When preschoolers gather on the rug for story time to hear a storybook such as I Stink! about a New York City garbage truck, they mostly focus on the pictures and the sound of the teacher’s voice telling the story.
“They’re most likely looking at the pictures on the page,” said Shayne Piasta, assistant director of the Children’s Learning Research Collaborative at Ohio State University. “They may not understand where the words are coming from because they haven’t yet made that connection between the printed words on the page and the words that you are speaking.”
But if teachers pause frequently during the story to draw children’s attention to the printed words, they can boost reading, spelling and comprehension in kindergarten and first grade. Those gains are especially important for children from low-income households, who generally start school less ready for reading than children from wealthier homes.
And it doesn’t require elaborate teacher training or expensive new textbooks, just a small change in how teachers typically read storybooks.
Those are the results of a study Piasta co-authored with Laura Justice at OSU, Anita McGinty at the University of Virginia and Joan Kaderavek at the University of Toledo that is published in the current issue of Child Development.
The researchers studied 550 low-income children in 85 preschool classrooms in Virginia and Toledo.
They randomly assigned the 4-year-olds to one of three groups.
Teachers in the “high-dose” group were instructed to draw children’s attention to the print on the page often during four reading sessions a week for 30 weeks.
Teachers might point out the difference between capital letters and lowercase letters. They could ask children whether they could find a letter in their name on the page. They could simply trace the words they were reading with their fingers, demonstrating that English is read left to right, top to bottom. They could talk about specific words and their meanings. They could identify the story’s title and the role of the author.
Teachers in the “low-dose” group did the same thing as the high dose group, but only twice a week for 30 weeks.
In both groups, teachers referred to print in some way about 30 times per session.
Teachers in the “control” group read the books as often as the “high-dose” group but didn’t change how they read them, usually referring to print about eight times per session.
The studies were conducted between 2004 and 2006. Children then were tested in kindergarten and first grade on such basic literacy skills as reading, spelling and comprehension.
The high-dose group scored significantly higher in all three measures than the group that read books the typical way, both a year later and two years later in first grade.
Piasta said she was not surprised by gains in reading and spelling.
“What I thought was particularly exciting was that we also saw effects on reading comprehension,” Piasta said.
Although making print references 30 times during a session was the most effective, the researchers don’t know whether 30 is an optimal number.
“We know that what teachers typically do or what parents typically do during shared reading is not enough,” Piasta said.
Teachers received some training (an eight-hour workshop with a three-hour refresher), but otherwise, the “modest adjustment” to the typical reading style did not take away from planning or instructional time, according to the study. Most of the teachers in the study had bachelor’s degrees, although some had only high school diplomas and others had master’s degrees.
“We saw that as a real strength of the study,” Piasta said.
Another strength is the random assignment of students to different groups, including a “control” group that shows what happens when nothing is changed. That kind of experiment is called a randomized controlled trial and is common in medicine and other sciences but rare in education research.
The study was funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
“They’ve been arguing for more and more of this type of research, and they’ve been funding a lot of it,” Piasta said.
Randomized controlled trials allow researchers to put well-developed theories to the test by comparing kids who get the “treatment” — in this case, more attention to print during story time — to kids who get the normal routine to see whether the treatment is effective.
“We have a theory that would suggest that doing this should lead to an improved outcome, but we don’t know that and we can’t know that unless we try it out,” Piasta said.