Build vocabulary and literacy skills with shared book readings

Dr.Susan Neuman | Build children’s literacy skills with a shared book-reading programToday I’ve invited Dr. Susan Neuman, Professor and Chair of Teaching and Learning at New York University, to talk about the benefits of shared book reading programs. Dr. Neuman helped establish the Early Reading First program and the Early Childhood Professional Development Education Program, and was responsible for all activities in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act. She played a key role in developing Follett’s World of Words, and has seen firsthand how the instructional principles behind  the program have helped build children’s vocabulary and comprehension skills. In this guest post, she’ll share some helpful research and strategies for how you can use these principles in your classroom, too.

It’s story time for a group of 5-year olds who are eagerly learning about insects and the world in which they live. To introduce the new topic and build background knowledge, classroom teacher Ms. Simon explains, “This week we are going to read books and learn about insects.  Insects are small creatures that live all around us. Look at this picture. You’ll see they always have six legs and three body segments: the head, thorax, and abdomen.”

Ms. Simon continues, “Today, you’ll listen for three magic words in our book.” She opens the book. “This is a katydid, a type of insect. And here’s an ant; I bet you’ve seen these many times before. Here’s the third type of insect, a praying mantis.  Can anyone tell me how it might have gotten its name?”

Ms. Simon begins to read the text, sometimes stopping to briefly discuss what is happening in the book, and the magic words. After reading, she engages the children in a discussion about insects and their common features: how they may live and survive in the outdoors and their different habitats.

The next day, Ms. Simon will review the target words, and then read a second book about insects, introducing additional words, and giving children opportunities to compare and make connections across texts. Over the course of the next two weeks, she will continue to add new words and concepts, introducing children to five different books on this theme, helping them make cumulative connections across texts and words. In doing so, children will have extended their content vocabulary knowledge by building upon previously taught information.

What you’ll notice here is that Ms. Simon is using shared book reading time as a key opportunity to expand children’s content vocabulary knowledge in the context of teaching words related to science and science concepts. She is connecting word and world knowledge to allow children to build concepts and content knowledge.

Hearing new words in these contexts of fascinating stories and interesting new insights about their world is a natural context for vocabulary building. However, good books are also able to build important content knowledge.  Shared book reading, therefore, is an ideal activity for supporting children’s content-rich vocabulary and building a strong base of knowledge, all critical for children’s success in subsequent grades.

Build children's literacy skills with a shared book-reading activity

3 instructional principles for building content-rich vocabulary and knowledge networks

There are 3 principles we can use to guide everything we do to help young students build comprehension and literacy skills. These principles, outlined below, are all a part of World of Words:

Principle #1:  Connect content and concepts

Evidence suggests that integrating high-priority content in children’s vocabulary instruction better prepares them for meeting the expectations of the Common Core and for improving their academic success in elementary and beyond.  One of the most meaningful ways of infusing high-priority content and related vocabulary in shared book reading is through thematic teaching around key content topics related to science, social studies, and the arts.

Principle #2:  Give explicit and plentiful opportunities to talk

Although explicit vocabulary instruction is important, children learn words best when they use them. Therefore, it’s important to recognize that shared book reading is not only about hearing an optimal tool to build a strong oral language foundation.

Principle #3:  Integrate narrative AND informational texts

Vocabulary learning is accelerated when children hear words used in multiple contexts.  It is particularly effective when these words are found within the context of storybooks and informational texts.  In general, information texts provide children with frequent exposures to a topical theme and are highly appropriate for conveying factual information about the social or natural world, allowing teachers to make connections between books, new vocabulary knowledge, and children’s lives.

Storybooks, however, can facilitate rich conversations on the character, plot and settings, and often offer a more emotional response to the topic.  Storybooks like “Goodnight Moon” help children to learn words and concepts about night time that no information books could possibly convey.

The benefits of using multiple genres in shared book readings

When using both types of texts in complementary ways—storybooks and information texts for learning about the exciting world of dinosaurs or discovering pond life, a child’s understanding of these words is intensified, allowing them to more deeply process sets of content vocabulary and related concepts.  That is, the integration of these types of text in thematic shared book reading promotes frequent encounters with words and knowledge across book genres that support children’s comprehension.

Book-sharing research has shown that these types of informational texts lend themselves to different types of conversational interactions with children than narrative stories.  For example, a recent study found that teachers used more cognitively demanding talk when reading information books compared to the more literal questioning in storybook reading (Price, Bradley, & Smith, 2012). Information text also introduced more technical vocabulary, compared to the literary language of storybooks. Further, information book sharing activities tend to elicit object-labeling routines (e.g. What’s that?), in contrast to the more action-oriented routines in storybooks (e.g. what’s happening?).

This means that when we engage children in book sharing activities that involve multiple genres, we are likely to provide many different opportunities for interaction and responding.  In addition, we are likely to build a facility in understanding the different features of each type of text, and what they provide to readers and listeners. This may be especially important as children come to rely increasingly on informational text in later grades.

At the same time, however, we certainly don’t want the pendulum to shift too far in favor of one genre over another.  Storybooks and predictable texts often bring information to life for young children and become meaningful to them in ways that information books couldn’t possibly capture.  Rather, we want children to become exposed to a healthy diet of different types of texts early on, all of which can support content-rich vocabulary instruction.

These are the strategies we use to bring words to life in Follett’s World of Words (WOW).  WOW is based on a set of instructional principles that are woven throughout all books and learning materials. With an intentional design that specifies the content and concepts to be learned, World of Words includes explicit and plentiful opportunities for children to discuss, elaborate, and relate vocabulary, concepts, and big ideas. At the same time, integrative narrative and information texts give children multiple exposures to words and concepts. Evidence from more than six studies indicates that children are learning words at amazing speed and retaining them over time.

Stay tuned for my next guest post in a few weeks–I’ll share what teachers are saying about WOW and the children’s growth in vocabulary and comprehension.

Thank you, Dr.Neuman, for sharing the research behind shared book readings and giving us an overview of how these best practices are evident in World of Words. Thanks also to Follett for being a long-time supporter of The Cornerstone. I am proud to partner with Follett for this post and help spread the word about the great work they’re doing with literacy programs around the country and beyond.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

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