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Parent practices: change to develop successful, motivated readers

Oxford University Press is a proud sponsor of the 2014 World Literacy Summit, taking place this April. The Summit will provide a central platform for champions of literacy from around the globe to come together and exchange points of view, knowledge, and ideas. We asked literacy experts Jamie Zibulsky and Anne E. Cunningham to discuss the importance of literacy on this occasion.

By Jamie Zibulsky and Anne E. Cunningham


Being literate involves much more than the ability to sound out the words on a page, but acquiring that skill requires years of development and exposure to the world of words. Once children possess the ability to sound out words, read fluently, and comprehend the words on a page, they have limitless opportunities to learn about new concepts, places, and people. To say that becoming a reader gives one the power to change is an understatement. In fact, attempting to detail the many ways that reading can foster personal growth and development without writing an entire book on the topic is truly challenging!

Children’s capacities to build the many skills required to access text are, to a large degree, determined by their environments. Parents and teachers play a critical role in introducing children to the sounds of words, the print on a page, the ideas and concepts that provide the background for comprehension, and the structure of stories. For these reasons, if we want to ensure that all children have the opportunity to become successful, motivated readers, we need to think about the power the adults in their lives have to change children’s literacy trajectories.

The language and literacy experiences of young children are largely social in nature, and both the environment and the adults that care for them initially guide children’s development. In fact, psychologists point out that language development occurs first as a social act between people and then later as an individual act, as we gradually internalize the directions, strategies, and advice of more skilled others by verbalizing them to ourselves. Similarly, to make sense of the written symbols used to convey any language, children need guidance from the adults in their lives. Talking and reading together with children is a powerful way to help them gain entry to the world of words, and doing so most effectively may require parents to change their current practices.

The kids reading together. photo by Valerie Everett. CC BY-SA 2.0 via valeriebb Flickr.

The kids reading together. Photo by Valerie Everett. CC BY-SA 2.0 via valeriebb Flickr.

Here are some powerful tips that families can use to make shared reading time supportive and effective for young children learning a variety of languages:

  • Let your child take the lead during reading time. We often think of reading together as a time when a parent reads a story to a child straight through, page by page. Instead, let your child take more of an active role by using the pictures to narrate the story, answering your questions about aspects of the book, or sounding out some words independently. This may feel like you and your child are swapping your regular reading roles. And that’s exactly what we want you to do. Even before children are able to read independently, they are ready to be active participants in book reading experiences. Giving them these opportunities helps children build stronger language skills, and provides some insight into their skills and interests.
  • Give your child hints, rather than providing the answer, when he is struggling. This support helps the child solve the problem in a way that allows him to feel competent and to learn from the situation, but also lets the adult to guide the child through the problem-solving process. In addition, it gives him the chance to successfully experience tasks he would not have been able to tackle alone, or that would otherwise make him become frustrated and give up.
  • Identify your child’s strengths, and those reading skills he or she already possesses. Providing experiences that build on the skills your child already possesses will allow her to enhance her learning capacities. If you think about almost any activity you expect your child to complete, you can probably think back to a time when you completed that activity for her. Gradually, over time, she took more responsibility and was able to do more of the task independently. This is not only true for activities like getting dressed and tying shoes, but also for language and literacy tasks, as well as tasks that require memory and concentration.
  • Label the behavior that you want your child to display, and praise it specifically.  Praise and encouragement from parents is a powerful motivational tool. Because shared reading is such a social activity, much of your child’s initial pleasure in reading together may come not primarily from the stories that he hears, but from the joy of sitting in your lap and spending time together. Your child values the time you spend together and will, over time, begin to value the books in front of him and the strategies needed to make sense of them. You can help him build his reading motivation by praising specific skills he displays, like listening carefully, sounding out words, and making great predictions.


Each of these tips helps set the stage for a successful shared reading experience, but may require change on the part of parents to help foster a powerful and engaged reader. These changes, though, help empower children to identify themselves as readers from the time they are young. And this strong foundation prepares them for so many challenges they will face in the future, so doing everything one can to raise a successful, motivated reader is one of the best gifts a parent can give any child.

Anne E. Cunningham, Ph.D. and Jamie Zibulsky, Ph.D. are the authors of Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers. Anne Cunningham is Professor of Cognition and Development at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Education and Jamie Zibulsky is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Learn more at Book Smart Family.

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