Most parents know that reading bedtime stories to preschoolers is key to developing early literacy. But new research with low-income children by psychologists suggests it takes more than nightly reading to foster a child's future reading success. Parents, teachers and others who read to children must also engage young children with lively, enthusiastic recitations that bring characters and plots to life, and pose open-ended questions that spark children's comprehension, vocabulary and interest.

Such reading-aloud extras, say researchers, are as important as regular teeth-brushing for children ages 4 and 5 because they can be the difference between a child who picks up reading easily and one who struggles when he or she reaches kindergarten.

"Everyone feels like they know how to read a book to children," says Karen Stoiber, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, who directs the EMERGE project, a reading intervention she's conducting with Milwaukee's Head Start program. But in reality, many parents and teachers need coaching on how to ask questions as they go along to emphasize rhyming and to teach children how to follow words on the page.

Numerous studies over the last decade show that such strategies are vital for boosting low-income children's vocabularies, language development, sound awareness and letter recognition abilities—all building blocks for early literacy. According to National Center for Education Statistics data, only 20 percent of 4-year-olds in poverty can recognize all 26 letters, compared with 37 percent of their peers at or above the poverty level.

Stoiber and other psychologists are including such coaching as part of interventions proven to improve pre-reading skills among low-income preschoolers. One of the best ways to boost these children's literacy is by helping teachers and parents maximize the time they spend reading with their children, says Jorge E. Gonzalez, PhD, of Texas A&M University, a U.S. Department of Education-funded researcher who studies oral language and literacy development.

"Children who start school with a poor vocabulary rarely catch up," says Gonzalez. "The bottom line is there is not a lot of room for error on this issue."

Working with teachers

One way Stoiber and Gonzalez are helping preschool teachers enrich their reading techniques is by using a tactic long used by sports coaches—videotaping. Stoiber records a teacher reading to a group of children and critiques the session, pointing out ways that he or she might improve, such as beginning a book by introducing the plot, announcing the title, or by asking the children to find a specific letter or listen for a certain letter sound. In an intervention he's conducting in preschools in southern Texas, Gonzalez and colleagues have found that teachers often rely solely on labeling objects to engage children—asking them to point to the apple or the brown bear, for example. While that strategy isn't harmful, it doesn't boost children's vocabularies as much as asking cognitively demanding open-ended questions. He and fellow researchers guide teachers on how and when to ask such questions as, "What do you think is going to happen next?" Through their curriculum, Gonzalez and his colleagues also prompt teachers to ask questions that connect words and concepts to the children's surroundings, such as "Where have you seen a sunset before?"

At first, the teachers were uncomfortable getting feedback, says Gonzalez, but they got used to it and refined their strategies. And, he points out, "These lessons really stick with them."

The lessons are also sticking with the children. In a study published in Exceptional Children in 2010, Gonzalez and colleagues found that when teachers asked their budding readers open-ended questions as they read and emphasized how words from the book connected to their lives, children expanded their vocabularies significantly more than when teachers read as usual. And, in as-yet-unpublished research, he has found that children make more vocabulary gains when teachers ask association-level questions as they read, such as, "Who takes you to the grocery store?" and "Where have you seen a cow?"

Likewise, Stoiber and her EMERGE staff videotape and critique teachers and offer page-by-page pointers on how to emphasize letters, clap out syllables and rhymes, and pose questions about specific words. The EMERGE intervention, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, also includes differentiated small-group instruction for children. All EMERGE lessons are grouped around specific themes, such as family celebrations or transportation, to help children unite the material and make personal connections to the stories.

Early results of the EMERGE intervention are promising. In a study published in Reading Psychology in February, Stoiber and Maribeth Gettinger, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, reported that children who participated in the EMERGE curriculum made higher gains in letter naming, vocabulary word knowledge, print recognition and book comprehension than students in no-treatment control classrooms. Teachers using EMERGE say the children are graduating from their Head Start classes knowing 20 letters on average, twice the amount children in previous classes knew upon graduation.

"You can really see the progress from the beginning of the year to the end," says Kathleen Wittig, a 22-year veteran preschool teacher with the Milwaukee Head Start program. "We'll read a book with the word ‘breeze' in it, and by the next week they are outside saying, 'Miss Kathie, we feel the breeze!' It's a great feeling, knowing that they are comprehending the material outside the classroom."

Picking books

Psychologists are also helping low-income parents improve their techniques in reading to their children. Drawing on research that links language learning to reading readiness, University of Nebraska educational psychology professor Susan M. Sheridan, PhD, and her colleagues work with teachers to promote parent engagement in early literacy in rural Nebraska and Kansas City Head Start preschool classrooms.

Using an intervention called Pre-3T, the teachers Sheridan works with help parents learn strategies to increase children's exposure to language and build verbal expression skills. For example, parents learn to prompt children to share about their day, by replacing yes or no questions like, "Did you have a good day?" with open-ended inquiries like, "Tell me about all the books you read today."

"Children who are given opportunities to converse and have a rich language discourse across their natural environment are then primed to pick up on the tasks necessary to learn to read," she says.

Enlisting parents is also a key component of Stoiber and Gettinger's EMERGE program, which offers family library sessions once a week in Milwaukee's Head Start classrooms, at which parents can see a video offering tips on reading to children. Stoiber's graduate students are there to help parents select developmentally appropriate titles, a task that often confounds many parents and teachers. "Often preschool-age books don't come with the right vocabulary words and many are too dense," Gonzalez says.

In fact, some of the most beautifully written and illustrated books for children don't introduce many words and concepts that children can connect to their lives, he says. Yet others, like the book "The Snowy Day," feature complex words like "melt" that parents and teachers can use to ask children to discuss their own experiences and knowledge about things that melt, he says.

Parents and teachers should also choose books with "print-rich" details—features that draw children's eyes to words and letters, such as dialogue bubbles, words written in crayon or large font, or words that whoosh up and down the page, says Laura Justice, PhD, an educational researcher at Ohio State University and author of the 2010 book "Engaging Children with Print: Building Early Literacy Skills with Quality Read-Aloud Books." In her studies using eye-tracking technology, Justice has found that children look at letters and words more frequently in books that have print-rich details. She's also found that preschool children whose teachers accentuate print details as they read—by talking about how the print moves left to right and pointing out when letters reappear, for example—are better readers and spellers by the end of first grade.

Connecting with the type primes these children for that thrilling moment when a string of letters pops off the page as a word, Justice says. "Knowing about print is an important foundation for developing word reading skills down the road."