Improve Reading Comprehension In Toddlers and Preschoolers

Improve Reading Comprehension In Toddlers and Preschoolers

The importance of reading to young children cannot be overstated. Years and years of research have described the benefits from improving language skills, to developing strong literacy skills, to long-term academic success. But did you know that not all reading is created equal?

In fact, it’s actually the style of reading, more than the frequency, that impacts children’s early language and literacy development. Although this may be a bit surprising to hear, it’s not sufficient to simply read a text aloud to a young child in order to encourage them to learn from it, and since most parents I know are reading to kids to help them with their language and literacy, the question then becomes, “what should I be doing instead?”

I was recently reading a study that stated, “the earlier parents become involved in their children’s literacy practices, the more profound the results and the longer-lasting the effects” (Mullis, Mullis, Cornille et al., 2004). Reflecting on this statement, I felt it was time to do a post that discusses the meaning of the word “involved”.

Books before bedtime are great, but sometimes we all need a few tips on how to really make the most of these moments together. When adults make some simple changes to how they read during story time, which goes beyond just reading the words on the page, this has a major effect on how children engage with books, and ultimately their comprehension of what is being read.

1) Use gestures

Almost everyone uses gestures when they talk and this is so beneficial to a young child’s language development. Several studies have shown that producing and comprehending speech is significantly influenced by the presence of co-speech gestures, such as pointing, reaching or modeling actions. Basically, the more parents use gestures, the stronger children’s language seems to be.

Yet something happens during book reading with young kids and these gestures practically  disappear. I’m assuming it’s the complexity that comes along with holding a little one, plus the book, leaving both hands occupied. Yet I’m here to tell you that making some modifications to positioning so that gestures can be included in story time is critical.

Gestures are the bridge to understanding for little ones. They are learning so many new words all the time and gestures makes incorporating meaning of these words easier. Researchers tell us that in books, gesture combined with speech builds stronger and more vivid expectations of the pictures than just speech alone. So next time you read, tweak positioning (or even location) so you can use some gestures. Point to pictures of novel words as you read them, accompany verbs with actions where possible (e.g., physically pat the dog’s head on the page if the line reads “he patted the dog’s head”) or show your child the meaning of more complex words off the page (e.g., if a book is describing something that is “far” point out objects near and far to your child in their room). One thing to remember is that adding gestures should not interrupt the story flow, but should be a subtle and welcome addition to the story by your child.

2) Voices and sound effects

Reading to toddlers and preschoolers can be a challenge sometimes. There can be lots of moving and wiggling, skipping pages and going backwards; it can be hard for any parent to think about improving reading comprehension during this scenario. In my experience, the best way to read to these busy-bees is to be exciting and bring the story to life through your voice. Including funny voices for their favourite characters and adding noises and sound effects (e.g., make crash noises when things collide or sound effects for a big storm) throughout the book offers two things. First, it will keep your little one engaged with the story longer, and the more they are engaged the more language learning can happen. Second, these little additions can enhance the meaning of what is happening on the page beyond the written word.

3) Read slowly and include pauses

One of the most powerful pieces of shared reading is what happens in the pauses between pages and after the book is closed. In this moment of quiet the child is allowed the opportunity for “non-immediate talk”, which has proven to be particularly beneficial for children’s language enhancement.

Non-immediate talk is talk that goes beyond the information in the text or the pictures. For example, it could be making connections to the child’s past experiences or to the real world (e.g., ‘‘Clifford eats ice cream. You had ice cream today too’’), or to offer plot explanations (e.g., ‘‘He must have been really hurt because he cried a lot’’), or including explanations of word meanings (e.g., ‘‘A piglet is a baby pig’’). Mothers’ use of non-immediate talk while reading to their preschoolers was related to children’s later performance on measures of vocabulary, story comprehension, definitions and emergent literacy.

Next time you read try and take a few pauses. Pause between sentences, paragraphs and/or pages (I typically do 5-10 seconds between each page). It will feel a little strange at first to take these moments of silence, but after a while your little one will start filling the space with their own ideas and questions, which you can use to help increase their comprehension of the story. Just give them the chance!

4) Book reading should not be a quiet time

Occasionally I speak to parent groups about literacy development and the first thing I say is to get rid of this image of a parent reading to their child, who sits quietly and peacefully on their lap the entire time. This idea is not only unrealistic when reading to young children, but not what book reading should look like if you want to promote language development.

Two parental styles of reading have been identified in the literature as having beneficial effects on child vocabulary: the describer style and the performance- oriented style. A describer style focuses on describing the pictures during reading and a performance-oriented style focuses on talking about the meaning of the story after completion.

In both cases there is a dialogue during book reading between the child and the adult. Some kids are naturally chatty and will make comments and ask questions throughout the book. This is to be strongly encouraged and parents should expand on their child’s statements by engaging them in conversation (e.g., Child: “A bunny” Parent: “This is the mommy bunny” Child: “A baby bunny” Parent: “Yes. This is the mommy bunny and her baby. I’m your mommy and you are my baby”)

For those kiddos who aren’t offering as much to talk about, the adult should model short comments and/or questions about what is happening in the book, which indicates to your child that you encourage dialogue. These kids will also likely require longer pauses before they add their own ideas in. Also remember, there should be no pressure to talk. Just provide a good model and leave them enough pauses to have a chance to speak during a story. They will when they are ready.

5) Read, re-read and read again

Even I like to change up our books each night, but my kids always love to go back to their favourites! It does require me to put my thinking cap on to get motivated and engaged with the same story I have read a hundred times, but the joy I see on my kids faces makes it worth it.

Research shows that when storybooks are read out loud two or more times, and word meanings explained, children can acquire 8 to 12 word meanings per week; and that is just in story time! So the simplest and most basic tip I can share to improve a young child’s reading comprehension is (even if you don’t feel like it) read those favourite books again and again and again!

Parents that are actively involved in their children’s literacy activities not only provide benefits for their children, there are also numerous benefits that have been reported for the parents themselves. These include: greater skill acquisition, greater confidence and self-esteem, a better parent-child relationship, and increased engagement with learning.

Please feel free to share with me your ideas for helping toddlers and preschoolers understand stories. I love learning from others and keeping the conversation going!


Duursma, E., Augustyn, M. & Zuckerman, B. (2008). Reading aloud to children: the evidence. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 93(7), 554-557.

Kelly, S., Manning, S. & Rodak, S. (2008). Gesture gives a hand to language and learning: Perspectives from cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology and education. Language and Linguistic Compass 2, 2-20.

McCoy, E. & Cole, J. (2011). A snapshot of local support for literacy: 2010 survey. London: National Literacy Trust.

Mullis, R.L., Mullis, A.K., Cornille, T.A., Ritchson, A.D. & Sullender, M.S. (2004). Early literacy outcomes and parent involvement. Tallahassee, Fl: Florida State University

Pelletier, J. (2011). What works? Research into practice. Research Monograph, 37, 1-4.

Reading Rockets. (2009). Reading for meaning with your child. Retrieved online February 3, 2016 at

1 Comment
  • Lili
    Posted at 20:57h, 15 February Reply

    Yes I find re reading helps a lot 🙂 it’s a torture for us adults but the kids love to read stories they’re familiar with and that helps with understanding and word recognition.

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