Power of shared reading in vocabulary development

Early childhood education experts and researchers agree: vocabulary development is foundational to young children’s language and literacy learning, journalist Emily Campbell writes.

Typically, children enter formal schooling with an estimated vocabulary of between 2300 and 4700 root words (Biemiller, 2009 as cited in Anderson & Anderson, 2021).

However, there tends to be a significant gap in the vocabularies of young children from immigrant families and families living in ‘vulnerable’ communities, or English language learners who speak another language at home, and those for whom English is the first language (Graves et al., 2013; Mancilla-Martinez & Leseaux, 2011 as cited in Anderson & Anderson, 2021).

Shared reading a rich opportunity Researchers Ann Anderson and Jim Anderson from the University of British Columbia in Canada sought to explore how parents of kindergarten-aged students in these vulnerable families helped their children develop and improve their English vocabularies.

The authors wanted to see how parents and caregivers engage in shared book reading time with the children, given its potential as a rich opportunity for word learning and concept development (Anderson & Anderson, 2021).

A wealth of research exists to support the power of interactive shared reading, which is shown to greatly benefit children’s vocabulary development, especially when adults draw attention to unknown words and provide explanations in context.

The fundamental question guiding their study was to discover the best strategies to support young children’s vocabulary development. How should an immigrant father, for whom English is a second language, use shared reading time with his preschool daughter?

Strategies to enhance shared reading

The researchers observed shared reading sessions between Mr Lee, a recent immigrant to Canada from Malaysia, and his four-year-old daughter Susan, as he read a fiction and a non-fiction book to her.

Although the family spoke Malay and English at home, English was the spoken language at Susan’s preschool.

Mr Lee used several strategies when engaging in shared reading time with Susan, which the researchers described as ‘exemplary’, given he had not undergone any formal reading training.

The four main strategies identified by the researchers were observed and categorised as:

  • verbal explanations
  • pointing to the relevant illustration associated with the verbal explanation
  • referencing the child’s previous life experiences, and
  • using demonstration and gestures.

According to the researchers, the above strategies are examples of Mr Lee using multi-modality (Kress, 2010 as cited in Anderson & Anderson, 2021) in shared reading, a theory where meaning is conveyed through different modes within a communication event.

“In shared book reading, the written text, the illustrations or pictures, the reader’s intonation, gestures and so forth work in synergy as participants construct meaning,” they wrote.

Children from diverse backgrounds benefit

Anderson and Anderson’s study is corroborated by that of Ewers and Brownson (1999) who found that kindergarten children’s vocabulary learning increased when the reader drew attention to unknown words compared to when the reader provided no explanation of these words.

Rather than simply reading a word aloud, Mr Lee enhanced his daughter’s learning experience by drawing attention to unfamiliar words, asking Susan if she knew what they meant, providing rich verbal explanations and using illustrations to support her understanding.

Existing research about interactive shared reading time asserts that it has significant social and academic benefits for children, particularly in the acquisition of vocabulary for those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Members with an interest in reading more about the benefits of a multi-modal approach to shared reading with kindergarten aged students for whom English is a second language are strongly encouraged to read the entire study by Anderson & Anderson.


Anderson, A and Anderson, J (2021), Supporting vocabulary development in a culturally/linguistically diverse family, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 0(0) 1-18 DOI: 10.1177/1468798421995533