A sequential analysis of children’s responsiveness to parental print references during shared book-reading interactions

A sequential analysis of children’s responsiveness to parental print references during shared book-reading interactions

Justice, Laura M

Adults reading to preschool children have been encouraged to use print references (e.g., questions and comments about print) to stimulate children’s interactions with written language. This study used sequential analysis (Bakeman & Gottman, 1997) to determine the extent to which typically developing preschoolers were responsive to parental print references during a shared book-reading interaction using a rhyming book. Participants included 15 parents and their preschool children (mean age = 4 years 6 months). A single shared reading session was collected for each dyad following parental instruction in print-referencing behaviors. Results indicated that children responded at an overall rate of 60% to parental print references but that differential levels of child

responsiveness occurred as a function of parental utterance type. That is, parental prompts were significantly more likely to elicit child responses than parental comments were. Results also indicated that children’s responsiveness did not vary as a function of the early literacy topic of parental print references. For instance, children were no more likely to respond to prompts addressing alphabet knowledge than those addressing book-reading concepts or word awareness. Results may help guide intervention planning for children exhibiting low levels of early literacy skill.

Key Words: early literacy, parent-child instructions, storybook reading, print awareness

Preschool children’s development of early literacy knowledge encompasses a diverse array of skills. In general terms. skills may be best conceptualized as falling into one of two domains-written language awareness or phonological awareness. Written language awareness refers to children’s implicit and explicit knowledge about print (e.g., print directionality, letter names), whereas phonological awareness refers to children’s knowledge about the sounds of a language (e.g., rhyming, alliteration). Both written language awareness and phonological awareness develop in an interrelated and developmental progression during the preschool period (Adams, 1990; Chaney, 1992; Hiebert, 1981; Lomax & McGee, 1987; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998).

Longitudinal studies have shown that young children’s performances on both written language awareness tasks (e.g., Badian, 2000; Stuart, 1995; Tunmer, Herriman, & Nesdale, 1988) and phonological awareness tasks (e.g., Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Elbro, Borstrom, & Peterson, 1998; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987) serve as important predictors of later reading ability. Such findings have stimulated substantial efforts to advocate and develop interventions that may encourage preschool children’s abilities across these two broad domains of early literacy. Although most early literacy intervention has been directed towards phonological awareness (e.g., Fox & Routh, 1984; Lundberg, Frost, & Peterson, 1988; O’Connor, Notari– Syverson, & Vadasy, 1996; van Kleeck, Gillam, & McFadden, 1998; for review, see Blachman, 1991, and Troia, 1999), the literature base on written language awareness awareness intervention is expanding (e.g., Ezell, Justice, & Parsons, 2000; Justice & Ezell, 2000).

When considering strategies for promoting written language awareness in preschool children, adult-child interactions during shared book reading have been targeted as a potential context for bolstering children’s skills (e.g., American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2000; Justice & Ezell, 2000; McCormick & Mason, 1986, 1989; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Specifically, a number of researchers have suggested that adults reading with young children may stimulate growth in written language awareness by directly facilitating children’s interactions with print (e.g., Adams, 1990; Clay, 1998; Ezell & Justice, 1998a, 2000; Justice & Ezell, 2000; McCormick & Mason, 1986, 1989; Mogford-Bevan & Summersall, 1997; Saint– Laurent, Giasson, & Couture, 1998; Schuele & van Kleeck, 1987; Snow, 1983; Snow et al., 1998).

Snow and colleagues, for example, in a seminal report commissioned by the National Research Council titled Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, recommended that all preschool children should participate in shared book reading “that stimulates verbal interaction to enhance.. knowledge about print concepts” (1998, p. 321). In a similar vein, Ezell and Justice (2000) have argued that adults should verbally reference print when reading books with children, as this may facilitate children’s explicit interactions with units of print and, reciprocally, their written language awareness. The nature of parent-child print-focused interactions has thus received increasing attention in the literature and appears warranted given the perspective of the potential impact of print-focused interactions during picture-book reading on children’s early literacy development. Attention has predominantly focused on describing the nature of parental input during such interactions (e.g., how parental input varies as a function of picture-book genre) and investigating strategies for increasing parent-child print focus during these interactions.

