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It's Not What You Read, But How You Read It!

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Updated on Feb 23, 2011

Parents and teachers agree that reading with kids is an important step on the path to future literacy.  But the story doesn’t end there. Research increasingly suggests that how we read with kids is as important as what we read.

One area that has received increased attention recently is the concept of warmth/responsivity.  According to Dr. Annemarie Hindman, an assistant professor at the Temple University College of Education, “warmth is usually defined as demonstrations of affection, positive reinforcement, and generally positive affect, whereas responsivity has more to do with figuring out what particular kids need and then supplying that.” For caregivers, this could be as simple as having a child sit on a lap during shared book readings, or choosing books that provide ample opportunities for dialog or scaffolding.

While the benefits of being warm and responsive may seem obvious, research has shown it may be more important than previously thought.  Dr. Hindman, for example, says, “there is an emerging body of evidence to suggest that warm and responsive home and classroom settings help to support kids’ social development, which in turn supports kids’ cognitive development.”  Dr. Frederick J. Morrison, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan, agrees: “Variation in warmth/responsivity contributes directly and indirectly to literacy growth.”

Studies by Dr. Morrison and others have shown that children with parents who rate highly on measures of warmth/responsivity often play better with other children at home and at school and are more self-regulated.  Children who play well with others often have stronger language and cognitive skills. Similarly, children in classrooms with teachers who perform well on measures of warmth/responsivity have higher decoding skills than children in classrooms with teachers that do poorly.  Dr. Morrison suggests that, “being responsive to a child's verbal communication by providing feedback and showing genuine curiosity enhances expressive vocabulary and oral communication skills directly.” He also adds that “displays of affection and warmth indirectly promote literacy through their impact on a child’s self-regulation and perhaps emotional security.”

To increase levels of warmth and responsivity, parents and caregivers can incorporate the following suggestions into their reading routines:  

  • Share the Experience.  As adults, reading is often a solitary endeavor. For kids, however, reading is a shared journey. Take turns choosing books. Let your child turn the pages. Discuss what happens on each page and have your child guess what comes next.  
  • Be Patient. Parents and teachers are often overworked and overstressed. As such, they often choose quantity over quality . Allow kids to linger on pages. Talk about the illustrations. Reflect on different parts of the story. Writers and illustrators spend a great deal of time creating books that appeal to children on many levels, so make sure to enjoy each page.   
  • Repeat What Kids Say. Simply repeating what kids say can make them feel like an important part of the reading experience.  Repeating can also provide valuable modeling opportunities for parents, and help parents to focus on the child’s area of interest. 
  • Elaborate and Extend.  Shared book readings are a perfect time to model more complex sentence structures and narrative concepts.  Ask W-questions:  Who?  What? When? Where?  Why?  Parents can also use shared book readings to extend the child’s utterances. If the child says the word “dog” feel free to extend the utterance by adding more grammatical or semantic information. For example,  “That’s right!  The big, blue dog is barking!”
  • Interact With Text.  Break sentences down to their constituent parts. Help the child trace individual letters or even complete words. Use the opportunity to introduce print concepts such as reading words from left to read and from top to bottom. Begin introducing children to concepts such as capitalizing first words and using punctuation.   
  • Create a Dialog.  Ask and answer questions.  It’s often the caregiver’s responsibility to let children know that asking questions is an important part of the learning process.  By instilling a sense of curiosity in a child at a young age, they will have an easier time becoming critical thinkers in the future.  
  • Have Fun.  The old school of thought says books should be revered instead of enjoyed; the new school of thought says books should spark the imagination and be fun.  The more kids enjoy the process of learning to read, the more they will enjoy reading later in life!
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