Want access to our VIP Vault?

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Maya Payne Smart

The idea of reading to children daily is deeply entrenched in American culture, even if the practice hasn’t completely taken hold. Books advising parents on creating family reading routines, and recommending what to read to kids when, have flourished since the 1930s. Raise-a-reader stories are standard features of parenting magazines and blogs. Schools, teachers, and community organizations all tout the benefits of reading to kids. My local grocery store chain even runs a book drive and encourages parents to pledge to read to their children several times a week.

But there’s much less discussion of what exactly to do during storytime beyond turning the pages, reading with feeling, and keeping things fun. The link between printed words on the page, a parent’s spoken recitation of them, and the child’s path to literacy is unclear. In fact, experts say that typical parent read-alouds focus on the story and illustrations. And small children more often than not imagine that we’re deriving the story we’re reading aloud (down to its specific wording) from the engaging pictures, not the squiggles next to them. 

When reading together, we tend to do little to raise kids’ awareness of how books work, how print conveys meaning, and what letters and words really are. These are vital lessons, because before a child can read print, they must notice it.

Fortunately, it takes just a small course correction to maximize story time and help little ones bridge from listening into literacy. Parents or caregivers have thousands of opportunities to give mini-lessons on print concepts during storybook reading. It’s just a question of knowing what to point out to help forge a conscious connection between what they’re hearing and what you’re reading.

Note the emphasis here is on “mini.” Just sprinkle in a few comments (max), before or during reading, to direct attention to how books are organized and how print mirrors spoken language. And be sure to use your finger to point to letters and words, which helps them connect print and speech.

Following are five things to call attention to when reading with your child, along with proven talking points, derived from research into how to boost young kids’ literacy skills

Book Cover Elements

Before you dive into a book with your child, get in the habit of taking a few moments to consider the cover together, highlighting the title and author or illustrator names. Just point to the appropriate cover elements while describing what the words say and how they relate to the book. 

Sample Phrases:

  • The person who wrote the book is called the author. These words are the author’s name. (Point to the author’s name.) It says Vashti Harrison.
  • This is the name of the book. It says Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. What is the name of the book?
  • Look at the words here on the book’s cover.

Book Organization

It’s obvious to us as adults who are skilled readers, but the notion that books are read in a particular order, from front to back, is something that kids must learn. Similarly, they must come to understand that in English we read from the top of the page to the bottom and from left to right. Little ones may recognize these print features eventually without you directly mentioning them, but quickly pointing out page order, page organization, and print direction will get them there faster.

Sample Phrases:

  • These are the words on the page. I need to read them this way. (Traces finger from left to right along the text.)
  • Where should we start reading? Here? (Points to the first word on the page.) Or here? (Points to the last word on the page.)
  • I know this is the top of the page.  Show me where the bottom of the page is.

Print Meaning

Books are a handy tool for teaching an abstract concept—that the lines and curves kids see printed on paper, on products, and on signs mean something. That printed symbols, called letters and words, represent spoken sounds and words, and that making sense of those symbols is what we call reading. Parents can use their words and finger pointing to help kids make the connection between written language and oral language.

Sample Phrases:

  • This is where the bunny is talking. The bunny’s words are inside this bubble. (Points to speech bubble.) 
  • Oh, my. Look at this word! This word is shouting. Look at the shapes of the letters. They are big and wide and red. They look like they are shouting, don’t they? This word looks like what it means, doesn’t it? It says shouting. What is this word?
  • Show me where the bunny is talking.


Books typically feature uppercase and lowercase versions of letters, as well as different fonts. They provide opportunities to state the names of letters while pointing to their diverse images, so that kids can begin to connect the letter name, shape, and sound in mind as different representations of the same category. And books also illustrate the point that letters make up words, helping kids bridge into reading. 

Sample Phrases:

  • This is an upper-case letter. Can you trace it with your finger?
  • This is the letter B. (Pointing to the letter.) It makes the /b/ sound. We see this letter in lots of words. We see B in the word babysitter and in the word boy. Let’s point to all of the B’s on this page.
  • The letters D,O, and G make up the word dog. (Pointing to each letter in turn.)


Learning to recognize words in print is another skill that’s years in the making. Kids have to learn that letters are different from words, although some words have just one letter. They have to grasp that words have space between them in writing and that they carry meaning. And that’s just what it takes to become aware of words as a general concept or category of print. They still have to do the hard work of recognizing particular words, such as their name, high-frequency words, or high-utility words. Books give parents a convenient way to gently call attention to these concepts again and again.

Sample Phrases:

  • This is the word Mommy right here. What is this word?
  • Look at these two words. Which word do you think is a short word—this word? (Points to my.) Or this word? (Points to teacher).
  • This page has four words on it, I will smile anyway! Let’s count the words while I point. 

Remember, light and easy is the way. Keep the shared book reading experience fun by centering the story. Reference print lightly but regularly, with just a few comments, questions, or directions in each book you share with your little one.

How does this article change the way you think about reading aloud with kids? What will you do differently as a result?

Pin Me for Reference :