Reading Skills for Children | A Growing Understanding

How You Can Use Books to Improve Children’s Language & Understanding

As a speech pathologist, I often have parents come into my sessions and ask, ‘How can I help my child get ready for school?’ One of my favourite go-to suggestions is by using books as one of the tools. With a few tweaks in the way we read books, we can turn our kids into active participants in the books we’re reading, rather than passive audience members to a book-reading show. So how can we do this? Here’s one way:

Blank’s Levels of Questioning

Created by psychologist Marion Blank, Blank’s Levels of Questioning is a framework that was developed after careful study of the classroom environment. Dr Marion identified that during the early school years – from around 3 to 7 years old – children were commonly asked four different types (or levels) of questions in the classrooms. The levels ranged from ‘simple’, more concrete questions to increasingly more complex and abstract questions. The framework was developed to encourage a child’s language and word (vocabulary) development, as well as their problem-solving, understanding of questions, and prediction skills.

Why Read Books using Blank’s Questions at Home?

Research suggests again and again that many children (up to 15%!) lack the language and comprehension (understanding) skills required to keep up with what school asks of them (Hart & Fielding-Barnsley, 2009). By using Blank’s Levels when reading books at home, we can help expose our children to the massive amount of words they need in order to thrive in the school – and home – environment.

Here’s a fascinating fact: We generally use around the same 500 words to make conversation with other people. But there are over 170 000 words currently used in the English language! And we are exposed to more of those words through book reading. Book reading is so important to developing our children’s overall language skills. By incorporating Blank’s Questions into our book reading, we increase our children’s interest and engagement in books, in turn giving them the greatest possible chance of thriving in their early school years and beyond.

How to Incorporate Blank’s Questions

When reading a book with your child, we can ask a variety of questions to increase language learning and development. We can concentrate on particular levels that match a child’s age, or provide examples of how to use particular language and thinking approaches by incorporating all question types, regardless of age! The Levels and examples of their question types are as follows:

Level 1:

This level focuses on looking at the pictures there on the page by using lots of ‘where’ and ‘point to’ and ‘can you…’ prompts. Questions can include:

  • ‘Where is the horse? Can you find him?’
  • ‘I can see a cow. Can you find another one like it?’
  • ‘This is a dog. Can you say ‘dog’?’

This level generally develops around 3 years of age. As your child gets older, you could practice these questions using pictures that are busy. Think ‘I Spy’ or ‘Where’s Wally’, and have some fun with it!

Level 2:

This level focuses on talking about things that are on the page. We begin to encourage understanding a little more by asking ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘which’ and ‘who’ questions, as well as thinking about similarities, differences, and categories (like ‘clothes’, ‘furniture’, ‘plants’, ‘things that are cold’). Questions can sound like:

  • ‘What has happened in this picture?’
  • ‘Here is the car. What colour is the car? Is it big or small? Let’s count how many wheels there are on it.’
  • ‘Can you find me the thing we could wear to play outside in the rain?’
  • ‘How is a gumboot and a sandal different?’
  • ‘Can you name another type of shoe?’

This level generally begins to develop around 4 years of age.

Level 3:

This level focuses on thinking about the book or its pictures in a deeper way. We can describe events; think about those categories from Level 2; explore word definitions, or what could happen on the next page. Questions at this level can sound like:

  • ‘What do you think will happen next?’
  • ‘He looks very sad. What do you think he might say to his friend to let him know he’s sad?’
  • ‘I can see a train and a car. How are a train and a car the same?’
  • ‘He’s put his food on the table. What is a table?’
  • ‘He cooked himself an egg! Do you remember how we cook an egg?’
  • ‘Can you find me an animal that doesn’t have wings?’

This level generally develops around 4;5-5 years of age. We can start to encourage our children to think about their own experiences outside of the book (like cooking an egg), and encourage them to relate their life to what’s happening in the pictures… Did they cook the egg the same?

Level 4:

This level focuses on our reasoning and predicting and requires us to use our own knowledge as well as what we learn in the book. Questions are much less focused on what is on the page or picture, and more on how it can relate to their own lives. These questions can sound like:

  • ‘What will happen if he goes outside without a jumper?’
  • ‘Why do you think he was angry when his friends said he couldn’t play?’
  • ‘How can we tell that she is excited?’
  • ‘Why should we use a pot to cook instead of a paper bag?’
  • ‘Why can’t he just place his hands on the cookie tray?’
  • ‘What could you do to help the man crossing the road?’

This level develops generally around 6 years old.

Reading books to help with school readiness | A Growing Understanding

“But my child just tells me, ‘I don’t know!’” – What to do if my child has difficulty answering the question?

There are going to be some HARD questions for our children to answer, so it’s very fair if you find your child saying, ‘I don’t know’. Remember: the point of this book reading approach isn’t to have a child ‘pass a test’, but to have them exposed to more wonderful words! Another way we can do that is model our thinking process by answering the questions for them!

If your child tends to say, ‘I don’t know…’ then jump in with, ‘well… I think that maybe he could help the man by taking his arm and walking with him! What do you think about that idea?’ or, ‘He can’t put his hands on the cookie tray because it’s hot! Remember how I said ‘OUCH’ the other day when I touched the oven. We can burn ourselves if we touch something too hot.’

Our children’s ability to learn through watching and listening during their time with us is INCREDIBLE. By asking fun questions throughout book reading, we give our children the opportunity to listen and learn, and make book reading all the more fun.

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