Shared Reading and Parental Vocabulary as Preliteracy Tools

In my last blog I mentioned how recent scientific findings can be used to increase awareness of just how early a child’s brain begins to learn. Amazingly, babies begin to learn even before birth. The earlier a parent starts to share reading with their child, the better. And since literacy requires a foundation, it’s helpful for parents to know what to do to help their child get off to the best possible start as a reader, well before entering school.

Shared reading—sometimes called lap reading—is the single most important thing parents can do for their children to help them learn to love reading and to become the best readers possible. Shared reading is an interactive reading experience that occurs when a child listens to, joins in, or shares the reading of a book or other text while guided and supported by an adult. The adult reads with fluency and expression, modeling the skills of a proficient reader.

Picture books are two to three times as likely as parent-child conversations to include a word that isn’t among the five thousand most common English words.

From the example set by the adult reader during shared reading, children begin to learn about the mechanics of reading. For instance, children may learn that in English, we read from left to right, that letters make up words, that words make up sentences, that letters have sounds, that punctuation influences pausing and expression while reading, and much more. In addition to learning from the reader’s example, children also learn from exposure to the content of the books that are read, which increases their vocabulary, their empathy for others, and their knowledge of the world.

According to a meta-study conducted by the LENA Foundation—a non-profit group that studies the effect of language on children’s brain development—the amount and quality of shared reading time a young child experiences early in life predicts the level of reading competence that child will achieve by third grade. Therefore, the more often you read to your young child at home, the better he will read on his own by third grade.

The facts on how shared reading in early childhood influences a child’s reading abilities are unequivocal. Simply put, children acquire language in two ways: by being spoken to and through shared reading. Both are important, but shared reading is the more powerful of the two.

Frequent conversations are one way a child is exposed to language and new words. Multiple daily conversations are crucial, and parents are especially encouraged to take advantage of mealtimes together as opportunities for conversation.

Dominic Massaro, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, published a notable study in 2015 in The Journal of Literacy Research. He said that although parents can build their children’s vocabularies (thereby impacting later reading skills) by talking to them, reading to them is much more effective. “Reading aloud is the best way to help children develop word mastery and grammatical understanding, which form the basis for learning how to read,” states Massaro, whose field is language acquisition and literacy. He found that picture books are two to three times as likely as parent-child conversations to include a word that isn’t among the five thousand most common English words.

Massaro’s research has shown that the more diverse the list of words a child is exposed to as a reader, the better that child’s reading skills will become—and that’s a cumulative benefit, not something short-term. “Given the fact that word mastery in adulthood is correlated with early acquisition of words, shared picture book reading offers a potentially powerful strategy to prepare children for competent literacy skills,” Massaro states.

This is an important statement to understand: the more words a child learns at an early age, the better their word mastery will be in adulthood. Massaro is not saying that adults can’t learn new words, but rather that the more words young children learn, the better a foundation they will have for all aspects of literacy, and that foundation will serve them throughout their entire lives.

Whatever your child’s age, it’s never too late to begin reading together. If you’d like to learn more about preliteracy and how you can build a strong preliteracy foundation for your child, these studies and many more are discussed at length in my new book, Raising a Child With Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in October, 2019 on and other online retailers.

If you will be attending the Central Texas Dyslexia Conference in Austin on October 19, 2019, you can preorder a signed copy HERE and pick it up at the conference.

For a thorough discussion of the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require, read my award-winning book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Don M. Winn Amazon author page for more information.