Oral reading styles affect literacy development

Previous research has demonstrated that the way in which teachers interact with preschoolers affects their developing language skills and that these skills, in turn, play a significant role in reading comprehension.

Now, the results of a recent study conducted by David K. Dickinson and Miriam W. Smith, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, indicate that a teacher’s style of oral reading influences the type of interaction he/she has with students and that this has lasting effects on the vocabulary and story comprehension skills of four-year-olds. (This data is part of the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, a long-term research project intended to assess the home and school experiences of children from low-income families whose development is being followed from age three through fourth grade.)

Oral reading was a common large-group activity in all of the 25 preschool classrooms that Dickinson and Smith studied. They identified three distinct styles of oral-reading and sought to determine whether, after one year, any particular style led to better vocabulary development and story comprehension. Oral-reading sessions in these classrooms were videotaped and transcribed, teachers and students were interviewed and language tests were administered to students.

The three styles of oral reading identified were:

1.) co-constructive, characterized by considerable discussion prompted by teachers’ analytical questions throughout the reading with limited talk before or after.

2.) didactic, characterized by little discussion between teacher and students. The teacher prompts group recall of factual events in the story, but a high proportion of teacher talk deals with organizational matters (where to sit, how to behave) and with keeping children involved and attentive.

3.) performance, characterized as a style that treats reading as something to be enjoyed. There are only infrequent interruptions and stories are discussed before and after readings.

Dickinson and Smith conclude that it is the type of discussion surrounding oral reading rather than the style of reading itself that most influences children’s literacy development.

In this study, the most productive types of discussions occurred in conjunction with co-constructive and performance reading styles. According to Dickinson and Smith, these styles tended to involve a considerable amount of analytical discussion — making predictions, talking about vocabulary and analyzing the story and therefore led to better language development. Such discussions are helpful in creating a strong conceptual base for vocabulary and in providing opportunities to use unfamiliar words.

The didactic approach did not stimulate literacy-related language growth in children. Chiming (oral repetition of repeated phrases) and recall of facts were more common in didactic lessons than analytical talk. Teachers using a didactic approach tended to choose books of limited vocabulary and minimal plot that did not lend themselves to analysis or stimulate language development.

Overall, these researchers found that to be fully involved in the most beneficial type of discussion, children need to be actively engaged in a dialogue with the teacher, either by contributing directly to discussions or by listening to them.


Dickinson and Smith conclude that teachers in standard classrooms can enhance the effectiveness of their oral-reading time without major instructional changes. Their oral reading can be made more effective if they encourage analytical discussions. The amount of discussion is not as important as the type of discussion.

Because the performance-style presentation was found to be equally successful in vocabulary development, teachers should not feel compelled to constantly stop reading in order to engage in lengthy discussions. Talk before and after reading appears to be just as beneficial, as long as the discussion centers on analyzing the story and vocabulary.

“Long-Term Effects of Preschool Teachers’ Book Reading on Low-Income Children’s Vocabulary and Story Comprehension”, Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 29, Number 2, June 1994, pp. 105-120.

Published in ERN, September/October 1994, Volume 7, Number 4.

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