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K-State Today

September 13, 2013

Reading with your child, not to, builds emergent literacy, researcher says

Submitted by Elaine Edwards

Research has found that reading with young children and engaging them can make a positive impact on the child’s future and their family.

Bradford Wiles is an assistant professor and extension specialist in early childhood development at Kansas State University. For most of his career, Wiles’ research has focused around building resilience in vulnerable families. 

His current research is focused on emergent literacy and the effect of parents reading with their children ages 3 to 5 years old. 

"Children start learning to read long before they can ever say words or form sentences," Wiles said. "My focus is on helping parents read with their children and extending what happens when you read with them and they become engaged in the story."

The developmental process, known as emergent literacy, begins at birth and continues through the preschool and kindergarten years. This time in children's lives is critical for learning important preliteracy skills.

Although his research mainly focuses on 3-5-year-olds, Wiles encourages anyone with young children to read with them as a family at anytime during the day, not just before going to bed. He also believes that it is OK to read one book over and over again, because the child can learn new things every time. 

"There are always opportunities for you both to learn and it creates a family connection," said Wiles. "Learning is unbelievably powerful in early childhood development."

It goes deeper than just reading to them, as parents are encouraged to read with their children. Engaging children is how they become active in the story and build literacy skills.

"There is nothing more powerful than your voice, your tone and the way you say the words," Wiles said. "When I was a child, my dad read to me and while that was helpful and I enjoyed it, what we are finding is that when parents read with their children instead of to them, the children are becoming more engaged and excited to read."

Engaging the child means figuring out what the child is thinking and getting them to think beyond the words written on the page. While reading with them, anticipate what children are thinking.  Then ask questions, offer instruction, provide examples and give them some feedback about what they are thinking.

"One of the things that I really hope for, and have found, is that these things spill over into other areas," Wiles said. "So you start out reading, asking open-ended questions, offering instruction and explaining when all of the sudden you aren't reading at all and they start to recognize those things they have seen in the books. And that’s really powerful."

Wiles explains it in a scenario where a mother reads a book with her 4-year-old about a garden.  Then they go to the supermarket and the 4-year-old is pointing and saying, "look there's a zucchini." The child cannot read the sign that says zucchini but knows what that is because they read the book about gardens.

During this time called the nominal stage, the developmental stage where children are naming things, a child's vocabulary can jump from a few hundred words to a few thousand words. The more exposure they've had through books and print materials, the more they can name things and understand. It's the emergent literacy skills that can set the stage for other elements.

The School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University is producing lesson plans to help families learn how to read with young children. These lesson plans are research-based but they have been condensed into usable and applicable lessons for families.

If you or someone you know about has children with no access to books, please contact your local extension agent. Contact Wiles with questions about emergent literacy at bwiles@k-state.edu.