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Making a Story Come To Life!

A little while back we talked about what our children need for school readiness when they transition from our early childhood programs to kindergarten.  We addressed such social emotional skills as building confidence, developing relationships with peers and adults, persistence with challenging tasks, emotional literacy, following instructions, and ability to solve social problems.

School readiness also focuses on speaking in complete sentences and gaining knowledge of the alphabet.  Children’s experience with books plays an important role in this.  Reading with children is critical beginning from day one.  Studies have shown that children who are read to at home at least three times a week are twice as likely to score in the top 25% of reading scores than children who are read to less often. 

Over a third of children in the U.S. enter school unprepared to learn. They may lack the social skills, vocabulary, sentence structure, and other basic skills that are required to do well in school.  Children who start behind generally stay behind – they may drop out; they may turn off. Their lives may be at risk.

By nine months of age, infants can appreciate books that are interesting to touch or that make sounds.  Picture books with our youngest children provide many of the skills that are necessary for school readiness: increased vocabulary, phonemic awareness, the meaning of print, the structure of stories and language, and sustained attention span.

How we read to children is as important as how frequently we read to them. The Stony Brook Reading and Language Project has developed a method of reading to preschoolers that we call dialogic reading.

When most adults share a book with a preschooler, they read and the child listens.  In dialogic reading, the adult helps the child become the storyteller.  The story comes to life!   The adult listens, asks questions, and follows the child’s lead.  No one can learn to play the piano just by listening to someone else play.   Likewise, no one can learn to read just by listening to someone else read. Children learn most from books when they are actively engaged.

The fundamental reading technique in dialogic reading is the PEER sequence. It is a short interaction between a child and an adult. The adult:

  • Prompts the child to say something about the book,
  • Evaluates the child’s response,
  • Expands the child’s response by rephrasing and adding information to it, and
  • Repeat the prompt to make sure the child has learned from the expansion.

For example, you are looking at a book with dogs.  The parent/teacher says, “What is this?” (The prompt) while pointing to the dog.   The child says, dog, and the parent/teacher follows with “That’s right (the evaluation); it’s a big, brown dog, (The expansion); can you say dog?” (The repetition).

There are several ways to use prompts while reading:

  • You may leave a blank at the end of the sentence and encourage the child to fill in the missing words. 
  • You can also ask questions about what happened in the story.  This helps children understand and recall the story.
  •  Another technique is to ask open-ended prompts by asking the children to tell you what is happening in the picture.
  •  Don’t forget about the “wh” prompts such as what, where, when, why, and how questions focus on the pictures in the book.
  •  One last strategy is to ask children to relate the pictures or words in the book to real life experiences.   For example, while looking at a book about animals on a farm, you can ask, “Remember when we went to the farm last week.  Which of these animals did we see there?”  This helps children form a bridge between books and the real world, as well as helping with verbal fluency, conversational abilities, and narrative skills.

Basically, all children’s books are appropriate for dialogic reading. The best books have rich detailed pictures and are interesting to the child. Always follow your child’s lead when reading together.

Studies have shown that dialogic reading works. Children who have been read to dialogically are substantially ahead of children who have been read to traditionally on tests of language development.   Dialogic reading is simply children and adults having a conversation about a book.  Engaging children in books will capture and build on the children’s interest and experience.  This technique will help children develop the “love of reading” to continue to support school readiness for our future learners!

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