In a longitudinal study designed to characterize variations in maternal input during parent-child interactions across storybook genres, van Kleeck (1998) found that parental references to print varied substantially as a function of the type of storybooks parents and their children were reading. Parental print references (i.e., utterances directed towards form) occurred frequently during alphabet-book reading but only rarely during book-reading interactions that employed picture books or rhyming books. Of particular note was the high frequency of parental print references during alphabet-book reading, even when children were as young as 3 years old. In this particular context, “teaching their children about letter names, shapes and sounds was a conscious agenda of these mothers” (p. 39). In contrast, maternal input during book-reading interactions employing picture books or rhyming books rarely included explicit references to print. This latter observation by van Kleeck is consistent with other studies that show adults rarely reference print, either verbally or nonverbally, when reading picture books and rhyming books to young children (e.g., Ezell & Justice, 2000; Phillips & McNaughton, 1990; van Kleeck, Gillam, Hamilton, & McGrath, 1997).

The question of whether adults can be trained to increase their use of print references when reading picture books and/ or rhyming books to preschool children has been addressed in several recent studies (Ezell & Justice, 2000; Ezell et al., 2000; Justice & Ezell, 2000). In these studies, adults (e.g., speech-language pathology students, parents) have received instruction in print-referencing strategies, a set of strategies designed to facilitate the print focus of adult-child shared book-reading interactions. Specifically, adults were trained to use questions, comments, and requests about print as well as several nonverbal strategies when reading books with children. Ezell and Justice (2000) demonstrated the efficacy of instruction for increasing adults’ print-referencing strategies during picture-book-reading interactions with 4– year-old children, and also showed that an increase in such adult behaviors reciprocally increased children’s verbal interactions with print. This line of research has also indicated that parental use of print-referencing strategies during parent-child interactions over picture books and rhyming books can accelerate preschool children’s early literacy development (Justice & Ezell 2000).

What remains unknown, though, is the extent to which preschool children are in fact responsive to adults’ references to print during such book-reading interactions. Indeed, it could be surmised that preschool children would be unresponsive to adults’ efforts to draw their attention to letters or words during these interactions. A lack of responsiveness on the part of children may in fact explain why researchers have found that parents or other adults reading picture books and rhyming books to preschool children rarely reference print via verbal or nonverbal strategies. On the other hand, given the mounting evidence regarding the remarkable amount of early literacy skill possessed by children even by the age of 3 years (e.g., Chaney, 1992; Lonigan et al., 1999; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998), one might expect that children would be responsive to such references. If so, then it could be argued that adults’ use of references to print during book-reading interactions employing picture books and rhyming books may well be an appropriate and effective strategy for enhancing children’s written language awareness. If this were the case, such methods should play an important role in intervention.

This investigation was thus conducted to characterize preschool children’s responsiveness to parents’ use of verbal print references (i.e., questions, comments, and requests about print) during shared book-reading interactions, specifically within the context of reading a rhyming book. The aims were threefold. Our first aim was to determine the overall extent to which children were responsive, verbally or nonverbally, to parental references to print during a shared book-reading interaction. Given that parents rarely use print references when reading picture books and rhyming books to preschool children, we provided our parents with training in the use of print– referencing strategies (Ezell & Justice, 2000) so that we could examine children’s responsiveness to such. Research has indicated that preschool children demonstrate fairly sophisticated levels of early literacy knowledge (e.g., Boudreau & Hedberg, 1999; Chaney, 1992, 1994; Dickinson & Snow, 1987; Snow, 1983); thus, we hypothesized that the children in this study, at 4 years of age, would demonstrate generally high levels of responsiveness to parental print references. This was quantified in a fairly arbitrary manner, in that we expected that children would respond to 50% or more of parental print references.

Our second aim was to determine the extent to which children’s responsiveness to print references varied as a function of the type of reference used by parents. We compared the response-eliciting power of print references that were prompts versus those that were comments. Parental prompts encompass both questions and requests that by their nature carry a high level of obligation for children to respond (Olsen-Fulero, 1982; Olsen-Fulero & Conforti, 1983). In contrast, comments generally imply low response obligations. There is a substantial literature base indicating that maternal prompts result in higher levels of child responsiveness compared to comments (e.g., OlsenFulero & Conforti, 1983; Yoder & Davies, 1990), and a number of researchers have advocated the importance of parental prompts in stimulating child language development (e.g., Whitehurst et al., 1988; Yoder, 1989; Yoder & Kaiser, 1989). We hypothesized that children would demonstrate significantly higher levels of responsiveness to print references that were prompts than to comments. In other words, we expected that parental prompts would demonstrate greater response-eliciting power than comments.

Our third aim was to determine the extent to which children’s responsiveness to parental print references varied according to the early literacy topic of the reference. Given that preschool early literacy knowledge comprises an array of skills of varying levels of complexity (e.g., from basic print awareness to phonemic awareness), one might expect that children’s responsiveness would vary according to the topic (or content) of parental print references. In addressing this question, we focused specifically on child responses to prompts; prompts were singled out because of their anticipated effects on children’s responsiveness, as described previously. In other words, given our expectation that children would respond much more frequently to prompts than to comments, we thought these would offer greater opportunity for assessing children’s responsiveness to various early literacy topics.

