Reading with Pre-schoolers

by William Wright

When we first set up the Junior English Program, one of the most important things we agreed on was that the classes should be small and have a high ratio of teachers to children. That’s why in every Junior English class, we have a maximum group size of 8, with a lead teacher and an assistant teacher, ensuring a maximum 4:1 ratio. One of the main reasons for this was that we wanted to guarantee a one-on-one reading session with every child, every week.

But what’s so special about one-on-one reading?

It works. And we have known this for some time. In their paper ‘Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read’, Bus, van Ijzendoorn and Pelligrini conducted a large-scale literature review of empirical findings regarding the characteristic practices of successful young readers. They found that shared book reading was the single most important factor in becoming a successful reader. For this reason, shared book reading has to be one of the cornerstones of practice in an early childhood literacy program. 

But reading at pre-school or kindergarten should not be a child’s only entry point into reading. The parent is the most important teacher a child will ever have. Having a good home literacy environment can drastically increase a child’s potential for academic success. 

But what characterises a good home literacy environment? What can a parent of young children do at home to support classroom literacy? I’ve compiled a short list of 10 tips to help parents create a home literacy environment which will help their child to become a fluent, confident, capable reader. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it offers practical advice that can be put into practice right away. 

1. Start early 

Children who fall behind, often stay behind. If you don’t already read regularly with your child, start now. Imagine a 5-year-old with a thousand hours of reading experience (that’s forty minutes a day since they started to crawl.) As they enter a classroom they see a host of familiar faces and places. Old friends on the shelf, new books to read. The library seems comfortable, familiar. They already feel at home in the world of the printed word. Then consider a 5-year-old who has little experience of reading. The same books may seem daunting, books make them feel nervous. A classroom full of them does not seem like such a welcoming place. Which child do you think is poised for academic success?

2. Read together often

Input is a crucial factor in learning to read, speak and listen. Make reading together part of your routine. Bedtime stories are great but make time for reading during the day. Make reading together something very normal, just like showering or eating breakfast. Have a comfortable place where you can snuggle up and read together. Try to make reading an enjoyable part of your day, something you both look forward to. 

3. Never miss an opportunity 

Help your child decode environmental print. Point out and explain written words. The more children are taught to keep their eyes open and observe the world, the more they will absorb. 

4. Don’t just read to your child. Read with them.

 Imagine learning to read like learning to play a musical instrument. It would be very hard to learn just by watching and listening to someone else play. Similarly, when we read with children we should try to involve them as much as possible. Let them practice reading and identifying the words they know, give them the space and support to become the story teller. Try to make your child the focus of the reading session. You are the audience, the listener and the questioner.

5. Ask the right questions 

In their now classic 1998 work ‘Child Development and Emergent Literacy’, Grover Whitehurst and Chris Lonigan developed a shared reading style called ‘Dialogic Reading’. It features two easy to remember acronyms to help facilitate interesting reading interactions between adults and emerging readers.

The first acronym, CROWD, suggests styles of prompts or questions to use while reading.

Completion prompts 

You leave a blank at the end of a sentence and get the child to fill it in. These are typically used in books with rhyme or books with repetitive phases. For example, you might say, "I think I'd be a glossy cat. A little plump but not too ____," letting the child fill in the blank with the word ‘fat’. Completion prompts provide children with information about the structure of language that is critical to later reading.

Recall prompts

These are questions about what happened in a book a child has already read. Recall prompts work for nearly everything except alphabet books. For example, you might say, "Can you tell me what happened to the little blue engine in this story?" Recall prompts help children in understanding story plot and in describing sequences of events. Recall prompts can be used not only at the end of a book, but also at the beginning of a book when a child has been read that book before. 

Open-ended prompts

These prompts focus on the pictures in books. They work best for books that have rich, detailed illustrations. For example, while looking at a page in a book that the child is familiar with, you might say, "Tell me what's happening in this picture." Open-ended prompts help children increase their expressive fluency and attend to detail. 

Wh- prompts

These prompts usually begin with what, where, when, why, and how questions. Like open-ended prompts, wh- prompts focus on the pictures in books. For example, you might say, "What's the name of this?" while pointing to an object in the book. Wh- questions teach children new vocabulary.

Distancing prompts 

These ask children to relate the pictures or words in the book they are reading to experiences outside the book. For example, while looking at a book with a picture of animals on a farm, you might say something like, "Remember when we went to the zoo last week. Which of these animals did we see there?" Distancing prompts help children form a bridge between books and the real world, as well as helping with verbal fluency, conversational abilities, and narrative skills. 

The second acronym, PEER, shows how to structure dialogue between the adult and the child.

Prompt the child to say something about the book using the CROWD questions. 

Evaluate the response. This is important when reading with very young children because it helps guide them in their understanding of the world. When a child points to a picture of a pig and says "dog" an adult can say "no that's a pig. Look at its curly tail." The evaluation gives the child feedback.

Extend the response. To extend the response an adult may develop the detail of a child's response. If a child responded to a prompt about an image of elephant, saying that it was an elephant, an adult might extend the response by demonstrating an elephant noise.

Repeat. It is important to review what has been read. With very young children this might mean going back to pictures in the book and asking questions about what things are or what noises do things make. Repeating also means re-reading. Children love to read their favourite books again and again and this is important for them as they develop their language and comprehension skills.

(adapted from Whitehurst and Lonigan)

6. Don’t be afraid to read the same books again and again

Young children often have favourite books which they return to again and again. This repetition can be very advantageous, as it helps children develop a vocabulary of how to talk about books on different levels with a text that they feel really comfortable with. 

7. Make good books available 

Have a range of high interest books in your home, and access to a high-quality lending library. Make frequent visits to book shops and discuss the selection with your children. 

8. Talk about books even when you are not reading

As above, when we read with children we should try to ask ‘distancing’ questions, which relate the experiences in a book to children’s lives. Similarly, as we go about our lives, we should try to help children notice links between what’s going on now and the books they have read. Help make connections to the things children see, hear and feel in real time in the real world with the fund of literacy knowledge they have accrued. 

Talk about books that you have read, discuss books the children are reading and generally try to make room for ‘book-talk’ in your home.

9. Be a reader yourself

Children are great mimics of adult behaviour. If they are raised in culture of reading, they will see it as something normal and enjoyable. Don’t expect to have children who devour books if their primary role models are constantly seen with their nose in a phone or their eyes glued to the television. 

10. Write more 

Even if they can’t write yet. The best readers are often the best writers, and writing comes with practice. Encourage children to try to write anything and everything: shopping lists, menus, notes, letters to grandma. Be a model and have your child see you writing. Have stationery available and accessible around your home. Even if the indecipherable pre-writing squiggles of a three-year-old mean nothing to you, they mean a lot to them. Pre-writing means that children are ready to write and see the value and purpose in doing so.  

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