Early Childhood Education

Read-Alouds and Vocabulary Development


Read-alouds, or reading aloud to children, is sometimes referred to as shared storybook reading. A common practice in many homes and early childhood settings, read-aloud time is a productive means for giving children opportunities to develop new meaning vocabulary. Because children’s books present more advanced, less familiar vocabulary than everyday speech (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998), listening to books being read aloud helps children go beyond their existing oral vocabularies; and it presents them with new concepts and vocabulary. Talking with children after shared storybook reading also gives children opportunities to use new vocabulary in the more decontextualized setting of a book discussion.

The variance in vocabulary knowledge of young children is well established. In 1995 Betty Hart and Todd Risley, two researchers at the University of Kansas who looked at parent-child interactions among different social groups, found some striking differences among preschoolers. On average, professional parents talked to their toddlers more than three times as much as parents of families on welfare did. Not surprisingly, that difference resulted in a big discrepancy in the children’s vocabulary size. The average three-year-old from a welfare family demonstrated an active vocabulary of around 500 words, whereas a three-year-old from a professional family demonstrated a vocabulary of over 1,000 words.

Those differences become more pronounced as children get older—by the time the low-income children get to school and start to learn to read; they’re already at an enormous disadvantage. It is estimated that children from economically privileged homes enter kindergarten having heard some 30 million more words than students from economically disadvantaged homes. Furthermore, the difference in time spent in “lap reading,” sitting in the lap of an adult and listening to a book being read, may be of the magnitude of 4,000 to 6,000 hours.

Numerous studies have documented the fact that young children can learn word meanings incidentally from read-aloud experiences (Eller et al., 1988; Elley, 1988; Robbins and Ehri, 1994). In school settings, the effect is large for children age five and older and smaller for those under age four. Involving children in discussions during and after listening to a book has also produced significant word learning, especially when the teacher scaffolded this learning by asking questions, adding information, or prompting students to describe what they heard. Some (Whitehurst et al., 1994; Whitehurst et al., 1999) have called this process “dialogic reading.”

Contrary to expectations, storybook reading with young children is not always a positive experience. Some read-aloud situations are less optimal than others and research also suggests that this scaffolding (providing explanations, asking questions, clarifying) may be more essential to those children who are less likely to learn new vocabulary easily. Children with less rich initial vocabularies are less likely to learn new vocabulary incidentally and need a thoughtful, well-designed, scaffolded approach to maximize learning from shared storybook reading (Robbins and Ehri, 1994; Senechal et al., 1995). Instructional strategies such as “text talk” (Beck et al., 2004) and “vocabulary visits” (Blachowicz and Obrochta, 2005) have been built on insights from this research.

De Temple and Snow (2003) draw the contrast between talk around shared storybook reading that is cognitively challenging and talk that is not. There has been substantial research on the nature and effects of storybook reading in both home and school settings which supports their view and suggests ways in which read-alouds can maximize student vocabulary learning (Neuman and Dickinson, 2001). This research suggests the following:

• Children can learn the meaning of unknown words through incidental exposure during storybook reading.

• With traditional storybook readings, unless there is attention to scaffolding for those with less rich initial vocabularies, the vocabulary differences between children continue to grow over time.

• Children learn more words when books are read multiple times.

• Children do not benefit from being talked at or read to, but from being talked with and read with in ways requiring their response and activity.

• Natural, scaffolded reading can result in more learning than highly dramatic “performance” reading by the adult

• Children learn more words when books are read in small groups.

In sum, most researchers agree on several principles related to developing vocabulary with read-aloud storybook reading in schools. First, there should be some direct teaching/explanation of vocabulary during storybook reading in school settings. Second, adult-child discussion should be interactive and discussion should focus on cognitively challenging ways to interact with the text rather than literal, one-word or yes/no questions. Children need to be able to contribute to the discussion in a substantial way, and smaller groups of five or six allow for this type of interaction. Third, the re-reading of texts in which vocabulary is repeated can maximize learning; informational texts and text sets can both capitalize on children’s interest in “real” things (trucks, dinosaurs, pandas) as well as providing repletion on thematically related words. Lastly, the nature of the learning that occurs is different with familiar and unfamiliar books. In an initial reading the children may focus on the plot or storyline. In subsequent readings the reasons for characters’ actions, especially unfamiliar vocabulary, may become the focus of their interest. Read-alouds can be a potent tool for exposing students to new vocabulary in a meaningful and pleasurable way.

Further Readings: Beck, I. L., M. G. McKeown, and L. Kucan (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press; Blachowicz, C. L. Z., and C. Obrochta (2005). Vocabulary visits: Developing primary content vocabulary. Reading Teacher, 59(3) November 262-269; Cunningham, A. E., and K. E. Stanovich (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology 33, 934-945; DeTemple, J., and C. Snow (2003). Learning words from books. In A. V. Kleeck, S.A. Stahl, and E. B. Bauer, eds., On reading storybooks to children: Parents and teachers. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 16-36; Eller, G., C. C. Pappas, and E. Brown (1988). The lexical development of kindergartners: Learning from written context. Journal of Reading Behavior 20, 5-24; Elley, W. B. (1988). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories. Reading Research Quarterly 24, 174-187; Hart, B., and T. R. Risley (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: P. H. Brookes; Neuman, S. B., and D. K. Dickinson (2001). Handbook of early literacy research. New York: Guilford Press. Robbins, C., and L. C. Ehri (1994). Reading storybooks to kindergarteners helps them learn new vocabulary words. Journal of Educational Psychology 86, 54-64; Senechal, M., E. Thomas, and J. Monker (1995). Individual differences in 5 year olds acquisition of vocabulary during storybook reading. Journal of Educational Psychology 87, 218-229; Whitehurst, G. J., J. N. Epstein, A. L. Angell, A. C. Payne, D. A. Crone, and J. E. Fischel (1994). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention in Head Start. Journal of Educational Psychology 86, 542-555; Whitehurst, G. J., A. A. Zevenberg, D. A. Crone, M. D. Schultz, O. N. Velting, and J. E. Fischel (1999). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention from Head Start through second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology 91, 261-272.

Camille L. Z. Blachowicz and Peter J. Fisher