We examined the differential levels of child responsiveness to prompts representing six early literacy topics: (a) book-reading concepts, (b) word awareness, (c) alphabet knowledge, (d) phonemic awareness, (e) grapheme– phoneme correspondence, and (f) word reading. These categories were loosely adapted from Lomax and McGee’s (1987) model of the early reading development, which depicts children’s early literacy development as occurring on a continuum from concepts about print to word reading. Based on Lomax and McGee’s model as well as the developmental literature (e.g., Adams, 1990; Chaney, 1992; Goodman, 1986; Hiebert, 1981; Mason, 1980; Snow et al., 1998; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998), we viewed our six early literacy categories as representing a continuum from “lower level” to “higher level” early literacy skills. Bookreading concepts, word awareness, and alphabet knowledge were categorized as lower level categories, whereas phonemic awareness, grapheme-phoneme correspondence, and word reading were categorized as higher level categories. We hypothesized that preschool children would demonstrate greater levels of responsiveness to parental prompts that addressed lower level topics (e.g., “Where should I read on this page?”) compared to those that addressed higher level topics (e.g., “What sound does this letter B make?”), as these might be easier for children to comprehend.

To address the above goals, we used lag 1 sequential analysis. Sequential analysis is a set of techniques that allows one to analyze behavioral sequences that unfold over time (e.g., Bakeman & Brown, 1977; Bakeman, McArthur, & Quera, 1996; Gottman & Bakeman, 1979). This set of techniques appeared most appropriate for addressing the above aims, given that we were examining behavioral antecedents (parental print references) and consequent responses (child responses) in event sequences.



Fifteen parents and their preschool children participated. These dyads were enrolled in a larger intervention study that examined the effects of book reading on children’s early literacy development (Justice & Ezell, 2000). Families were recruited through flyers dispersed at local daycare centers, preschools, and public libraries as well as through other community contacts.

The participating parents included 14 mothers and 1 father, all of whom held at least a high school diploma. More specifically, the highest educational level for individual parents was as follows: 3 held a high school diploma, 8 held bachelor’s degrees, and 4 held master’s degrees. The participating children (9 girls and 6 boys) ranged in age from 4 years, 2 months to 5 years, 1 month, with a mean age of 4 years, 6 months (SD = 3.5 months). To qualify for participation, children were required to (a) pass bilaterally an audiological screening at 25 dB across 500, 1000, 2000, and 4000 Hz, (b) receive a minimum standard score of 85 on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R; Dunn & Dunn, 1981) and the Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (EOWPVT-R; Gardner, 1990), (c) be native English speakers, and (d) have no history of speech-language impairment or intervention (confirmed via parent questionnaire). The two vocabulary measures in combination with the parent questionnaire served as general screening devices to examine children’s language ability and history for eligibility purposes. The children’s mean score on the PPVT-R was 106 (SD = 11), and the mean score on the EOWPVT-R was 113 (SD = 16).


Materials included audiovisual equipment, one children’s picture book, and a videotape for parent instruction. Reading sessions were recorded using two Panasonic VHS camcorders. To ensure that each dyad’s book-reading behaviors were adequately captured during filming, one camcorder recorded a front view of the dyad and a second recorded a close-up of the open book.

One children’s picture book was used for all of the reading sessions. This Is the Bear (Hayes, 1986) is a rhyming book that contains 24 pages, large narrative print, colorful illustrations, and numerous instances of contextualized print embedded within the pictures. The typical page contains between 8 and 10 words in the narrative and one or two instances of contextualized print in the illustration (e.g., in one illustration, a boy is waving down a truck by yelling “Stop! Stop!”). This combination of features was considered important for enhancing children’s enjoyment of the activity and for providing ample opportunity for interactions regarding print.

A 7-minute training videotape titled “Adults reading to young children: Directing focus on written language” (Ezell & Justice, 1998b) was used for parent instruction. This videotape described and demonstrated a set of print– referencing behaviors that parents may use during shared reading to promote children’s interactions with print. Three verbal behaviors were included: (a) questions about print, (b) comments about print, and (c) requests about print. Oral descriptions of print-referencing behaviors were followed by brief vignettes in which an adult reader modeled the target behaviors. A more complete description of this video is provided in Ezell and Justice (2000).

