Sunday, June 26, 2011

Developing Language, Knowledge, and Vocabulary via Dialogic Reading Methods (Urbani)

Jacquelyn M. Urbani, Ph.D., contributed this post. Dr. Urbani specializes in reading research and in educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing, where learning to read and developing a broad vocabulary is particularly challenging. Her groundbreaking doctoral research involved helping teachers use dialogic reading procedures during storytime in deaf education classrooms. Before gaining her doctorate at UC Berkeley, Jaci was a teacher for 12 years.

Recent posts have described ways to optimize student vocabulary growth through storybook reading (see prior posts one and two). Reading to children is considered one of the best activities for developing the language, knowledge, and vocabulary essential for future success in reading (1). In particular, reading to children is considered valuable because of the simultaneous presentation of oral and written language as well as its interactive nature (2). This post will describe a specific kind of reading to children, dialogic reading, developed for the express purpose of facilitating students’ expressive language.

What is Dialogic Reading?
Dialogic reading aims to make students more active participants in the reading process by having adult readers engage students in discussion and retellings of the stories (3). Parents and teachers are encouraged to use specific kinds of interactions with children, based on the acronyms PEER and CROWD. PEER stands for Prompting of the child, Evaluating and Expanding upon their responses, and asking children to Repeat correct responses. Prompts are further described using the acronym CROWD: Completion questions (asking students to complete a phrase); Recall (asking children to remember details); Open-ended questions (encouraging student discussion of story ideas and the use of new vocabulary); Wh-word questions (who, what, where, when); and Distancing (making connections between the book and the students’ lives). Examples of dialogic reading prompts are provided below (4), referring to the children’s classic storybook Corduroy, by Don Freeman.

A mnemonic for types of questions and interactions: Completion, Recall, Open-Ended, Wh-word (who, why, where, what, when), Distancing

  • Completion       "Corduroy lost a _____________." 

  • Recall               "Do you remember what happened with the security guard?" 

  • Open-Ended     "What happens when Corduroy looks for his button?" 

  • Wh-word          "Who found Corduroy in the bed?" 

  • Distancing        "What are your favorite toys?" 

A mnemonic for Prompt, Evaluate, Expand, Repeat

  • Prompt        (prompting the child -- a question or comment) 

  • Evaluate      Provide gentle correction to student misinformation: "This is not an elevator. It's      called an escalator." 

  • Expand        Provide further information: "Escalators are like stairs that move for you, so you don't have to use your energy." 

  • Repeat         Ask students to repeat a correct response: "Tell me again why Lisa's mom does not let her buy Corduroy." (First, discuss the reasons.)

In my research, I found that teachers often responded to a description of dialogic reading by saying, “I’m already doing that. I ask lots of questions.” However, I found that teachers initially were using simple question types, such as yes/no questions or comprehension checks that required only a one-word response from students. As teachers became aware of the kinds of questions they were asking (this can occur through team teaching, mentoring, and/or critical friends), they were able to modify their language to incorporate more recommended features. Similar to previous posts, the recommendation with dialogic reading is for multiple readings. The first reading serves to engage students in the story and plotline. Subsequent re-readings provide opportunities for students to discuss topics and concepts presented by the book. However, typical teacher-student ratios of early childhood classes often limit such opportunities—which can be particularly problematic for students with language delays and/or English Language Learners. Therefore, teachers are encouraged to work with small groups of three to five students.

Potential Challenges When Implementing Dialogic Reading
Dialogic reading does require effort: quite honestly, it is easier to conduct a storybook reading if the teacher is the only one talking. Using dialogic reading emphasizes the multi-tasking nature of teaching. The teacher is reading and managing behavior as well as engaging students by using specific prompts, encouraging comments, facilitating conversational turn-taking, and keeping track of who has yet to enter the discussion.

Facilitating this student conversation is often uncomfortable for teachers, as they leave their comfort zone and give up some control. In my research on implementing dialogic reading practices, one teacher remarked that she was not sure how far to allow the conversation to go. My response was that if students are asking questions and making comments, these may indicate areas of interest and areas where they do not have the necessary background knowledge; she could then offer explanations to further both their conceptual knowledge and the conversation. However, it is also important to recognize when the conversation has strayed and it is necessary for the teacher to refocus the group on the storybook reading.

