and then begin to focus on print and letter concepts. The research documents that these aspects of literacy learning can appear both at home and in the classroom. Therefore, both parents and teachers can promote young children’s literacy acquisition through interactive story reading. At home, children can learn at a fairly optimal level because most parents are sensitive to their children’s developing abilities in language.
Parents can connect book information with their children’s background experiences, and they are better attuned to the children’s interests and level of understanding. At school, teachers achieve similar effects if they organize the story reading to elicit maximum participation from all students and if they repeatedly read stories. The theoretical construct posited by Vygotsky helps to explain how learning occurs. When reading to children is a social event, children’s book explorations are refined through the verbal and nonverbal interactions that take place during the reading.
During the reading, adults highlight and interpret the reality of the book, its written language features, vocabulary, and print forms, and the children mimic and modify the language to fit their understanding. Structured interactions enable children to add these understandings to their current viewpoints through play with the language, questions, comments, and attempts to extend their understandings by making sense of new situations with the book language and print.
From this theoretical perspective, it becomes obvious that reading to children without allowing discussion is not likely to be sufficient for developing the ability to use written language. If the goal is to teach literacy, an adult should mediate the ideas in books by keeping within bounds of children’s understandings and by using an interactive story reading approach. Then, story reading becomes a way for young children to acquire knowledge about written language at new levels of understanding.
Their face-to-face communication with adults provides a way for them to ask questions, comment about what makes sense, and use book language and book ideas. Although picture books provide essential picture and story line context, the language is without intonation, gestures, and pitch until an adult reads it to the child. But, through mediation of this language, the child learns to interpret, apply, and transfer the sophisticated written language to their own oral language. Thus, literacy learning opportunities abound in interactive reading sessions.
The process takes place through highly structured social interactions, interactions that involve routine joint participation sequences, in which the adults help children make connections to their own knowledge, and in which children make known their old understanding and practice their new understandings. Although this approach is easier for parents who are reading to one child, sufficient evidence now exists that teachers can read to small groups of children in a similar way, particularly in situations where teacher-group interactive language structures are fairly routinized, such as in rereading stories.
Children learn about three aspects of literacy when they engage in interactive reading. First, they acquire knowledge about written language structures from the stories that they read interactively with an adult on a regular basis, and that they can talk about, act out, and use to play with story language. This suggests that teachers need to provide opportunities for children to hear and talk about stories. Second, they acquire new vocabulary from listening to stories.
Children’s oral language is embellished with new words and book phrases that are drawn from the book they hear read, particularly those they hear read repeatedly. Their attention to story information thereby becomes more focused and their listening comprehension improves. Finally, children learn about the form of print, that is, about how language is graphically represented, when they have opportunities to memorize texts and recite them as though they were reading. Their learning can be heightened when the print in the stories is salient, and when they hear repeated readings.
Repeated reading is an activity particularly well suited for preschool and kindergarten classrooms and will foster development of children’s letter knowledge and phonological awareness, which can be connected to later word and letter recognition and to decoding. It is clear from more than a decade of research that interactive story reading is a powerful social avenue for developing language and literacy, and that it can be used as an influential literacy tool both in the home and in the school; that is, as Cochran-Smith (1984) has said, the child and adult bring to life books, and books enrich children’s lives.
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Waterson & C. Snow (Eds. ), The development of communication. London: Wiley. Bruner J. S. (1998). “Learning how to do things with words”. In J. S. Bruner & R. A. Garton (Eds. ), Human growth and development. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Ehri L. C. (1999). “Movement into word reading and spelling: How spelling contributes to reading”. In J. M. Mason (Ed. ), Reading and writing connections (pp. 65-82). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Hewison J. , & Tizard J. (1990). “Parental involvement and reading attainment”. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 209-215.
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