General Procedures

Eligibility sessions took place in children’s homes or on the university campus, based on parental preference. After eligibility was established, an individual data collection session was scheduled for each dyad on campus. This session consisted of the following. Parents first were asked to view the brief video training tape that demonstrated the use of print-referencing strategies. The children were engaged in an art activity in the same room while their parents were occupied. After viewing the video, print– referencing strategies were briefly reviewed by the examiner (the first author) using the picture book This Is the Bear (Hayes, 1986). To this end, each strategy was described again for the parents and two to three examples of each were demonstrated. Parents then were asked to use these print-referencing strategies while reading with their children. Parents were provided the book This Is the Bear and a set of written instructions that asked them to read with a normal volume and to keep the book flat on the table, both for video-recording purposes. This reading session was videotaped in its entirety and served as the basis for the analysis of shared book-reading interactions that occurred in this investigation.

Coding Reading Behaviors

Parents’ Reading Behaviors. The coding of parents’ reading behaviors was conducted using systematic observation procedures as described in Bakeman and Gottman (1997). Following their protocol, a verbatim written transcript of each reading session was first developed by a trained observer. Parent and child speaking turns were divided into utterances based on the conventions described in Miller and Chapman (1996). Each transcript then went through a revision process that included two subsequent independent viewings by a second trained observer as well as one additional viewing by the original observer. During each of these viewings, corrections were made to the original transcript when discrepancies were observed. Discrepancies were resolved through subsequent careful viewing of the videotaped parent-child interactions by each of the two observers.

When the transcription process was complete, a comprehensive set of coding definitions was developed to identify and code categories of parents’ reading behaviors in three stages. Interrater training was conducted at this time to ensure the reliability of the coding system. Subsequently, the entire corpus of reading sessions was coded by viewing the videotape while simultaneously coding the transcript. The three stages of coding for parents’ reading behaviors are described as follows.

Coding was first conducted to identify parental utterances that referenced print. Thus, at Stage 1, print references were identified by coding each parental utterance into one of two mutually exclusive and exhaustive (MEE) categories: Print Reference or Other. Print Reference was coded for any utterance that explicitly referenced print occurring in the book. Utterances that contained any of the following were automatically coded as a Print Reference: (a) an alphabet letter (e.g., “That is an A!”); (b) any one of a set of 14 different print-referencing keywords, such as letter, print, read, and spell (e.g., “What’s this spell?”); or (c) a punctuation term (e.g., question mark, exclamation mark; “That mark means that he’s excited!”). Utterances in which the parent asked the child to identify a word on the page or to locate a word were also coded as a Print Reference (e.g., “Can you find dog?”), as were utterances that contained any reference to print or book-handling conventions, such as directionality. Utterances that did not meet any of these criteria were coded as Other (e.g., “I like this book,” “There he goes,” “Look what he’s wearing!”). A total of 543 print references were identified across the 15 reading sessions. Utterances coded as Other were not included in any of the subsequent analyses.

At Stage 2, each Print Reference was coded into either of two categories: Prompt or Comment. Prompt was assigned to parental print references that carried any obligation for the child to respond. Prompts were coded for all question forms (including intonation, yes/no, and all wh-forms) and for all direct requests (i.e., utterances containing any one of a set of nine designated request keywords, such as find, guess, look, point, and show). Comments were coded for all print references that carried no or low obligation for the child to respond. Comment was coded for general information-providing units (e.g., “That letter’s in your name!”) as well as repetitions, affirmations, and praise. In some instances, parents immediately followed a prompt or comment with another utterance and did not permit sufficient time for the child to respond to the initial print reference. To capture the occurrence of such instances, extensions were coded. Prompts and comments that were followed within 2 seconds by a subsequent parental utterance were designated as extended. Thus, at this stage some prompts were further classified as extended prompts and some comments were classified as extended comments.

At Stage 3, each prompt and extended prompt was coded into a set of six early literacy topics: (a) book– reading concepts (BRC), (b) word awareness (WA), (c) alphabet knowledge (AK), (d) phonemic awareness (PA), (e) grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GP), and (f) word reading (WR). BRC was coded when the topic related to print directionality, book elements (e.g., author, title), or contextualized print within the illustrations. WA was coded when the topic related to features of words, such as asking the child to count the number of words on a page or compare features of two words. AK was coded for prompts requiring the child to name or identify letters of the alphabet. PA was coded when the child was directed to identify or otherwise manipulate sounds within a word, whereas GP was coded for prompts that referenced sound-symbol relationships. WR was coded when the parent directed the child to read, find, or identify a word, phrase, or sentence in print on the page. Examples are presented in Table 1.

