Skip to main content

Shared book reading: How you can help close the word gap

The word is out!

It’s been 30 years since Hart & Risley’s seminal research (reported in Meaningful Differences) uncovered what’s come to be known as the “word gap”—the startling gulf between the quality and frequency of adult–child conversations in some households versus others. The research showed that the children in some households spoke more words than the parents in typically lower-income households. As you might imagine, the children immersed in environments with richer conversational opportunities came to school better ready to learn.

Now, 30 years later, the word is out: The best thing parents can do to get their children ready for success in school is to talk, sing, and read with them!

Interactive book reading—asking questions, pointing to pictures, providing additional information, talking about life experiences—moves children from being passive listeners to being active learners


Books Build Connections Toolkit
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and partners
includes colorful handouts with tips for sharing books with children by age group

Beyond the Word Gap
multimedia resources to help parents, professionals, and policymakers

Thirty Million Words™ Initiative
University of Chicago Medicine
a parent-directed program to help parents “tune in, talk more, take turns”

The Talking Cure
by Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker
article about one town’s effort to close the word gap using LENA technology (described as “word pedometer”)

More Than Baby Talk
Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute
10 practices early childhood teachers can use to foster language and communication skills among infants and toddlers

As the awareness of the importance of these activities has grown, so has the number of resources available to support them (see sidebar). Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement urging pediatricians to encourage parents to read aloud to their children (Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice):

“Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent–child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.”

Interactive reading in preschool

Once children enter preschool, shared book reading is a prime opportunity to build vocabulary and content knowledge. By embedding specific strategies into the book-reading process, teachers can help bridge not only the word gap but also the world gap that many children from low-income homes enter school with. Living in poverty often limits children’s access to world experiences, which in turn limits their knowledge and puts them at risk for underachievement and comprehension difficulties. They’re behind before they even get started!

Studies over the past 25 years have shown that interactive reading practices can have a significant impact on the school readiness of children from low-income families. By making explicit connections between words in books and concepts embedded in children’s background before, during, and after shared reading sessions, teachers help children develop “networks of knowledge” that enable them to overcome the disadvantages of limited life experiences and socioeconomic resources.

Responsiveness is key


The effectiveness of interactive book reading is influenced by the way that children are read to and the interactions that occur around the actual book-reading itself. It depends on the adult’s ability to create a cycle of rich dialogue and feedback and to promote active learning by asking open-ended questions and encouraging children to point to pictures representing words and connected concepts, expand on explanations, and talk about related life experiences.

This can be a challenge for teachers who’ve had little guidance in these procedures. Studies show that young children and teachers typically spend little time engaged in conversations, and yet, shared book-reading practices that allow children to respond to and discuss important connections between words and concepts are crucial!

Accelerate content knowledge through interactive reading

Accelerating Language Skills and Content Knowledge Through Shared Book ReadingLearn more about effective shared book reading practices in the new book Accelerating Language Skills and Content Knowledge Through Shared Book Reading.



Seven effective shared book-reading practices

As a starting point, here are seven key practices teachers can integrate into their shared book-reading process:

  1. Use informational texts and storybooks to boost comprehension through frequent exposure to words, connected concepts, and prior knowledge
  2. Repeatedly read stories, allowing children to ask more questions and talk more about book-related content as they listen to a book multiple times
  3. Explicitly teach high-utility vocabulary words prior to reading the book and/or during the book-reading process to expose children to words that are important for later learning and text reading
  4. Engage in “before” and “after” shared reading conversations with brief in-context definitions, so that new content can be taught in the context of the book
  5. Provide multiple exposures to vocabulary and connected concepts, enabling children to learn words incrementally so that information accumulates over time
  6. Engage in higher-level discussions requiring children to use complex thinking skills (explaining, summarizing, associating, connecting, synthesizing, analyzing) to help children make connections between words and factual knowledge
  7. Prime background knowledge, prompting children to draw on personal experience to better understand new knowledge, increase comprehension, and expand world knowledge

By applying these practices, teachers can push children’s conversational abilities beyond what they can independently accomplish and, in the process, expand their knowledge about words and the world.


Adapted from the new book Accelerating Language Skills and Content Knowledge Through Shared Book Reading. For an illustration of these practices in action, see the Instructional Science Vignette: What Can Water Do? from the chapter on Shared Book-Reading Research and Content Learning.


Let's Read Together: Improving Literacy Outcomes with the Adult-Child Interactive Reading Inventory (ACIRI) Cowboys Count, Monkeys Measure, and Princesses Problem Solve: Building Early Math Skills Through Storybooks Developing Early Comprehension: Laying the Foundation for Reading Success


(Originally published: February 2015)