Applied Psychology OPUS

Literacy Practices and Book Reading Styles in Bilingual Head Start Classrooms

by Silvia Niño

Early narratives shared between children and adults are crucial for children’s linguistic and cognitive development. Most research on narrative development has focused on parent-child conversations and book reading interactions. However, parent-child interaction is only one context through which children develop narrative skills. Because preschoolers spend a significant part of their day in preschool, interactions between children and their preschool teachers also play a formative role for children’s narrative competency. Nevertheless, only a handful studies have examined the book-sharing styles used by preschool teachers, and little is known about how teachers adapt their book-sharing approach to bilingual environments. The present study examined the literacy practices and book-sharing styles of teachers in twelve bilingual (Spanish-English) Head Start classrooms as they shared wordless and text-based books with their class. Results suggest that there are differences in the ways teachers share text-based and wordless books, and that book types elicit different behaviors which may have implications for emergent literacy development. Results are discussed in relation to the role of teacher-class book-sharing on children's language development as well as how bilingual teachers’ book reading style compares to that of Latino mothers.

As the largest growing minority in the country, Latinos comprise over 15% of the total U.S. population (Garcia & Jenson, 2009; National Research Council, 2006; U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). In fact, one in every five children under the age of 5 is of Latino background. Although there is much diversity in Latino culture and heritage (Garcia & Jenson, 2009),the majority of Latino children in the United States come from Spanish-speaking homes. At present, over 60% of English-language learners in preschool and elementary classrooms come from low-income Spanish-speaking homes (Capps, Fixx, Ost,Reardon-Anderson, & Passel, 2004). Already when they enter kindergarten, Latino children from low-income families lag behind their mainstream peers in reading, math and overall school readiness skills, in particular those tasks related to emergent literacy skills. For example 50% of Latino children do not recognize the letters of the alphabet at the start of kindergarten, as compared to 25% of White children (Duncan & Magnusun, 2005; Espinosa et al., 2006).Thus, starting at school entry, Spanish-speaking Latino children from low-income families tend to score below their White and Black peers on measures of emergent literacy skills, and this cycle of failure continues to grow throughout the school years (Duncan & Magnuson, 2005), with Latino adolescents demonstrating an alarmingly high level of high-school dropout rates(U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). For this reason, early childhood programs such as Head Start play a critical role in fostering early school readiness skills, including emergent literacy, in children from low-income Latino backgrounds. In fact, 27% of children enrolled in Head Start centers nationwide (Office of HeadStart, 2009) and 35% of children enrolled in New York City in Head Start centers (Dolan, 2009) are Latinos from Spanish-speaking homes. Nevertheless, to date, few studies have explored the classroom emergent literacy experiences of Spanish-speaking Latino children in Head Start classrooms.

Emergent literacy is a developmental process that begins early in life and is highly correlated with literacy achievement and overall school success (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Snow, Tabors, & Dickinson, 2001; Yaden, Rowe, & MacGillivray, 2000).Emergent literacy includes a variety of skills including vocabulary, print knowledge, letter recognition, and meta-linguistic awareness (Caspe, 2007; Purcell-Gates, 2001; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998), as well as de-contextualized discourse skills. Researchers have examined de-contextualized discourse skills through the study of narratives, interactions in which one must create meaning through the use of words (Caspe, 2009; Snow, Tabors, Nicholson, & Kurland, 1995).

Narrative Development

According to Vygotskian theory (1978), early interactions between children and more skilled members of society are crucial for children’s linguistic and cognitive development. Thus, narrative development begins at a nearly age, as children interact with adults and older peers in various contexts, such as parent-child conversations or conversations with teachers at school. As children mature physically, cognitively and linguistically, they are able to contribute more to the conversation, relying less on others to provide content and structure (Eisenberg, 1985). As research demonstrates, the ways in which adults and peers structure these conversations influence how children construct narratives later in their development (Fivush & Fromhoff, 1988).

To understand and investigate narrative development, researchers have focused on a common early literacy practice between children and their parents: book reading. Researchers have identified several book reading styles adopted by mothers, including describers, who include detailed descriptions and focus a lot on language, but do not encourage much discussion about the storyline itself (Haden et al., 1996), collaborators, or story-builders, who encourage child participation by asking numerous questions (Haden et al., 1996; Melzi & Caspe, 2005), comprehenders, who engage their children in analytical talk, and encourage them to make predications (Haden et al., 1996), and storytellers, who focus on sharing an engaging story, without encouraging child collaboration (Melzi &Caspe, 2005; Welborn-Thill, & Haden, 1999). Findings from this body of research suggest that maternal book-sharing styles play an important role in the development of children's narrative and overall literacy skills (Bus, vanIjzendoon, & Pellegrini, 1995; Eisenberg, 1985; Reese & Cox, 1999). For example, research has shown that mothers’ use of de-contextualized talk, especially inferences and predictions, as is typical of those who adopt the comprehender book sharing style, results in children with higher vocabulary and story comprehension than children of mothers who adopt a describer style (Hadenet al., 1996).