Child’s Reading Behaviors. After parents’ reading behaviors were coded, children’s responses to all parental print references identified at Stage 1, including both prompts and comments, were coded at Stage 4. If a parental reference was extended, children’s responses were coded only following the extension. The manner in which children did or did not respond to each print reference was coded into one of a set of five categories: (a) verbal, (b) nonverbal, (c) verbal and nonverbal, (d) no response, or (e) irrelevant. Verbal was coded when children produced a verbal or vocal (e.g., mm-hmm) response; nonverbal was coded when children responded via a point, nod, or shrug; and verbal and nonverbal was coded when children responded simultaneously with a verbal and nonverbal response. No response was coded when the child failed to produce any perceptible response to the parental print reference, and irrelevant was coded when the child produced any off-topic or inappropriate response.

It should be noted that the first three categories (i.e., verbal, nonverbal, or verbal and nonverbal) were.coded for children’s responses that were viewed as contingent on the preceding adult print reference, that is, the child’s response was on the same topic as the adult’s preceding utterance. Therefore, even responses that were incorrect (e.g., child says “That’s an H!” when pointing to a letter A) were coded as positive responses given that they reflected the print topic of the prior adult utterance. Likewise, although occurring only rarely, situations whereby children responded to parental print references by saying “I don’t know” or “I forget [what that is]” were also coded as positive responses, given that such responses were viewed as contingent.

Interscorer Agreement

Reliability of coding procedures was established at all four stages of coding. At each stage, 25% of the sessions were randomly selected and independently coded by a second trained observer. Cohen’s kappa, an agreement score that corrects for chance, was calculated at each stage by constructing a series of kappa tables that represented point-by-point comparisons of the two observers’ coded transcripts. Kappa scores were as follows: Stage 1 = .96, Stage 2 = .91, Stage 3 = .94, and Stage 4 = .90.

Data Analysis

Using the coding procedures described previously, a data set was developed for each dyad that consisted of a series of episodes. An episode began each time a parental reference to print was coded and ended with the description of the child’s mode of response. Each episode thus consisted of the following four features: (a) identification of a print reference; (b) identification of the print reference as a prompt or comment; (c) if a prompt, identification of the early literacy topic category; and (d) designation of the child’s manner of response. The complete data set for each dyad was entered into Bakeman and Quera’s (1995) sequential analysis software, GSEQ, as multi-event data.


Data were analyzed descriptively and by using sequential analysis to determine patterns in children’s responsiveness to parental references to print. A summary of descriptive findings regarding the occurrence of coding categories is first presented. This is followed by a consideration of each of the three hypotheses regarding: (a) children’s overall responsiveness to parental print references, (b) children’s responsiveness to prompts versus comments, and (c) children’s responsiveness across early literacy topics.

The three hypotheses were tested both by examining individual patterns of interaction within each of the 15 dyad’s reading sessions and by using pooled data across the dyads. In other words, each hypothesis was considered in two ways. First, data for the 15 dyads were pooled and summary statistics for all 543 instances were considered. Second, to examine and characterize individual differences across the 15 dyads, analyses were conducted at the individual level as well. The number of instances per session varied considerably, with a range of 16 to 69. In addition, not all codes occurred at the individual level for some of the early literacy topics identified at Stage 3. For example, 4 parents did not use any prompts on the topic of word awareness. Consequently, in some cases conclusions were best drawn by examining the pooled data.

Descriptive Findings: Occurrence of Coding Categories

A total of 543 parental print references were identified across the 15 dyads. The average number of print references per individual reading session was 36 (SD = 15). Individual parents exhibited somewhat diverse patterns in their use of print references, ranging from 16 to 69 instances across parents, a finding that is consistent with research on naturalistic occurrences of parental references to print (van Kleeck et al., 1997). Of the 543 print references observed, 327 (60%) were prompts, whereas 216 (40%) were comments. A total of 106 extensions occurred, meaning that about 20% of the print references were immediately followed by another parental utterance. Extensions occurred for 56 (17%) prompts and 50 (23%) comments.

For the early literacy topics, recall that only parental prompts were coded into these categories. Coding of the 327 parental prompts into early literacy topics resulted in the following raw frequencies (pooled across dyads): bookreading concepts = 82 (25%); word awareness = 38 (12%); alphabet knowledge = 114 (35%); phonemic awareness = 5 (2%); grapheme-phoneme correspondence = 2 (1%); and word reading = 83 (25%). Clearly, several of the topics occurred infrequently (e.g., phonemic awareness, with five instances), whereas others occurred more often (e.g., alphabet knowledge, with 107 instances). Moreover, there was considerable variation across individual parents in their attention to various topics. One parent addressed alphabet knowledge on 22 occasions, for instance, whereas another parent focused no prompts on this topic. Table 2 depicts the frequency of occurrence for parental utterance types across these topics (see Figure 1 for a graphic representation). Examples of parental prompts we observed across each of these six topics are presented below. Children’s responses are described in parentheses following each parental utterance.

