Using a variety of prompts

We have mentioned the importance of providing children with a variety of prompts and questions during joint book reading, but now let’s take a deeper look at why. To begin, different types of prompts present different levels of linguistic complexity (i.e., some require a higher degree of language knowledge than others); this allows educators the opportunity to adapt their prompts to each child’s relative skill level, what Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development.

Watch this video to learn more about the ZPD:

In other words, the ZPD is the learning sweet spot; where educators push a child just enough to offer a challenge, without going too far and causing frustration, or disengagement. When children are forced too far out of their ZPD, behavior problems will inevitably emerge, and understandably so; even adults get overwhelmed when asked to do things for which they lack the knowledge or skills to accomplish. By possessing a ready arsenal of different prompt types, educators can learn to adapt their prompts on the fly, in response to a child’s performance or behavior.

Remember, joint reading should always be fun– if you think a child is struggling to answer or starts acting out, then give them a little help or let a peer answer first as a model. Children spend a greater time listening to their peers’ responses than answering questions themselves, and in doing so they can learn a good deal. By capitalizing on this, educators who use a variety of prompts can target a broad spectrum of literacy and language skills, across all four domains.

You have already learned the prompt types described in Dialogic Reading, helpfully organized into the acronyms CROWD and CAR. However, there is one domain of emergent literacy that they fail to address directly: written language awareness. This is where print referencing prompts come into play.

What are print referencing prompts?

As the name suggests, these are prompts that serve to direct a child’s attention to the printed text in a book. They provide opportunities for children to develop the knowledge of how print functions and is organized. An understanding of print forms can help children learn to distinguish alphabet letters and that letters combine in different ways to form words that convey meaning.

Print referencing prompts can include tracking the print, pointing to certain letters/words on a page, asking children to identify letters/words, providing comments about the print, and asking children to find specific letters/words on a page. Some experts divide the types of print referencing into the following categories:

Also called direct print referencing, this strategy involves using verbal prompts to intentionally focus a child’s attention on the printed text. It can include:

  • Asking questions – these can be simple (“What is the first letter on this page?”) or more complex (“Why do you think this word is bigger than the rest?”) depending on the child’s existing print knowledge.
  • Making comments – “Look how at how big the author made this word! That lets me know I should read it really loud”
  • Making requests about the print – “show me where to start reading” “point to the end of the sentence”

Verbal print referencing prompts allow educators the opportunity to provide explicit instruction on written language awareness skills (as listed in this table from module 1) during class readings.

Sometimes called indirect print referencing or augmented input, this strategy involves using nonverbal– a.k.a. gestural– prompts to direct a child’s attention toward the printed text. It can include:

  • Pointing to print– using your finger, or a designated tool, to emphasize certain words or letters (Tip: combine this with a Cloze prompt, as described in CROWD, by pointing to the word that fills the “blank” while waiting for a response)
  • Tacking the print– tracing underneath the printed text as you read it, using your finger or a designated tool; when reading lesson content materials, teachers can track the print with a pencil to underline important words or phrases.

Non-verbal print referencing can help reinforce children’s comprehension of the reading while simultaneously aiding their written language awareness development.

Unfortunately, research has shown that many early childhood educators do not often reference print while reading to their students, thereby missing valuable learning opportunities (Zucker, Justice, & Piasta, 2009). Other studies have indicated that most adults do not naturally incorporate print referencing while reading, nor do young children spontaneously pay attention to the print without direction (Justice & Ezell, 2000; Justice, et. al., 2009). These facts reinforce the importance of practicing self-assessment and addressing any gaps you might find, be that a lack of print referencing or any of the other strategies discussed in this module.

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