Quantity, Quality, Children’s Characteristics, and Vocabulary Learning

Quantity, Quality, Children’s Characteristics, and Vocabulary Learning

Walsh, Bridget A

Reading books to children provides the opportunity for learning new vocabulary. The specific effect of reading to children appears to depend upon how often the child is read to (Beals, DeTemple, & Dickinson, 1994; Burns & Blewitt, 2000; Neuman, 1999; Robbins & Ehri, 1994; Sénéchal, 1997) or the style of reading by the parent, such as the cognitive demand level of questions asked of the child (Guthridge, 2002; Haden, Reese, & Fivush, 19%; Justice, 2002; Leseman & de Jong, 1998; Reese & Cox, 1999; van Kleeck &Beckley-McCall, 2002; van Kleeck, Gillam, Hamilton, &McGrath, 1997). Children’s characteristics, such as current level of vocabulary skill, socioeconomic status (SES), and age, also may moderate the impact of adult-child storybook reading on vocabulary learning.

Quantity and Vocabulary Learning

The quantity of shared book reading may be important to vocabulary learning in two ways. First, the overall quantity of book reading children experience may be important. Beals et al. (1994) argued that when children are exposed to books, they experience a “broader range of words” than they do in other contexts. second, the frequency of exposure to a single book may influence cognitive outcomes, such as vocabulary learning. Whenchildren find a storybook that they really enjoy, it is quite natural for them to want to listen to it again and again. Indeed, various studies have demonstrated that repeated readings of the same book make it more likely that children will acquire a greater vocabulary.

Burns and Blewitt (2000) found a relationship between the overall quantity of storybook reading and vocabulary learning in 3-year-olds. In that study, mothers of 3-year-olds reported how frequently they read to their children, and they completed a Children’s Book Title Checklist indicating how many titles of children’s books were familiar to them. The two measures of book reading frequency were highly correlated, and they were both correlated with children’s scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Third Edition (PPVT-m) Form A (Dunn & Dunn, 1997), an assessment of the understanding of words or receptive vocabulary. To elaborate, the frequency of book reading, which was higher in upper-middle class families as opposed to working-class families, was positively associated with children’s higher vocabulary scores. Mothers’storybook reading style was similar in both socioeconomic groups (e.g., both groups asked the same number of questions), meaning that frequency, not style, was positively correlated with vocabulary learning in this study.

Other researchers have done experimental interventions in order to more precisely examine the impact of the quantity of shared storybook reading on the acquisition of new vocabulary featured in stories. Robbins and Ehri (1994), for example, found that kindergartners exposed to somewhat novel target words (in the context of a shared storybook reading) showed a greater increase in the acquisitionof these vocabulary words when they were presented four times, as opposed to twice, in the storybook. In addition, parents’ proclivity for rereading storybooks to promote novel vocabulary acquisition has been experimentally tested to determine the impact on receptive vocabulary and the production of words or expressive vocabulary learning. Particularly, Sénéchal (1997) investigated vocabulary learning in 3- and 4-year-olds from a middle-income group and found that rereading a storybook benefited both expressive and receptive vocabulary more so than a single reading of a storybook.

Some research fails to support the importance of book reading f requency for wordlearning. Neuman’s (1999) experimental study evaluated the impact of increasing the accessibility of children’s books on low-socioeconomic status (SES) preschoolers’ literacy skills in six literacy domains. Her intervention, known as Books Aloud, focused primarily on overall quantity of book reading. She provided pieschools with five books per child and with appropriate storage for books. Ten hours of training for the staff on theory and practices of reading development accompanied this “book flooding.” Books Aloud preschoolers improved significantly on four of six literacy measures, but receptive vocabulary did not improve.

As a whole, the preponderance of studies investigating quantity of storybooks read to children indicates that reading has benefits for children’s vocabulary acquisition, with the beneficial effects increasing as reading increases. Many researchers also maintain, however, that neither quantity of storybooks read nor repeated reading of the same books are the only important contributors to vocabulary growth. They propose that qualitative variations in shared storybook reading also can have a significant impact on children’s word learning.

