Shared-book reading for toddlers and preschoolers

Justin Markussen-Brown

Recently, I was interviewed by a journalist for the magazine LFS Nyt, the members’ magazine for the Danish Union of Social Pedagogues. The interview was regarding the importance of books within the early education context – how they can be used to support language development in toddlers and preschoolers, and what best practices are recommended.

Since this is a topic I actually get asked about a lot by educators and parents alike, I thought I would make it the topic of today’s blog.

How do books influence language development?

Children learn oral language by interacting with and listening to other people, and therefore we can’t say that books (solely by themselves) actively affect language development. However, when an adult reads a book to a child, the book becomes a valuable tool that increases the quality of the adult’s language input to the child. Books tend to contain rich vocabulary and complex sentence structures in high dosages, whereas an adult’s more everyday speech tends to contain fewer of these elements. So essentially, books are like tools that help the adult give language to the child.

The action of reading a book to a child is often referred to as “shared-book reading.” The reading is “shared” because the child is an active participant. Although the parent is the one that actually reads aloud, the child follows along looking at the pictures, and may ask a number of questions or make comments. The adult may further facilitate the child’s involvement by asking questions as they progress through the story, or by relating the book’s content to the child’s life. All of these actions encourage the child to use and listen to language, which is very beneficial for language development.

Shared-book reading supports narrative skills

Books also help strengthen the child’s narrative skills. Narrative skills are the language skills that help us say things in a coherent and understandable way. We adults use our narrative skills constantly when we interact with each other, and we are pretty good at it. We go through our days explaining this and that to each other without any major issues in comprehensibility. Small children’s narratives, however, are far less understandable. Children’s narratives of what they did on the weekend and so on are often very hard to understand. This can be because they tell parts of the story in the wrong order, or they forget to give important background details that would help the listener understand.

When children listen to storybooks, they learn the framework of narratives. Storybooks contain all the ingredients of a good narrative. They have a beginning where all background information is described, then they explain what happened in a coherent, chronological manner, and finally they end with some sort of resolution or conclusion.

Shared-book reading also benefits pre-literacy development

Children learn a lot about written language in addition to oral language through shared-book reading. This is a very good thing because written language is a complex thing. Written language is a code, where symbols – such as letters of the alphabet – correspond to speech sounds in the oral language so that the reader can “replay” the message in his/her head. Although children normally first receive formal reading and writing instruction in school, toddlers and preschoolers learn a great deal of “pre-literacy” knowledge that helps them later when they start school. For example, when reading to the child, the adult can point out the difference between script and pictures, the direction one reads in (English: left to right, top to down), which way you turn the pages, the difference between letters and words, and so on.

Books that play with rhyming and other aspects of a language’s sound structure also help children develop their “phonological awareness” – their awareness of the sound structure of words. Does cat rhyme with bat or ban? And why? If I say the word “stop” and then take the s-sound away, what word do I then have? Being able to hear these sorts of things helps children immensely later in school when they will learn to “sound out” (or decode) words. Some books are written specially to increase children’s phonological awareness and are an excellent tool for educators and parents.

Some best practices

Here are suggestions for best practices with books in the early childhood context.

Educators & adults

  • Start early. Books make fine early toys for children. If buying for babies and toddlers, make sure to buy books with thick pages that can’t give a paper cut.
  • Books without words are great! You can talk about all the things going on in the pictures, which exposes children to lots of rich vocabulary and sentence structure.
  • Make books available at child-reach. Research shows that children incorporate books in their play if they are available to them.
  • Read every day.
  • Reread books. This benefits children’s memories and allows you to go deeper into the story.
  • When you read, discuss what’s happening in the book, and relate it to the child’s life. Ask questions. Why do you think…? What do you think he will do?
  • Buy books related to the child’s interests.
  • Don’t replace reading with iPad games and activities. New research shows that iPad games reduce the number of linguistic interactions between the adult and the child (see one of my previous blog posts). The child should be interacting with the adult, not the iPad.
  • Show children how books work, and gradually tell them about the written language.


  • Create a library of books that parents can borrow and read at home to their children. Make sure that there are books in the languages of the parents who don’t speak the majority language very well.
  • Tell parents of the importance of reading and encourage them to do it often.
  • Invite parents to sit with their child in his or her lap while you (the educator) read a book to the children. This helps parents pick up the style of shared-book reading, which is helpful for parents who don’t usually read to their kids.
  • Schedule shared-book reading for every day. Schedules are old-school tools that help us develop good professional habits.
  • Choose books based on an ongoing theme to establish continuity.
  • As an activity, ask children to draw and retell a known story.
  • There are many more ideas for best practices, but you’ll get far on these!

A note on dual-language learners

Children learning Danish as a second-language benefit from being read to by their parents in their heritage language. So, if I’m a Turkish speaking three-year-old learning Danish during the day in preschool, it is good for both my Danish and my Turkish that my parents read to me at home in Turkish, especially if my parents don’t speak very good Danish. The Turkish writing system works exactly like the Danish one, and therefore all that preliteracy knowledge is completely transferable from Turkish to Danish. Furthermore, having a strong mother tongue is known to benefit children’s learning of their second language, not to mention that it helps the child connect better with his or her parents.