The Benefits of Dialogic Reading: An Excerpt from Tap, Click, Read

LISA GUERNSEY is a journalist and director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America.
MICHAEL LEVINE, PHD, is a child development and policy expert and founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

This excerpt from Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens discusses how interactive reading can be both educational and fun for children. This book provides a wealth of information on how educators and parents can use digital media to help children become strong readers. For more information, go to

For decades, across the country and around the world, parents have been hearing a one-note message: Read to your kids. This message may resonate if you have come from a place of relative privilege. If you are one of those parents who remember your own parents reading to you each night, and if you have shelves of books at home, this probably sounds like a no-brainer. Of course we will read to our kids. We already know that.

But even middle-income parents with books at home and stability in their daily lives may not know about the power of different ways of reading to our kids. Research on literacy and reading skill shows that there is a difference between just reading the text on the page and actively engaging with children while reading a story together. The latter is the one that matters more for language development and later literacy skills. More than a decade of studies on how children learn to read point to the powerful brainwork underway in those moments of interaction around a story. This way of reading—known as interactive story time or “dialogic reading” among experts—is now promoted in parenting workshops and literacy initiatives throughout the world.

No doubt, interactive reading requires more energy, especially if you’re begged to “use that funny voice, Mommy!” when you’re nearly comatose from working all day. But it is also so much fun. In Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age, Los Angeles writer Jason Boog brings to life the escapades of interactive reading with his daughter Olive. His book takes readers on an intimate journey into what, when, where, and how he started reading picture books with Olive from her earliest days. He paints quirky and poignant vignettes of how the two of them explored books together, from her intense concentration with Curious George, their wacky wordplay with Dr. Seuss, or his waves of nostalgia while reading the classic Blueberries for Sal. But what may be most interesting about Boog’s book is the way it starts: he gives parents instructions and guidance on how to spur those interactive reading sessions with their kids. The Born Reading Playbook, as Boog calls it, lists fifteen actions and “conversation starters” that can apply to e-books, print books, and everything in between. “Ask lots and lots of questions” is one. Another tip is to “stop and talk about what happened,” and “compare the story to personal experience.”

Boog’s book and his accompanying website, (, offer a real service to parents and educators willing to pick up a 303-page paperback to read about reading. But the Born Reading Playbook cannot be, nor is it designed to be, the answer to the literacy crisis facing our country. Those who work with families across the cultural landscape are yearning for ways to reach parents and caregivers who are coming from different socioeconomic strata, for whom books may be written in a language and cultural milieu that is not their own, or who feel uncomfortable and maybe even resentful about being pushed into conversation with their babies and toddlers in a way that feels foreign and, frankly, a little silly.

One approach is to help parents see, from their very first days of parenting, how their own personal responses can lead to those joyful moments when babies smile back and stretch their arms in glee, eager for more interaction.

The PALS program was built to elicit those moments. So that got Landry thinking: What if, in addition to helping parents become more positively responsive to their children, home visiting programs could also help parents to see new ways of reading with their kids? Would parents, without being pushed start pausing to ask children about what they have heard so far? Could the PALS method encourage parents with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to use books in this way with their children? Could it help turn children into readers?

Landry went back to find the parents who were part of her first study. By now their children were toddlers and preschoolers, ages two and three. She enlisted many of them to be part of another experiment, with one group receiving PALS as designed for toddlers and young preschoolers (and there- fore getting the opportunity to learn from video playback) and another group getting the video-less version of home visiting. At the end of the twelve-week experiment, she and her colleagues conducted assessments of how parents acted when they read books to their kids. They passed out books like Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and My Crayons Talk, left the parents alone with their children while they recorded their interactions, and then examined every second of those recordings for evidence of different behaviors.

Again, the results provided good news. The parents who received PALS home visitors during their children’s infancy and preschool years were much better at dialogic reading than their counterparts. They didn’t just read the text of the books. They described story elements, explained new vocabulary words, and gave children opportunities to talk about what they saw on the page. The skills of responsive parenting had extended to those moments sharing books. “That was exciting, to see that they can make that transfer,” Landry said. The corps of parents who know how to read interactively just gained some new members.

Video Vignette: Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) from Tap, Click, Read on Vimeo.


9781119091899.pdf ABOUT THE BOOK: In Tap, Click, Read authors Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine envision a future that is human-centered first and tech-assisted second. They document how educators and parents can lead a new path to a place they call ‘Readialand’—a literacy-rich world that marries reading and digital media to bring knowledge, skills, and critical thinking to all of our children. This approach is driven by the urgent need for low-income children and parents to have access to the same 21st-century literacy opportunities already at the fingertips of today’s affluent families.With stories from homes, classrooms and cutting edge tech labs, plus accessible translation of new research and compelling videos, Guernsey and Levine help educators, parents, and America’s leaders tackle the questions that arise as digital media plays a larger and larger role in children’s lives, starting in their very first years of life.

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