Book-reading concepts: Do you want to follow the words with your finger? (verbal response: Yes)

Word awareness: Can you find the words that look alike on that page? (nonverbal response: child points to words in the text)

Alphabet knowledge: You recognize any of these letters? (combined verbal and nonverbal response: A [child points to letter])

Phonemic awareness: [Parent reads: And went to the dump to make a fuss.] What rhymes? (verbal response: Bus)

Grapheme-phoneme correspondence: Here, S – T makes the /st/ sound? (verbal response: Stop)

Word reading: Do you see the word “bear” again? (nonverbal response: child points to word in text)

Children’s Responsiveness to Parental Print References

Our first goal was to broadly examine the extent to which children were responsive to parental references to print. Using the pooled data, results indicated that the children responded to 327 of the 543 parental utterances that occurred (this included 16 instances where children responded with “I don’t know” or the like). In other words, children provided contingent responses to parental print references about 60% of the time Examination of children’s response modes indicated that children responded verbally to 32% of parental print references, nonverbally to 19%, and gave combined verbal/nonverbal responses to 9%. In contrast, children remained unresponsive or provided irrelevant responses to 40% of print references.

Examination of conditional probabilities at the level of individual dyads indicated that children’s responsiveness to print references ranged from approximately 42% (Dyad 5) to 80% (Dyad 15). In general, children’s responsiveness to print references was quite high across individual sessions. In fact, for 13 of the 15 reading sessions, children responded to more than 50% of parental print references. The two exceptions were the children in Dyad 5 and Dyad 13, who responded to 42% and 50% of print references, respectively. These findings indicated that children were, for the most part, more responsive than not to parental print references during the reading interactions.

Children’s Responsiveness to Prompts Versus Comments

Our second goal was to characterize the extent to which children’s responsiveness was contingent on the type of parental print reference used. Based on the extant literature, we anticipated that children would be more responsive to parental prompts than comments. Of the parental references to print that occurred, 327 were prompts and 216 were comments. Table 2 depicts raw frequencies and percentage rates for children’s responsiveness to prompts versus comments.

Observation of conditional probabilities using the pooled data indicated that children’s responsiveness varied considerably when comparing these two categories: The children responded to 87% of parental prompts versus only 20% of comments. Conditional probabilities across children’s different response modes are presented in Table 3. Statistical analysis of the observed discrepancy between children’s responsiveness to prompts versus comments indicated that this difference was significant, and that prompts were more likely to elicit a response: X^sup 2^ (1, N = 543) = 260, p

Consideration of such patterns at the individual level indicated that children’s observed responsiveness to prompts exceeded the expected value for all 15 dyads and that the chi-squared statistic was significant for 14 of 15 .dyads. These findings were consistent with the above analysis, based on the pooled data. Taken together, these results indicated that children were significantly and substantially more likely to respond to parental references to print that were prompts than to comments. In other words, parental prompts were far more likely to evoke children’s responses than were their comments. Children’s Responsiveness to Early

Literacy Topics

The third goal of this study was to determine the extent to which children’s responsiveness to parental print references (prompts only) differed across various early literacy topics. It was anticipated that children would be more responsive to parental prompts that addressed lower level early literary topics, such as book-reading concepts, compared to higher level topics, such as word reading. We considered lower level early literacy topics to include book-reading concepts, word awareness, and alphabet knowledge. Topics for 72% of parental prompts represented lower levels: 25% were book-reading concepts, 12% were word awareness, and 35% were alphabet knowledge. The remaining 28% of parental prompts focused on higher level topics: 2% were phonemic aware

ness, 1% were grapheme-phoneme correspondence, and 25% were word reading.

Across these six categories, children’s responsiveness showed only moderate variation. Children’s overall response percentages to the various topics were as follows: 100% for grapheme-phoneme correspondence, 100% for phonemic awareness, 94% for alphabet knowledge, 87% for book-reading concepts, 82% for word reading, and 74% for word awareness (see Table 2). Table 4 details children’s overall responsiveness to higher versus lower level topics. Of the 90 higher level topic prompts that occurred, children responded to 75. A similar response ratio occurred for lower level prompts: of the 234 lower level prompts that occurred, children responded to 206. We calculated conditional probabilities to characterize children’s responsiveness to higher versus lower level early literacy topics (see Table 4). Examination of these probabilities indicated that children demonstrated a slightly higher response rate for lower level topics, at 88%, compared to 83% for the higher level topics. However, this observed difference in level of responsiveness was not significant: X^sup 2^ (1, N = 324) = 1.25, p = .263. Examination of these pooled data suggested that children’s overall response rates across topics were relatively high regardless of topic, ranging from 74% to 100%. Examples of children’s responses (in parentheses) to several lower and higher level topic parental prompts that occurred are presented below.