Dialogic reading may be difficult to implement, especially initially. An important feature for success is pre-reading the book. While teachers expressed frustration that they did not have time to pre-read the book, when they did make the time, they found it allowed them to consider appropriate prompts and questions, which were more easily integrated into the reading activity. (Because of the multiple readings of the book, this means teachers only need to read one book per week, which should be much easier than reading a new book per day.)

Because of the re-readings of the same book, I suggest reading to the same small group of students during the week. If it is necessary to stop the reading, teachers can resume at the appropriate place the next day. Also, teachers can continue previous conversation by saying, “Remember yesterday Talia asked about . . . and Billy commented on . . .” This also brings focus and support to the social aspect of learning. Students can rotate to new small groups weekly so they learn from each other and are not in static peer groups.

There are days when teachers will say, “Today, I’m just going to read, and we’re not going to make comments, and you all can relax and calm down.” This is necessary—for general sanity—every once in a while. But it shouldn’t be the nature of reading everyday, especially when dialogic reading offers clear benefits for language development, including vocabulary growth.

Dialogic reading is a recommended practice of the What Works Clearinghouse. Further description and research can be found there.
1.  Adams, 1990; Dickinson, McCabe, & Anastasopoulos, 2003; National Academy of Education, 1985.
2.  Ezell & Justice, 2005; National Academy of Education, 1985; and Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005).
3.  Whitehurst, et al., 1988; Whitehurst, Arnold, et al., 1994; Whitehurst, et al., 1999).
4.  Adapted from Pearson Early Learning, 2006.

  • Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT   Press.
  • Dickinson, D. K., McCabe, A., & Anastasopoulos, L. (2003). A framework forexamining book reading in early childhood classrooms. In A. van Kleeck, E. B. Bauer, & S. Stahl (Eds.), On reading books to children: Parents and teachers (pp. 95–113). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Ezell, H. K. & Justice, L. M. (2005). Shared storybook reading. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  • National Academy of Education (1985). Becoming a nation of readers: The report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, DC: Author.
  • Pearson Early Learning. (2006). Read together, talk together: A dialogic reading program for young children. Available from Pearson Early Learning at
  • Snow, C. E., Griffin, M., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.) (2005). Knowledge to support the teaching of reading: Preparing teachers for a changing world. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Whitehurst, G. J., Arnold, D.S., Epstein, J.N., Angell, A.L., Smith, M., & Fischel, J.E. (1994). A picture book reading intervention in day care and home for children from low-income families. Developmental Psychology, 30(5), 679-689.
  • Whitehurst, G. J., Falco, F. L., Lonigan, C. J., Fischel, J. E., DeBaryshe, B. D., Valdez-Menchaca, M. C., et al. (1988). Accelerating language development through picture book reading. Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 552-559.
  • Whitehurst, G.J., Zevenbergen, A.A., Crone, D.A., Schultz, M.D., Velting, O.N., & Fischel, J.E. (1999). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention from Head Start through second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(2), 261-272.


  1. Marta Brown6/28/2011

    This post is invaluable to me and I'm passing it on! I wish we could just get everyone to do this.

  2. Urbani has provided great strategies for prompting students to think about stories. I particularly like the emphasis on open ended questions and discussions. Those same strategies work for a book for young children like Corduroy (which I loved reading with my own kids!) or more advanced novels in upper elementary. In terms of vocabulary instruction, I'd like to recommend one additional strategy that fits right into this dialogic model - what I have been calling structured word inquiry.

    Consider the example given to help children understand the term ESCALATOR by contrasting it to the term ELEVATOR. This is a good idea because it helps a child understand what might be a new word (ESCALATOR) by comparing it to a word that they are likely to already know (ELEVATOR). We can get this same advantage and teach about how words work by investigating spelling structure-meaning connections between words.

    For example, asking kids to look for affixes in ESCALATOR as a way of looking for related words can bring us to a potential -OR suffix. We can hypothesize a word sum ESCALATE/ + OR → ESCALATOR. (Note the vowel suffix replacing the single, silent E.)