Quality and Vocabulary Learning

A number of studies have examined the relationship between adults’ extratextual comments and questions-or reading style-and children’s language and reading skill. Some evidence exists that children’s general language and thinking skills are affected by parents’ reading style. For example, van Kleeck et al. (1997) assessed parents’ approach to reading storybooks to their children (3 to 4 years of age). Parents’ comments and questions were rated for “level of abstraction,” from perception-based Level I (e.g., “Find the moon”) to Level IV, where children are encouraged to reason about their perceptions (e.g., “What do you think made that happen?”). More parental input occurred at the first abstraction level than the fourth. In addition, more parental input occurred when the storybook was determined to be unfamiliar, as opposed to familiar, to the child. One year later, children’s ability to use abstract language was correlated with parents’ use of three of the four levels of abstraction during story reading, including the lowest level.

It seems that input that is and is not cognitively demanding are both important in shared storybook reading, particularly when the book is novel to the child. An exploratory study by van Kleeck and Beckley-McCall (2002) with only five parent/child dyads found that, over time, preschoolers use more abstract language as parents place increasing cognitive demands on them during shared storybook reading.

This approach to analyzing abstraction level, adopted by van Kleeck et al. (1997), originated in the work of Blank, Rose, and Berlin (1978). Blank and her colleagues recommended that parents maintain 30 percent of their input at a level that challenges preschoolers, while 70 percent should be at a level at which children will experience success. This may suggest that motivational factors are as important as the cognitive demands or the quantity of books read. Most of the existing research on shared storybook reading focuses primarily on cognitively oriented dimensions of parental reading style (Guthridge, 2002; Haden et al., 1996; Justice, 2002; Leseman & de Jong, 1998; Reese & Cox, 1999; van Kleeck & Beckley-McCall, 2002; van Kleeck et al., 1997), despite the suggested role of motivational factors.

The findings of Whitehurst and colleagues (Whitehurst et al., 1988; Whitehurst, Arnold, et al., 1994; Whitehurst, Epstein, et al., 1994; Zevenbergen, Whitehurst, & Zevenbergen, 2003) suggest that characteristics of dialogic reading, such as asking more open-ended questions and expanding on preschoolers’ commentary, improve some vocabulary skills for both middle-SES and low-SES preschoolers. This style is intended to increase preschoolers’ responses to, and involvement with, a storybook. However, these studies have not always separated the impact of quality of reading from the quantity of reading.

Reese and Cox (1999) pointed out that the dialogic style used by Whitehurst and colleagues (Whitehurst et al., 1988; Whitehurst, Arnold, et al., 1994; Whitehurst, Epstein, et al., 1994; Zevenbergen et al., 2003) undoubtedly increases child participation in the storybook reading session; doing so, however, places a low cognitive demand on children. Reese and Cox investigated the effects of more specific aspects of adult reading styles on 4-year-olds’ vocabulary growth. They varied demand (high vs. low) and commentary placement (throughout the storybook vs. before and after reading of the storybook) in their story-reading intervention.

The specific styles that Reese and Cox (1999) tested were: the describer style (a low demand style), a performance-oriented style (a high demand style), and a comprehender style (a high demand style). Here, the describer style, similar to the low demand dialogic style used by Whitehurst and his colleagues (e.g., Whitehurst, Arnold, et al., 1994), emphasized labeling pictures throughout the story. The comprehender style used commentary throughout the story, while the performance-oriented style used commentary prior to the start of the story and at the end of the story; both used high demand comments and questions, such as requiring children to make inferences about the story. Aversion of the PPVT test, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R) Form L (Dunn & Dunn, 1981), was one measure used during pretest to determine initial vocabulary breadth. The six-week intervention permitted time for children to be read to in one of the above styles, two or three times a week. The same tests that had been administered prior to intervention were administered at posttest. Children with low initial receptive scores benefited most from the describer style. On the other hand, children with high initial receptive vocabulary benefited most from the performance-oriented style. For 4-year-olds, this may suggest that individual characteristics, such as initial vocabulary knowledge, may be a moderating factor in storybook reading style.

Children’s Characteristics and Vocabulary Learning

As we have seen, variations in how often adults read to children and in the approaches they take appear to affect how much vocabulary children learn. Children also seem to be sources of variation in how much they learn in adult-child reading. Experimental investigations have demonstrated that the initial vocabulary size of children (Penno, Wilkinson, & Moore, 2002) and SES (Hart & Risley, 1995) are sources of variation that may bear upon the impact that storybook reading has on children’s vocabulary.

Penno et al. (2002) investigated differences in vocabulary acquisition as a function of children’s initial linguistic ability. Specifically, they looked at children with either low or high initial linguistic ability to determine which group would receive more linguistic gains as a result of shared storybook reading. Children with high initial ability made greater vocabulary gains from pretest to posttest than did children with low initial ability, regardless of whether they were exposed to explanations of vocabulary words or not.

