Accelerating Language Skills and Content Knowledge Through Shared Book Reading

reviewed by Anne van Kleeck - February 09, 2016

coverTitle: Accelerating Language Skills and Content Knowledge Through Shared Book Reading
Author(s): Sharolyn D. Pollard-Durodola, Jorge E. Gonzalez, Deborah C. Simmons, and Leslie E. Simmons
Publisher: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, Baltimore
ISBN: 1598572571, Pages: 169, Year: 2015
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Interventions using shared book reading with preschoolers at risk for later academic failure have been implemented since the mid 1990s. These initiatives were launched through the pioneering work of Whitehurst and colleagues on dialogic or interactive book sharing designed to increase children’s verbal interaction during this activity (1994). The impact of interactive book sharing on vocabulary has been well documented (see the meta-analysis conducted by Mol, Bus, de Jong, & Smeets, 2008). Many additional aspects of book sharing practices with preschoolers have been studied, such as focusing on various kinds of questions posed by the adult that require children to engage in inferencing (van Kleeck, 2014; van Kleeck, Vander Woude, & Hammett, 2006), engaging in repeated readings of the same book (Sénéchal, 1997), and illuminating the differences in adult extratextual discussions during storybook and information book sharing (Price, van Kleeck, & Huberty, 2009).

In Accelerating Language Skills and Content Knowledge Through Shared Book Reading, Sharolyn Pollard-Durodola, Deborah Simmons, Jorge Gonzalez, and Leslie Simmons describe a book sharing intervention titled Words of Reading and Language Development (WORLD) funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Science (IES) in 2005, and carried out over three years with 16 preschool teachers serving children from highly impoverished backgrounds (Gonzalez et al., 2011). Some of their work focuses on children classified as English Language Learners (ELLs) (Pollard-Durodola et al., 2012). A major strength of this intervention is its comprehensiveness and multidimensionality—it interweaves all of the above aspects of book sharing, and uses many additional teaching strategies and materials. The intervention cumulatively fosters children’s knowledge of networks of vocabulary words and related world concepts.

This sort of comprehensive intervention is critical as we strive to enhance preschooler language and world knowledge foundations for later reading comprehension and academic success (see DeBruin-Parecki, van Kleeck, & Gear, 2015). They are a welcome addition to the many successful interventions developed over the last few decades to teach phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge foundations for later decoding of print (see meta-analyses of such interventions by Ehri et al., 2001; Mol, Bus, & de Jong, 2009). Focusing on world knowledge in addition to vocabulary is a major strength of the intervention given the prevalence of both a substantial vocabulary gap between preschoolers at risk for later academic difficulties and their more privileged peers, but also a sizable knowledge gap (for a more detailed discussion, see Neuman, 2006).

The prescribed intervention has several different components, and both these components and the many details provided for implementing them are all nearly identical to those in a book sharing intervention developed by a different 2002 IES-funded research team for the first grade level (see Baker, Chard, Fien, Park, & Otterstedt, 2013; Santoro, Chard, Howard, & Baker, 2008). These teams are somewhat aware of each other’s work (Baker and D. C. Simmons worked together, and have published and submitted a grant together—Baker, personal communication, 2016). The book curiously does not cite the work of the Baker team, nor do Baker et al. (2013) cite the earlier paper by Gonzales et al. (2011). Given that the interventions are nearly identical, I will explain the nature of the intervention both teams used before focusing more on the intervention as it is presented in Accelerating Language Skills.

Sets of thematically related storybooks and information books were read aloud to young children. Themes were drawn from pre-kindergarten (the WORLD intervention) and first-grade (Baker’s team) state standards for science and social studies. The intervention lasted 20–30 minutes per day, everyday of the week, for 15–18 weeks. There were 24 (for pre–K students) to 30 (for first-grade students) storybooks and information books used. The teacher worked either with small groups of 5–6 children (the WORLD intervention) or the entire classroom (the Baker team).

One instructional thematic unit was covered per week and it related to science or social studies. Content was related to a big idea or theme, such as nature, and smaller topics, such as light. Smaller topics like light would focus on target words such as sky and shadow. Topic immersion was created using a storybook containing two to four target words that was read twice (Day 1 and 2) and a paired twin information text (on the same science or social studies topic as the story book) containing an additional two to four related target words that was also read twice (Day 3 and 4). The fifth day of each week was for review (WORLD), a re-read, or related activities (Baker team). The first-grade version of the intervention had themes that extended to three weeks for science topics‚ consisting of three story and three information books; and two weeks for social studies topics, consisting of two story and two information books.

Both teams provided examples of published children’s storybooks and information books, and specific vocabulary from the books that are related to the shared topics. The teachers anticipated ways they might be able to scaffold or support children in responding to them. Children participated by taking individual turns, and being guided in engaging in peer discussions about their books. Teachers developed open-ended questions for different periods that would encourage more extended child responses and discussions—before, during, and after the book sharing. Children were additionally engaged in retelling the story in the Baker team intervention. In the WORLD intervention, teachers thought of ways to have children take the new vocabulary and concepts into their homes and communities, and they thought of one way the vocabulary might be used during a center-based activity to extend beyond the book sharing activity.