Higher Level Prompt: Do you see the word “dog” on this page? (nonverbal response: child points to word in text)

Higher Level Prompt: What’s this word? (verbal response: Bear)

Lower Level Prompt: Where should I start reading on this page? (nonverbal response: child points to narrative text)

Lower Level Prompt: Do you see any letters up here in your name? (verbal response: A)

Examination of patterns of responsiveness to these topics was also conducted at the level of the individual dyad. Seven of the 15 children responded to lower level early literacy topics at rates greater than was expected if chance alone was operating. The remaining 8 children, in contrast, responded to lower level topics at rates less than was expected by chance. Similar patterns were observed with respect to responsiveness to higher level topics. Such findings indicated that discrepancies in responsiveness resulted from chance rather than topic. In fact, none of the 15 chi-squared statistics were significant at the dyad level. Taken together, examination of children’s responsiveness at the group and individual level indicated that children’s responsiveness differed only modestly across the various topics, with no significant differences in responsiveness occurring as a function of early literacy topic.


To summarize the results of this investigation, preschool children were found to respond contingently to approximately 60% of parents’ verbal print references during a shared reading interaction featuring a rhyming book. As we had hypothesized, differential levels of responsiveness were found when comparing the extent to which children responded to print references that were prompts versus those that were comments. Contrary to our expectations, however, when considering children’s responsiveness as a function of the early literacy topic of parental prompts, we found that children’s responsiveness varied only minimally across topics. Given a parental prompt on a topic that we regarded as “lower level” (e.g., book-reading concepts), the probability that children would respond was .88. This figure was notably similar to the figure, .83, that represented the likelihood that children would respond to “higher level” topics (e.g., word reading).

Three observations from this investigation are of significance in light of the present interest in children’s early literacy development and intervention. First, the fact that children were generally responsive to parental print references during shared book-reading interactions featuring a rhyming book lends support to the growing literature base that describes the remarkable early literacy knowledge possessed by young children (e.g., Adams, 1990; Boudreau & Hedberg, 1999; Chaney, 1992; Hiebert, 1981; Lomax & McGee, 1987). The high levels of responsiveness observed in this study suggest that preschool children have the requisite skills for participating in contextualized print-based interactions, at least when encouraged by parental questions and requests within the context of a rhyming-book interaction.

Second, we also found that children were significantly and substantially more responsive to parental print– referencing prompts compared to comments. This finding is not particularly surprising given its consistency with results obtained by other researchers who have examined the eliciting power of parental prompts versus comments in other contexts (e.g., Olsen-Fulero & Conforti, 1983; Yoder & Davies, 1990). Olsen-Fulero and Conforti have argued that parents are generally motivated to elicit children’s responses during interactions. To this end, parents frequently use prompts such as directives and questions as “turn-allocation devices” (p. 496), which in turn appear to increase children’s participation in interactions. The present findings extend the literature in an important manner, however, by describing the eliciting power of parental prompts when considering children’s responsiveness to print references during book-reading interactions. The present findings of children’s high levels of responsiveness to print-referencing prompts suggest that children view these types of prompts as turn allocation devices within this highly specific context.

Third, a particularly interesting finding was the lack of a differential effect for children’s responsiveness to parental print references across a variety of early literacy topics. We found that the children were no more likely to respond to prompts addressing book-reading concepts than they were to respond to prompts addressing word reading, for instance. The probability that children would respond to book-reading-concept and word-reading prompts was .87 and .82, respectively. The similarity in response levels is striking when one considers that these two skill categories represent the lowest and highest level skills along a continuum of early literacy growth (e.g., Adams, 1990; Lomax & McGee, 1987). A possible explanation for this finding is that children respond to print-referencing prompts with little regard to topic, given the overall eliciting power of parental prompts as an interactional strategy. That is, children may be motivated to respond to prompts due to their implicit understanding of the role of prompts in motivating a response on the part of the recipient. If this were the case, then it would explain the lack of differential effects in child responsiveness across early literacy topics.

