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Early Childhood | December 2012

Engage children in conversation in ways that boost early literacy

Smiling woman leans over table as young child looks up at her expressively
How you engage with a child can make a huge difference to his future success

When you think of classrooms, who do you normally picture doing the talking? The teacher, right? Well, imagine a classroom (or other early childhood setting) in which the adult routinely and carefully prompts the child to talk. As the work of pioneering researcher Betty Hart demonstrated, engaging a young child in conversation in the right way can lead to tremendous strides down the line.

In their groundbreaking study (reported in Meaningful Differences), Dr. Hart and Dr. Todd Risley found that children with the largest vocabularies at 36 months of age came from homes in which the parents or other caregivers talked more often, interacted more, asked open-ended questions, and used fewer prohibitions. (In fact, children from households with the highest socioeconomic status had a larger vocabulary than the parents from households with the lowest!) When the researchers revisited some of the children from their study at 9 years old, they learned that the children with the largest vocabularies had sustained their academic advantage over time.

What that means to you and me is that when we engage a child in conversation, ask him what he thinks, invite her to describe what she sees, we are helping that child build enduring literacy skills that will lead to future academic success.

Here are some tips from programs that build on that principle that you can use to help cultivate a child's oral language ability.

Language-rich interaction

The PAVEd for Success approach is designed to help preschool and kindergarten teachers build children's vocabulary and oral language skills with intentionality. It focuses on research-based classroom practices surrounding teacher–child conversation, interactive storybook reading, and explicit vocabulary development. The program guides teachers in encouraging:

Child-centered conversation

  • focus on children's interests or topics
  • do not reteach other topics during these conversations
  • give children a significant opportunity to talk
  • encourage the children to elaborate

Honoring the work of Betty Hart

Betty Hart, Jan 1967

Dr. Betty Hart devoted her life to bettering the odds for young children. She continued her study of language acquisition in young children into her 85th year. Those who knew her personally, the professionals who improved their practice as a result of her work, and the legions of children who benefited from her dedication lost a champion with Betty's passing on September 28th.

Betty was Emeritus Associate Research Professor with the Schiefelbush Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas. On October 29, Brookes Publishing's Executive Vice President Melissa Behm and Dr. Dale Walker, fellow Associate Research Professor at the University of Kansas, presented this tribute to Betty at DEC. Take a moment to see the kind of impact she had on the field of early child development. As Melissa expressed, "The world has lost a truly great scholar. We have lost an author, advocate, and friend."

Sufficient conversation duration

  • ensure a sufficient amount of teacher–child conversation
  • have small-group discussion last at least 5 minutes
  • have small-group discussion during activities, meals, or nap-time, or before or after school

Linguistically complex talk

  • ask questions that query thoughts and feelings ("What was he feeling?"), require clarifying and hypothesizing ("What do you mean?" "What happened?), and elicit talk ("How?" "Why?" "What else?").
  • expand on language by adding missing grammatical elements or elaborating on the child's speech; comments should be noncorrective in tone so that the child is encouraged to speak (e.g., Child: "My daddy, he went Wal-Mart" --> Teacher: "Your father went to Wal-Mart? Did he go to the one near the mall?")
  • elaborate and introduce new vocabulary (e.g., Child: "There a big car." --> Teacher: "Oh, yes, that's an enormous car. Is that a sports utility vehicle?")

Download a complete sample lesson to see how all the PAVEd for Success components work together.

Shared Book Reading

According to Early Childhood Literacy, which summarizes the findings of the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP), interventions that focus on enhancing oral language through explicit and direct instruction lead to positive increases in language ability, primarily through the improvement of vocabulary skills. One of the most prevalent early literacy interventions is shared book reading, which involves an adult reading a book to one child or a small group of children with a focus on actively engaging children in the reading process.

During shared book reading, an adult provides children with multiple opportunities to communicate by using a range of techniques, such as asking open-ended questions, repeating and expanding a child's response to questions, and modeling good word reading and comprehension. In essence, the child becomes actively engaged in reading by becoming the storyteller, and the adult serves as an active listener and questioner.

The Adult–Child Interactive Reading Inventory (ACIRI), found in Let's Read Together, assesses critical strategies and behaviors that enhance effective joint book-reading:

Enhancing attention to text

  • maintaining physical proximity
  • sustaining interest and attention
  • holding the book and turning pages
  • displaying a sense of audience

Promoting interactive reading and supporting comprehension

  • posting and soliciting questions
  • identifying and understanding pictures and words
  • relating content to personal experiences
  • pausing to answer questions

Using literacy strategies

  • using visual cues
  • asking children to predict what is going to happen in the story
  • recalling information from the story
  • offering ideas about the story

You can learn more about these strategies in Let's Read Together. Download sample activity sheets from Let's Read Together to see how to have the child predict what is going to happen next, in English and in Spanish.


It seems simple enough, but by deliberately engaging children in conversation and interactive reading with these approaches, you can make a real difference in building their oral language skills and putting them on the road to future academic success.

This article features resources from the following guides:

Early Childhood Literacy: The National Early Literacy Panel and Beyond Reading Research in Action: A Teacher's Guide for Student Success PAVEd for Success: Building Vocabulary and Language Development in Young Learners Let's Read Together: Improving Literacy Outcomes with the Adult-Child Interactive Reading Inventory (ACIRI) Shared Storybook Reading: Building Young Children's Language and Emergent Literacy Skills

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