    Now we test if that word sum works by discuss the meaning of the words ESCALATE and ESCALATOR at the same time. I could signal the meaning connection by saying something like, “Mr. B. doesn’t like the noise to “ESCALATE” in class.” In this way, children are introduced to members of a family of related words in the context of a meaningful story and strategies for investigating any complex word. (Based on this process, I’m sure the reader can start their own investigation with a word sum for ELEVATOR.)

    Teachers can also draw on background knowledge of second language learners to help the class see meaning connections. (The word for “STAIRS” in Spanish is ESCALERA and ESCALIER in French).

    Such investigations can be spontaneous, but as recommended by Urbani, a pre-read by the teacher would allow them to prepare a related word study activity for after story reading time. A teacher might use this word and others from the text for a bank of words with single, silent Es that take on vowel or consonant suffixes to investigate that key suffixing pattern.
    Video examples of this type of instruction in younger grades (K & Gr. 1) can be found at this link

    That same link shares an exceptional example of this kind of word study supporting understanding and communicating about a Humanities unit in a Grade 7 class.

    Just to be clear, I am in NO WAY suggesting that this type of structured word inquiry REPLACE the dialogic reading strategies described in Urbani’s excellent post. I am simply suggesting that we integrate dialogue and scientific inquiry about word structure-meaning connections as one of the word-learning strategies we teach when we read books with kids.

  3. Hi, Peter. Thank you for sharing these ideas for developing morphological reasoning in children. The trick would be to not let the morphology lesson overwhelm the story itself--and the type of discussion we want to promote in children. Your ideas could be implemented in a follow-up lesson, yes? Is that what you would suggest?

  4. Hey Susan,

    Sorry I didn't see your question until just now...

    The suggestions I provided are just possibilities. If I was going into detailed word study of any kind, that would happen after a story has already been read and enjoyed with the children. For example the video from a Kindergarten class you posted in your See Spot videos and the Grade 1 class I linked to in my response all occur with the context books children have already read and enjoyed. In terms of on-the-fly talking about words while reading with children, there are certainly cases in which referencing morphology by talking about a related word can be very helpful. I agree, however, that I do NOT want to destroy the enjoyment of the flow of the story by going into too much detail right at that time.

    If you don't mind, let me provide another strategy that I find very useful in the context of reading with a child. If a student misread ESCALATOR as ELEVATOR, one immediate strategy I suggest is to ask the student to "spell-out" the word. This strategy starts from the assumption that the child made a guess about a word that is more familiar to them than the actual word in the text. The motivation to guess prevented them from processing the whole spelling of the word -- so spelling it out-loud is a prompt that makes them process the full written form of the word before making their guess.

    Once the student names the letters E-S-C-A-L-A... they just might find and correct their own error. If they finish spelling out the word and still don't know the word, I would be likely to ask the child to think of those stairs they see in malls that move up and down and teach them that those special stairs are called "escalators". I might compare them to "elevators" and mention the word ELEVATE, but as soon as the student understood the word, I would move on with the story.

    The "spelling-out" strategy for reading has a number of advantages. By this time, children know the names of letters, so I'm asking them to do something they can accomplish without fail. It is also a prompt that gives the student a chance to fix their own error by guiding them to process the whole word. If I tell them the word "escalator" before the processed the full written form, I've given them an answer before they really gave themselves a chance to work it out. Also, this is a strategy that the child can start to take on themselves when they don't know a word even when I'm not sitting next to them. After students try this a few times, I can say, "When you get stuck on a word, try spelling it out first and see if that helps." It's amazing how often children can work out these words on their own -- once they process the full written form.

    Anyone interested can see an example of using "spelling-out" in the context of reading in this impromptu video of my son Skyler when he was just starting to learn to read. (You'll see how I use morphology in the spelling of the word RARELY by covering the suffix so that he can read the base first.) I think you will see that this instruction does not destroy the experience of reading. It does provide a great additional tool for the kind of dialogic reading described by Dr. Urbani. See that video here:

    Thanks for encouraging me to clarify my last response!


    1. Thanks, Pete! Well said! You always offer up splendid ideas and associated resources from your own site, Word Works.

  5. Hi everyone,

    I'm just wondering if Dialogic Reading would be effective with ESL learners who may be older than preschool students?


    1. Yes, the theory behind dialogue reading applies to older ESL learners. Of course, you might need to tailor the lesson a little.


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