Considering the present findings from a theoretical perspective, these data suggest that 4-year-old children demonstrate the ability to participate in adult-child interactions on early literacy topics that may be beyond their level of independent functioning. To illustrate, most children at 4 years of age are yet incapable of demonstrating independent skills in word reading-a topic that was addressed in many parental print-referencing prompts. Word-reading abilities typically do not begin to develop until several years later, during the early stages of formal reading instruction. However, the present analyses suggest that within the framework of this highly familiar and contextualized routine, children are able to participate in adult-mediated interactions that tap the child’s maturing word-reading skills. Parental prompts, in particular, encourage responsiveness to print references across a variety of topics due to children’s implicit knowledge of prompts as turn allocation devices.

In a consideration of possible clinical implications of this study, the present findings offer preliminary data. We demonstrated that typically developing preschool children are, in fact, more likely than not to respond to their parents’ references to print and that much higher levels of responsiveness are evident for prompts. It also appears that preschool children are responsive to parental prompts on a range of early literacy topics. To this end, professionals working with parents of young children may encourage parents to incorporate print-referencing strategies, and particularly prompts, into shared book-reading interactions. The wide variety of early literacy topics that may be targeted by such prompts can also be described. What remains unknown, however, is how child responsiveness is related to early literacy growth and the extent to which the present findings may be consistent with patterns that would be seen for children exhibiting language impairment. The present research may serve as a foundation for research that addresses such questions, at which point sufficient knowledge will be available for making recommendations on intervention strategies.

Several limitations should be noted. First, data were collected via analysis of a single shared reading session and may not represent how parent behaviors and child responses might change over time or across various book genres. As parents become more practiced in using print– referencing strategies, it is possible that a shift may occur in their use of particular literacy topics or prompts versus comments. In addition, the book used in this study was unfamiliar to participants and represented only one book genre. Variation in parent-child behaviors would likely have been observed if more familiar stimuli were used or if books of other genres, such as picture books, were used. A second limitation involves our participants. For the most part, the participating parents were well educated, with most having earned a university degree. In addition, all participants resided in the Appalachian region of southeastern Ohio. The extent to which the patterns of parent-child interactions observed in this study may be generalized to parents and children from other sociocultural groups cannot be assumed. A third limitation regards the parental instruction that occurred. Parents received instruction in three specific strategies that may be used to incorporate a print focus in shared reading interactions but did not receive guidance regarding topics that might be addressed. As a result, several early literacy topics occurred less frequently than others. For example, prompts targeting phonemic awareness and grapheme-phoneme correspondence occurred only five and two times, respectively, across this group of parents. It would have been helpful to examine the stability of children’s responsiveness to these higher level topics across a greater number of episodes. A fourth limitation is that this study did not examine the effects of children’s responses to print references on subsequent early literacy development, nor did it examine the relationship between children’s skill levels and performance in the reading sessions. Although a high rate of responsiveness on the part of the child may occur when using print references, it is not known if high levels of responsiveness in fact result in subsequent gains in early literacy.

Consideration of the present findings as well as these limitations suggests several important avenues for further research in this area. First, an examination of children’s responsiveness to parental prompts that encompass more instances of higher level early literacy topics is needed. In this study, only a few prompts occurred on the topics of phonemic awareness and grapheme-phoneme correspondence. Future research that addresses variability and stability in preschool children’s responsiveness to such higher level topics would be of interest. Second, although parental prompts were found to be more effective than comments in eliciting responses from children, the impact of prompts on children’s early literacy growth has not been determined. Until future research can delineate such relationships, it is premature to say that questions and requests should be preferred over comments until a comparison is made in this regard. Third, the responsiveness of children with language impairment to parental print references also needs to be delineated before our findings can inform clinical practice. Thus, the most important direction for research based on the present study should be determination of the efficacy of parental or clinician use of print-referencing strategies within an intervention framework for children exhibiting impaired language ability.


This project was supported in part by a Student-Initiated Research Grant in Early Childhood Language from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation (the Arlene Matkin Memorial Fund) to the first author and an Ohio University Student Enhancement Award to the first and second authors.


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Received January 15, 2001

Accepted June 13, 2001

DOI: 10.1044/1058-0360(2002/004)

Laura M. Justice1

University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Sarah E. Weber1

The Ohio State University, Columbus

Helen K. Ezell1

Pittsburgh, PA

Roger Bakeman

Georgia State University, Atlanta

1 These authors were affiliated with Ohio University during data collection activities.

Contact author: Laura Justice, PhD, Communication Disorders Program, University of Virginia, 2205 Fontaine Ave, Suite 202, Charlottesville, VA 22908. E-mail: 1mj2t@virginia.edu

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