When you think about your favourite childhood picture book, were does your memory lead you? Cozy bedtime rituals with a cherished grown up? Or a lightbulb moment as you sat cross-legged on a school mat? It’s hard to overstate the importance of reading with and to our children as they grow, and picture books are especially important in the formative years.
Books are among our first social mirrors, helping us figure out who we are and where we fit into the world around us. They’re also the enticing windows through which we begin to discover diverse and imaginary spaces. But did you know there are different reading approaches when reading your child’s favourite picture book? Traditional, conversational, and dialogic are the different reading approaches offer a variety of ways to use the humble picture book for academic, social and emotional benefits for your children – and yourself!
Reading reaps rewards
Study after study shows literacy benefits, along with gains in emotional regulation and resilience, from the simple act of sharing stories. Frequent reading reaps rewards for children’s oral language acquisition, vocabulary expansion and alphabet knowledge. It’s also good for their mental health. Reading together is a time when you can give a child your full attention, hold them close, and create a sense of security they’ll remember long after you’ve put the book back on the shelf.
But research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reminds us that quality reading with our children is as important as frequent reading. Once upon a time there was only one way to read to a child: the adult reads the words and the child listens. But now we understand that there are many different reading approaches and ways a parent, carer or teacher might interact with a child when it comes to reading.
The ABS’ Australia’s Children report showed that around 79% of Australian children are read to, or told stories by, a parent or carer on 3 or more days of the week. This is an impressive figure, but still begs the question – how do most parents read? What we now call ‘traditional reading’ happens when an adult reads while the child snuggles in, relaxes and regulates, or drifts off to sleep (if you’re lucky).
Reading to a child is a beautiful way to encourage an interest in storytelling and to allow a child to imagine themselves transported to the worlds evoked by your words. Traditional reading can be joyful for kids and carers, but it does not require the child to actively listen, which can mean comprehension and language acquisition is limited. Research is increasingly revealing that there can be other, or additional, benefits derived from more interactive or shared reading experiences.
Home is the main influence for children’s language development in the first 3 years of life, where vocabulary expansion comes from listening to adults talk. But developing a new skill requires practice, not just observation, so parents are encouraged to talk with and to their children, from as young as a few months of age, to begin guiding speech and comprehension.
Reading works in much the same way. While young learners are slowly developing the ability to put dots and squiggles in the correct order to make words, they can benefit from practicing what it means to be a reader – that is, interpreting stories and exploring the visual elements of a book. In this day and age of ‘fake news’ you’re never too young to start reading between the lines and behind the scenes of a book’s more obvious messages. Picture books are particularly great at helping readers explore context, motivation and plot structure long before they can independently read words.
Conversational reading is an approach that invites children and parents to interrogate a picture book together. You can point to pictures, or underline words with a finger. Invite them to tell you their own version of the story based only on the pictures. What is happening now? What do you think will happen next? What is your favourite page? How did this story make you feel? There really are no wrong answers.
By exploring a picture book slowly in this way, we provide opportunities for children to gain a greater comprehension of the story itself, but also to foster a stronger interest in the pleasures to be found from books and reading more generally.
Similar to ‘conversational reading’, but with some additional structure informing the technique, ‘dialogic reading’ is becoming the default approach for shared reading in classrooms. But there’s no reason parents and carers can’t use the same techniques at home to increase literacy benefits and maximise the joy of reading for the whole family.
Dialogic reading essentially places the child in the position of storyteller. Whether or not they can read all the words on the page, they are invited to examine and explore the story and the book itself, guided by a series of prompt questions. The questions are part of what’s known as the ‘PEER sequence’. In short, this means:
P – Prompt your child with a question about the story. “What do you call this animal?”
E – Evaluate your child’s response. “That’s right! It’s a camel.”
E – Expand on what your child says. “Where do you think camels live?”
R – Repeat the original prompt to check that the child has learned something from the reading experience. “Can you say camel?”
The funny thing is that by reading in a conversational or dialogic way with children, you’re likely to learn a lot too! After all, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is quoted as saying: “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books”. In fact, this is a great way to shake things up a little if your child wants to read the same book over and over again, as so many kids do. With each reading you can explore new facets of the story, and new ways of understanding the world and ourselves, whilst making the learn-to-read process fun and memorable.
Dr Lara Cain Gray is a librarian, researcher and writer with a passion for deep appreciation of children’s literature. Her picture book collection deserves its own postcode. She is the Specialist Librarian at non-profit publisher Library For All and regularly reviews books at her blog Charming Language.