Lori Bruner is a doctoral student in the College of Education. Her research explores early language and literacy development in home and community contexts. She is also the recent recipient of the 2021 Jeanne S. Chall Research Fellowship, given to one doctoral student each year.
Caregivers are responsible for an overwhelming number of child-related tasks every day: We ensure our children get proper rest, wear appropriate clothing, eat healthy food, have time to burn off energy — and the list goes on and on. But what about reading to our children? Everyone from our pediatricians to the media tell us this is important — but why? With such limited time together in the evenings, should reading really be on the top of our lists?
Among other things, reading out loud to our children helps them understand how books “work," such as reading from left to right and that the print — not the pictures — carries the message. Reading aloud also models the structure and grammar of stories, fosters vocabulary development, and contributes to reading comprehension by introducing important concepts and themes beyond their everyday environment.
Children who read with understanding in the early elementary grades gain access to a broader range of texts, background knowledge and educational opportunities throughout their lifetimes, making the opportunity to build early language and literacy skills particularly critical.
Arguably, one of the most important benefits of read alouds is the exposure children gain to new words. Most of the language we use throughout the day is very functional with a focus on the “business of life.”
We talk to our children about getting dressed, brushing their teeth, eating dinner and cleaning up their toys. In contrast, book language is rich in unusual verbs, descriptions and figurative language that children likely wouldn’t hear elsewhere; this is true even for books geared towards very young children. For instance, the first page of the Sandra Boynton board book, “But Not the Hippopotamus,” reads: “A hog and a frog cavort in the bog. But not the hippopotamus!”
Learning to talk about words with our children
In a recent student view, I discussed the number of new words I found in 70 preschool storybook apps – 1,380 to be exact! Children can learn new words just from listening to stories, but we can further boost their word learning by engaging them in discussions about words in the text. However, don’t worry if you aren’t a language expert or an educator. There are plenty of ways caregivers can facilitate learning when we come across a new or interesting word. Try these five for starters:
- Provide a child-friendly explanation: Briefly explain the meaning of a word using language your child understands. For instance, you might say, “The word ‘glisten’ means something looks like it’s sparkling.”
- Give an example: Share familiar examples with your child. For example, you might say, “Vehicles are something that carry people or things. Cars, planes, trains and boats are all vehicles.”
- Point to an illustration: Some words — like “armadillo” — are hard to explain using just words. If this is the case, use pictures in the story to help you. If the word isn’t illustrated in the text, consider looking up images of the word once the story is over.
- Act it out: Use sounds and motions to show children the meaning of the word. Walk around the room to demonstrate the meaning of the word “strolling” or speak very quietly to show children what it means to whisper.
- Make connections: Connect the word to something your child already knows. For example, you might say, “Remember when we saw that person throw some trash out the car window? That’s called ‘littering.’”
To learn more about children’s vocabulary development, the power of read alouds in the early childhood years and some tips on how to promote literacy at home, please check out the following resources:
Neuman, S.B. & Wright, T.S. (2014). The Magic of Words: Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Childhood Classroom. American Educator, 38(2), 4-13: https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2014/magic-words
Wright, T.S. (2019). The Power of Interactive Read-Alouds. American Educator, 42(4), 4-8: https://www.aft.org/ae/winter2018-2019/wright
WKAR Family. (2020, April 14). Promoting Literacy at Home [Video File]: https://video.wkar.org/video/promoting-literacy-home-yj2kgn/