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Tell Me A Story - June 2009

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Tell Me A Story

By: Peg Hutson-Nechkash, M.S., CCC-SLP
Barneveld School District
Owner of Strategies for Learning Press

A benefit to using high-quality children’s literature as the basis for targeting specific communication skills is the conversation that goes on before, during, and after reading. Stories naturally spark oral language as children comment, ask and answer questions, offer opinions, and make predictions about the story. Through interacting with literature, young children gain new words, learn linguistic structure, understand print concepts, develop narrative skills, and acquire a familiarity with literacy. These skills not only enhance language development but also accelerate reading achievement since the best single predictor of reading success is vocabulary size (Anderson and Freebody, 1981). Children who have larger vocabularies and a greater understanding of spoken language have an easier time with reading and other school subjects.

Traditionally, adults read stories aloud to children, but a different approach to reading suggests that children should not be the only listeners during reading times. Instead, there should be a shift in roles as children become the storytellers. Children should be encouraged to describe what they see happening in the books they are presented with, as adults assume the role of active listeners by asking questions, adding information, and prompting them to increase the sophistication of their descriptions. This practice, called Dialogic Reading, first appeared in a published study in 1988 (Whitehurst, Falco, Lonigan, Fischel, DeBaryshe, Valdez-Menchaca, & Caulfield). Studies examining outcomes in the domains of oral language, print knowledge, and early reading and writing have demonstrated significant, positive effects for children involved in Dialogic Reading. Their results suggested that children who have been read to dialogically outperformed ones who have been read to traditionally on tests of language development (Whitehurst and Lonigan, 1998).

Dialogic Reading involves repeated reading of the same book with the amount of adult-talking fading with each exposure to the book. In the dialogic reading method, when the adult reads a book for the first time with a child, he/she does most of the talking, pointing out the names of things the child may not know from the pictures. In subsequent readings, the child talks more, assisted by prompts from the adult, until the child is the storyteller.

Since early reading books are largely limited to words present in children’s oral vocabularies, Dialogic Reading is recommended for children who have a minimum of 50 words in their expressive vocabulary. In addition, picture books that are interesting to the child are recommended.

The Dialogic Reading technique follows a PEER (Prompt, Evaluate, Expansion, Repeat) sequence of steps, which is described below:


Five different types of Prompts to elicit language from the child are suggested:
  • Completion – leaving a blank at the end of the sentence and the child fills it in. This type of prompt works well with rhyme or repetitive phrases.
  • Recall, asking questions about what has already happened in the book. This type of prompt works well for most books with the exception of alphabet books. Recall prompts help children to understand the story plot and to describe sequences of events.
  • Open-ended – focusing on the pictures in the book by saying, “Tell me what is happening in this picture.” This type of prompt works best with books that have richly detailed illustrations. Open-ended prompts help children increase their expressive language and attention to detail.
  • Wh Questions, asking who, what, when, where, why, and how questions about the pictures and events in the story. Asking and responding to “wh” questions help children to organize story information.
  • Distancing – asking questions that relate the pictures or words in the book he/she is reading to experiences outside the book. Draw upon background knowledge that the child may have by saying, “Do you remember when we went to the zoo? What animals did we see at the zoo?” Distancing prompts help children form a bridge between books and the real world, as well as building vocabulary, conversational skills, and narrative skills.

  • Praise and Encourage, telling the child when he/she is doing well by saying things like: “Good talking!” or “That’s right. You knew what that was.”

  • Expansion, expand the child’s response by rephrasing and adding information to it. Keep the expansions short and simple. Encourage the child to repeat longer phrases.

  • Repeat the prompt, evaluate the PEER sequence to make sure that the child has learned the expansion.

Reading should be a fun and engaging activity for children. Try to keep reading times pleasurable and game-like. One way to do this is to switch between asking questions and regular reading. For example, the adult could read one page, and then have the child tell about the next page. Additionally, our goal is to foster in children a love for reading and good books. Too much questioning can hamper the continuity of a book by losing the flow of the story. To bring the child back to the story, use summarizing comments such as:

“We have talked about the boy and the girl walking in the woods and finding a little house made of candy. Let’s see what happens next.”

“At the beginning of the story, the Three Bears decided to go for a walk. Then, a little girl named Goldilocks found the Three Bears’ cottage. Is there anything else we know from the story?”

Dialogic Reading is a proven technique that educators can use to enhance children’s reading skills and make reading more fun and engaging. Since language and literacy are so closely intertwined, our students’ skills will grow in both areas with this approach. So let’s instruct our students to “use their words” and become storytellers, as well as story listeners, when looking at familiar books.


Anderson, R.C. and Freebody, P. (1981). Vocabulary Knowledge. In J.T. Guthrie (Ed.), Comprehension and teaching: Research reviews (pp. 77-117). Newark DE: International Reading Association.

Whitehurst, G. J., and Lonigan, C. J. (1998). "Child Development and Emergent Literacy." Child Development, 69, 848-872.

Whitehurst, G.J., Falco, F.L., Lonigan, C.J., Fischel, J.E., DeBaryshe, B.D., Valdez-Menchaca, M.C. and Caulfield, M. (1988). Accelerating Language Development through Picture Book Reading. Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 552-559.

This Month's Featured Vendor: Strategies for Learning Press

Many thanks to Peg Hutson-Nechkash, M.S., CCC-SLP for provideing this article for our Newsletter.

Peg Hutson-Nechkash, M.S., CCC-SLP, is the owner of Strategies for Learning Press. Peg is a speech-language pathologist with over 25 years experience working in schools. Peg is the author of numerous publications including Narrative Toolbox, Story Stunts, and Help Me Write published by Super Duper Publications. With LinguiSystems, Peg has written Word Catchers for Articulation and Speech Spinners. For Strategies for Learning Press, Peg has written Saying Big Words and Deeper Meanings.

Tags: June 2009 Newsletter Literacy Vocabulary Article