We have all heard by now that parent-child book reading starting in infancy has benefits for vocabulary development, early literacy, and socio-emotional development. And as mentioned before in this column, shared reading time is now recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, so we should all expect our pediatricians to ask about it at well visits. But is there something special we should be doing during reading time? Is it good enough to just read what is written on each page? A new study out of the University of Michigan describes the types of things parents do during joint reading and identifies two techniques that are related to better vocabulary in four to six year olds.
The researchers asked parents to share an informational book with their child. The book was written to teach kids about a topic using scientific facts; think National Geographic Readers: Spiders, with lots of cool illustrations and some new vocabulary. Parents were rated on six interactional techniques they did while reading (e.g., labeling, scaffolding, repetition).
On average, parents spent about six minutes going through the book with their child and two techniques were related to their children’s vocabulary skills: 1) lexical richness and 2) contingent responsiveness. Lexical richness is the complexity and variety of words parents used. Words like “enormous” as opposed to “big” and “ferocious” rather than “scary”. Providing definitions of new vocabulary and explanations for ideas from the book is also part of lexical richness. For example, a sentence like “look how the spider has two body segments which is why it is an arachnid not an insect” highlights the big idea of how arachnids and insects are different and provides a definition of arachnid that complements the picture in the book.
The second interaction technique that was related to better vocabulary was contingent responses. For example, the child asks: “Is that a spider web?” and parent responds: “Yes, that web is made on the ground by a grass spider that sits in that tiny funnel-shaped hole (parent points to funnel web picture in book).” Contingent responsiveness is a parent’s ability to respond to the child’s cues, rather than the other way around, and then accurately “read” the child’s motives and opinions to provide an appropriate response.
Contingent responsiveness is not just a one-way street. Children rated high in initiative, meaning they took the lead in the book reading, also elicited more responsiveness from their parents. If you have a talkative child, you probably have many opportunities to be responsive, but if your child is more of the listening type then you might need to be more creative. Reading your child’s nonverbal behavior, like their laughs, sighs, groans, and smiles can be used as great jumping off points for responding. This strategy works well with babies too.
Even though this study used informational books with kindergarteners, contingent responding and lexical richness are great interaction techniques for any book and any age. So when you think you can no longer stand to read that book about how the body digests food, stay strong, let your child lead you through it, and do your best to get into your child’s head and respond contingently (and with big vocabulary)…experience matters.