In addition to considering the initial ability of children, studies of shared storybook reading often give attention to the SES of children. Children from lower SES families are read to less frequently than children from higher SES families (e.g., Whitehurst, Arnold, et al., 1994). As established, amount of storybook reading impacts vocabulary growth. Children from lower SES groups typically score lower on tests of vocabulary than children from higher SES groups (e.g., Burns & Blewitt, 2000; Guthridge, 2002; Hart & Risley, 1995). While this trend, known as the Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986), seems to occur with any type of joint book reading experience, exceptions can be found in the extant literature.

The findings from Penno et al.’s (2002) study, along with other past research (e.g., Ewers & Brownson, 1999; Reese & Cox, 1999), demonstrate the Matthew Effect. However, some research shows an absence of a Matthew Effect. For example, Walsh and Blewitt’s (2006) investigation of the effects of the quality of storybook reading, particularly questioning style, on novel vocabulary acquisition of preschoolers, did not result in children with higher ability accruing more words than children with smaller initial vocabularies. Walsh and Blewitt speculated that the Matthew Effect may be partially a function of the fact that children with larger vocabularies begin a study with greater knowledge of words that are thought to be novel, whereas initial knowledge of novel vocabulary words was tightly controlled in Walsh and Blewitt’s study.

The age of children also seems to be a strong source of variation during shared storybook reading, perhaps because older children typically have larger vocabularies. Rump, Walsh, and Blewitt (2005) found that older 3-year-old children had more vocabulary knowledge at the commencement of the study and acquired more vocabulary from the shared storybook reading intervention, compared to younger 3-year-old children.

Despite the complexity of their interrelations, children’s initial ability, age, and SES are also each possible moderating variables. For instance, Reese and Cox (1999) indicated that younger children of middle SES and older children of lower SES will benefit from a shared storybook reading style low in cognitive demand, but that older children of middle SES will not benefit from this style. This suggests that the interaction of age and SES will result in different linguistic outcomes from the same storybook reading style.

Summary and Implications

To recap, this review of literature shows that how often a child is read to is related to subsequent gains in vocabulary (Beals et al., 1994; Burns & Blewitt, 2000; Neuman, 1999; Robbins & Ehri, 1994; Sénéchal, 1997). Not only do adults differ in the frequency with which they read to children (quantity), they also vary in reading style (quality). Several studies (e.g., Reese & Cox, 1999) have proposed that the cognitive demand level of questions children are asked may be important. Different reading styles may differentially affect children’s vocabulary learning. Children’s characteristics, such as initial vocabulary knowledge, SES, and age, may influence how much vocabulary they learn during shared storybook reading. Clearly, the extent to which children’s characteristics, such as vocabulary size and SES, interact with storybook reading style is an area for future research to consider.

Children come to preschool with varying experiences with storybook reading, thus infiuencing current and successive vocabulary learning. McCoach, O’Connell, and Levitt (2006) analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort. McCoach et al. found that ability groups based on reading skills was positively related to kindergartners’ reading growth over the course of a year. In light of this finding and the preceding discussion on the Matthew Effect, one implication for practitioners in classroom settings may be to provide storybook experiences to groups of children with similar vocabulary sizes. Concerted efforts in early childhood research and practice that attend to individual differences to promote vocabulary may work to disprove Stanovich’s (1986) assertion that individual differences in early literacy skills grow more discrepant with time.

While children’s characteristics may moderate early storybook reading, quantitative and qualitative differences seem to maintain variation in children’s vocabulary learning. As the research indicated, active storybook participation from children, encouraged by adult questions and comments during storybook reading, has consistently been found to facilitate children’s vocabulary learning. One such implication pertains to the use of highlighting words in the questions asked or requiring them in the preschooler’s responses. For example, in a storybook about winter activities, the adult or more advanced reader may ask the preschooler, “How many children are sitting on the toboggan!” Alternatively, the adult may point to the toboggan and ask, “What is this?” Adults should be encouraged to experiment with their extratextual comments and questions and adjust their interactions in ways that support the vocabulary learner. How often a child is read to and the style of the storybook reading are important contributors to children’s vocabulary growth.


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Bridget A. Walsh is a doctoral student, Department of Family Sciences, Texas Woman’s University, Denton.

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