The intervention is an excellent one. It is explicit in choosing books by connecting content to state standards in science and social studies. This determines related sets of vocabulary to choose from these books, and the intervention also specifies how many words to target. The intervention incorporates both storybooks and information books, and reflects recommendations for the Common Core State Standards (see It is focused on engaging children in extended discussions about new words and new world knowledge they are learning. The WORLD intervention also provides ideas for extending discussions about targeted vocabulary and concepts beyond the book sharing activity.


In terms of a formal book review, teachers need to have a rationale for why they should do the things asked of them in an intervention of this type. How this aspect of the WORLD intervention was accomplished is unfortunately not further explained. There is a helpful discussion of teacher professional development that acknowledges differences in teacher skill levels and rates of learning toward the end of the book. Due to the fact that some teachers need more support than others, three types of instruction are recommended. One might start with a traditional workshop in which all teachers participate. This could also be effectively followed with smaller groups that focus on teachers with similar needs in learning to apply the intervention. Finally, individual coaching could be provided for teachers who need more intensive support, and videotaping can effectively promote teacher reflection on what is working well and what is not.

The comprehensive interventions used by both teams have many different dimensions—unfortunately, this led to a weakness in the book. Although many things need to happen simultaneously in the intervention, readers might be better served in understanding the intervention if those many parts were first clearly distinguished and their sub-parts delineated. It was very helpful in most cases where this was done. This included discussions of the adult’s role in preparing each thematic unit and the five-day sequence used for each. This discussion also contained suggestions regarding how to embed discussion before, during, and after reading.

Readers are left to figure out the various pieces as they proceed through the book with regard to other content. They would benefit from an organizational framework to assist in processing the nature of the intervention. A brief orientation to the many kinds of questions adults might pose, sorting them into lower and higher cognitive demand, and providing examples of each might have proven helpful.

Another example where a preview of all subparts would have been helpful is the critical area of figuring out the child skills fostered by the intervention. It is obvious from the book’s title, and the discussion in the text, that the primary targets are networks of words and world concepts (e.g., content knowledge). A careful reading of the book, however, identifies a number of other secondary skills being fostered, and it might have proven useful if these additional skills would have been introduced earlier in the book with a rationale for their inclusion and a discussion of their interrelatedness. The secondary skills I noted include book conventions for both story and expository books, story grammar elements for storybooks, higher-level reasoning, and extended discourse skills. All of these skills are important foundations for later reading comprehension, which is not discussed in the book, but is an important contribution of the intervention that warrants mention.

Some elements are missing despite the comprehensive nature of the WORLD intervention. Language-based skills that are important readiness skills for later reading comprehension, and more general academic success, are not targeted. Narrative production is in the developmental purview of preschoolers, and can also be effectively fostered in preschoolers, as a recent meta-analysis of intervention studies demonstrates (Pesco & Gagné, 2015). This goal could easily be incorporated in the classroom—teachers could elicit and support children retelling stories used in the intervention, as was done in Baker’s version. Executive functions are a set of language-based skills that are also critically important to school success, and they begin developing in the preschool years (for a review of studies, see Cartwright & Guajardo, 2015). There is also evidence from intervention studies that these skills can be successfully taught (for a review of studies, see Diamond & Lee, 2011). Yet another area that comes to mind is fostering children’s autonomy (i.e., their ability to exercise control over what they do, and to have their own thoughts, feelings, and preferences). Supporting autonomy is also related to academic success (for a meta-analysis, see Vasquez, Patall, Fong, Corrigan, & Pine, 2015).

Towards the end of the book, there are extensive transcripts from two teachers who implement the WORLD intervention. The chapter provides concrete examples of these interventions as they unfold in real time. Although more explicitly understanding all of the intervention earlier in the text would have been helpful, its richness comes to life here. Many concrete examples of teacher-student dialogue provided are a significant strength of the book.

A valuable feature found in various places throughout the volume is the discussion of adaptations for teaching children who are ELLs. The researchers should be commended for the time and effort given to this aspect of their intervention although these suggestions are sometimes vague. The need for this type of information could not be greater as the demographics of our schools evolve to include higher numbers of children who are English Language Learners (ELLs). The authors write about two important English language acquisition goals for these children including language used for social interactions and academic learning. Recent work suggests this distinction should be made for all children at risk for later academic difficulties to more effectively foster the necessary language skills required for academic success (van Kleeck, 2014).

The authors chose not to specifically discuss their research findings from the WORLD intervention. This was an unfortunate omission for two reasons. First, other researchers would like to have this information, and second, and perhaps more importantly, educators are increasingly pressed to engage in evidence-based practice. This involves teaching educators how to interpret research findings and interpret effect sizes in intervention research. The choice to adopt a new intervention should be based partly on this type of information, so it would have been wise to include in a book intended for an audience of practitioners.

My concerns with Accelerating Language Skills are minor, especially when put in the context of the major contributions an intervention of this nature could make in enhancing preschool teacher practices in book sharing and language engagement. These efforts are important because of their potential to increase the chances of future academic success for preschoolers living in poverty. The goals of the intervention are impeccable—to teach vocabulary in sets of words that are related to world concepts or content knowledge, and to do so in a manner that simultaneously fosters higher-level thinking, and children’s ability to engage in extended discourse on a single topic. If effectively implemented, the intervention would certainly help many more children from high poverty backgrounds reach their academic potential.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 09, 2016 ID Number: 19416, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:13:03 AM

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