Teaching and learning

How dialogic reading makes story time stronger

Don't just read to children — read with them.
Dialogic reading boosts children's reading skills
August 11, 2021
Reading time:
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Today, we're going to explore dialogic reading, which is a technique to help younger children build up oral language and literacy skills during story time.
  • In a sentence, dialogic reading is just interactive reading, where you ask questions about the story as you read. It helps boost a child's interest, and gets them actively involved in the story.
  • In this article, you'll learn what dialogic reading is, how it works in practice, and some dialogic reading strategies to try in your early childhood education program.

Of all the things to “hack” in early education, you'd think we've already tried everything when it comes to story time. After all, we humans have been sharing stories since we've had a cave wall to paint on.

Then again, you might not have tried dialogic reading yet.

Put simply, it's a way to make story time more of a two-way street. Instead of reading to children, you're reading with them: giving them a bigger part in telling the story, and encouraging them to explore how a narrative might flow off the pages and into their own lives.

In some sense, dialogic reading isn't fully new. Asking children questions about the story you're sharing has been around for years, way before researchers gave it a fancy name. But understanding this practice as ‘dialogic reading' helps us describe the moving parts, put the practice in context, and zero in on how we can make it most effective for children and educators.

So let's take a look at how dialogic reading can give you a stronger story time.

What is dialogic reading?

At its simplest, dialogic reading means taking the time to ask questions and reflect as you read aloud with young children.

If this sounds straightforward, that's because it is. You don't have to reinvent the wheel here — it's about making a few tweaks to your regular reading process.

Why? Well, if you ask Dr. Jacqueline Towson of the University of Central Florida, who studies language intervention and learning in early childhood, she'll tell you that story time with children can sometimes use a little more audience engagement.

“Many caregivers and teachers read in an interactive way, but what we've found in research is that most questions are centered around pointing to or labeling pictures in a book,” Jacqueline writes in an email. “While that's great, it doesn't always promote a back-and-forth dialogue with the child.”

That's where dialogic reading comes in. One widely-cited early study describing dialogic reading proposed that the practice has four key ingredients:

  1. Asking children open-ended questions about what's going on in the story
  2. Expanding on children's answers by repeating what they say, and asking follow-up questions
  3. Praising and encouraging children for offering their thoughts and input on the story
  4. Building on children's own interests through the questions you ask, and the stories you choose

You'll often see dialogic reading mentioned in the context of helping children who need extra support in their literacy learning, or who have been labeled “disadvantaged.” As Jacqueline explains, this is because dialogic reading lets children learn new language skills within the familiar context of a storybook.

“I think the simplicity of the dialogic reading framework also keeps language learning straightforward, which helps adults not get overly complex with language for children with disabilities. They can meet children where they are and move them forward,” she writes.

But as we'll get into below, just about every child can benefit from dialogic reading.

What do children get from dialogic reading?

Research suggests that dialogic reading is a reliable, straightforward way to boost language development in early childhood.

Like we mentioned earlier, dialogic reading works because of its back-and-forth nature. It gives children a greater sense of engagement in the story, and more ownership over the process of sharing and exploring a story. And when that happens, we see three big effects:

  • It builds children's vocabularies.
    Several decades of research, such as this study from 1993, suggest that consistent dialogic reading helps children absorb more advanced, expressive language, and understand how to use it in questions and conversations. ‍This comes in handy both for verbal fluency, as well as reading comprehension.
  • It helps children practice pre-reading skills.
    Even if children can't read on their own yet, dialogic reading reinforces the building blocks of reading: stuff like knowing how to handle a book, understanding how text and pictures work together, or strengthening narrative skills by learning how to follow a story.
  • It helps support English language learners.
    If children in your care come from households where English is the second language, dialogic reading has been shown to support ESL/EAL children to improve oral language skills, and feeling more included during story time.

There's also another level of value to dialogic reading, which is harder to quantify: Helping children plant deeper, more personal roots in language learning. And especially when you're probably already doing a little bit of dialogic reading already, it offers a straightforward way to get even more out of story time.

“One of the many perks of dialogic reading is that you can facilitate children's language and emergent literacy skills using an activity you are already doing, simply by making the time already spent more effective,” Jacqueline writes.

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4 steps to practicing dialogic reading in early education

If you're diving into dialogic reading, there are two common acronyms you'll run into: PEER and CROWD. We'll unpack 'PEER' first.

PEER stands for Prompt, Evaluate, Expand and Repeat. You might think of it as the basic recipe for doing dialogic reading, or the four key steps to follow.

Here's how those four steps work:

  1. Prompt children to say something about the book.
    If you were reading We're Going on a Bear Huntfor example, you might ask: “How do you think it feels to tromp through tall grass, like the children do at the start?” ‍
  2. Evaluate what children say.
    This is where you take a moment to let their answer sink in, and decide how to respond. Maybe a child answered you with, "I bet the tall grass feels spiky and sharp, like a hedgehog!"
  3. Expand on what children told you.
    Rephrase what they said, and add information. That might sound like, "Yes, grass can definitely feel sharp like a hedgehog! Hedgehogs use those spikes to protect themselves from bigger animals who want to eat them."
  4. Rephrase the prompt, adding what you discussed.
    "This tall grass might feel spiky and sharp on our hands! We've got to be careful with it, just like if you were holding a hedgehog."

Especially as you get started with dialogic reading, your PEER process can work in lots of different ways. The questions you ask, and how you build off them, will depend on who you are, who your children are, how you like to teach, and what you're reading. 

If you'd like to read more about PEER, why it's such a big part of dialogic reading, and how your questions might change with children's age, you can do that right here.

5 strategies for doing dialogic reading

To wrap this up, let's look at some common question types that you can use when you're practicing dialogic reading strategies. There are five big types of questions, and you can remember them with the acronym 'CROWD.'

CROWD is a handy little way to remember five types of questions that you can ask children during dialogic reading. Those five types are:

  1. Completion questions.
    These invite children to fill in the blanks of a sentence. This can help children follow along in the story, and is especially useful for getting younger children to understand common sentence structures.
    Example: “We're going on a ______  ______!” (hint: We're still reading ‘We're Going on a Bear Hunt
  2. Recall questions.
    These prompt children to remember what happened earlier on in the story, which is a good way to build up their ability to memorize details and follow a narrative.
  3. Open-ended questions.
    These invite children to offer their own thoughts and feelings about what's going on in the story. It's a nice way to build up children's expressive vocabulary, and imaginative thinking.
  4. “Wh-” questions.
    These are the whos, whats, whens, whys, and wheres. They're useful for exploring smaller details in the story, and for getting children to use new vocabulary from your book.
  5. Distancing questions.
    These questions prompt children to draw a parallel between the story and their own lives, and to think about how a fictional story might connect with the real world.
    Example: “Where would you go if you had to go look for a bear?”

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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