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.