In effort to understand the importance of culture in children’s narrative development, recent researchers have rooted their studies in culture and context. The works of these scholars suggests that cultural differences exist in the narrative styles mothers adopt when sharing books with their children. For example, the little narrative research that has been conducted among Spanish-speaking Latinos has found marked cultural differences in their storytelling styles, particularly in comparison to their Euro-American counterparts (see Melzi, Schick & Kennedy, in press). Research suggests that Latino mothers tend to take different roles depending on the narrative context. When engaging their children in a narrative about past experiences, mothers take the role of an active audience, allowing their children to take control of the conversation. By contrast, when sharing a book with their preschool-aged children, these mothers take the role of the storyteller, serving as the main narrator of the story and eliciting little child participation (Eisenberg, 1985; Melzi, 2000; Melzi & Caspe, 2005; Melzi etal., in press). Additional research has noted similar findings in the book-sharing styles of low-income Latino mothers of Head Start children. Similar to the findings of Melzi and her colleagues with middle-class Peruvian mothers (e.g., Melzi & Caspe, 2005; Melzi et al., in press), Caspe (2009) found that during book sharing interactions, the majority of Latino mothers served as storytellers, sharing the story with their children, while making minimal requests of them. What is perhaps most interesting is that Caspe’s (2009) work showed that children of storytellers had higher emergent literacy scores at the end of the Head Start year, as compared to children of mothers who used a more co-constructive style and elicited information from the children. Thus, it appears that common narrative styles within middle-class European American homes might not be culturally appropriate - or even effective - for Latino families.

Narratives in the Classroom

Although most research on narrative development focuses on mother-child interactions, conversations between parents and children at home is not the only context that supports preschool children’s narrative development. Over 1.1 million children in the United States attend state-funded preschools or day cares (National Institute for Early Education Research,2009). With such a large number of children spending a considerable part of their day in a classroom, it is essential to examine their narrative experiences at school. In addition, classroom narrative experiences in preschool settings are especially important for children from low-income families who enter preschool with less-developed emergent literacy skills and fewer home book sharing experiences (Snow et al., 1998).

The teacher’s role as a creator of social context, facilitator, guide and participant in classroom narrative is highly influential, and thus the quality of teacher discourse might define the quality of the experience for children (Dickinson & Smith, 1994). Teacher talk occurs across various preschool contexts such as meal-time, free play, and centers-time (Dickinson 2001). These classroom interactions contribute to the language skills children need for literacy development (Connor, Morrison, Slominski,2006; Dickinson & Brady 2005; Dickinson, Darrow, & Tinubu 2008;Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). As a result, intervention studies have focused on training teachers to ask specific questions and make comments that help children elaborate on prior utterances by including more intricate and detailed descriptions for common events. All of these strategies are aimed at expanding vocabulary, as well as to encouraging children to use more language overall (Wasik, Bond, & Hindman, 2006). Research suggests that children in preschool classroom where teachers encourage students to elaborate on topics rather than provide the information themselves will display stronger language development (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Most importantly, research shows that the use of cognitively challenging de-contextualized talk and abstract concepts in the classroom are especially beneficial for children’s language development (Dickinson & Smith, 1994). This includes talk about past events, future events, or even those imaginary in nature (Massey, Pence, Justice, & Bowles, 2008).

Though studies are few, the little research that has been conducted on teacher discourse in preschool classrooms has focused on book sharing in the classrooms. Book sharing interactions during the course of the school day is such a central aspect of teacher talk that researchers have recommended that preschool teachers spend a minimum of 45 minutes a day(divided into three sessions) reading books aloud to their students (Dickinson& Tabors, 2001). Book readings foster vocabulary growth and story comprehension, both key skills in the development of school readiness (Dickinson& Smith, 1994). Nevertheless, given the realities of a classroom setting, it is difficult for the teacher to individualize their reading styles to match children's preferences, due to the large number of students (Dickinson, 2001).In fact, book sharing in preschool classrooms typically occur in group settings with large adult-child ratios where teachers generally share text-based picture books with the full class during circle-time (Schick & Melzi, 2010; Wasik& Bond, 2001). Thus, it makes sense that the styles preschool teachers use when sharing books with their class differ from those used by parents in the home.

The limited research that has examined preschool teachers’book reading discourse has identified three main styles. The first style is the didactic-interactional approach, in which teachers elicit student participation by asking basic recall questions following each section of the text, and encourage the students to chant aloud familiar refrains from the text. Students are rarely asked to make predictions about the text, and few connections are made between the storyline and the children’s everyday lives. Teachers who adopt the second style, performance-oriented, are dramatic and expressive as they read to their class. During the book reading itself, they encourage little conversation about the text. However, they engage their students in extensive conversation both before and after the book reading, as they discuss the story in great detail, and link the events to the children’s personal experiences. In the third style, the co-constructive style, the focus is on the story itself. Although teachers who adopt this style include very litter pre- or post- book-reading talk, they co-construct the story with their students, stopping frequently during the book reading itself to engage the class in analytical and evaluative talk about the story, and to draw connections between the plot and the children’s experiences (Dickinson, 2001;Dickinson & Smith, 1994). The three styles result in very diverse book reading experiences for preschoolers, and differ in the extent to which they support children’s emergent literacy. Follow-up research on the link between teachers’ book reading styles and children’s early literacy suggests that when reading books, teachers should encourage de-contextualized discourse skills such as linking the storyline to children’s experiences, encouraging their students to question the motivations of the characters in the book, and analyzing the sequence of events in the story (Dickinson, McCabe, & Anastasopoulos, 2003). Teacher talk during book sharing interactions is particularly important in classrooms serving low-income students since they typically enter school with lower levels of language skills, which, in turn, are related to future literacy development and overall school success (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1999). Currently, over 25% of children enrolled in Head Start centers are Latino, and more than 20% of all children in Head Start classrooms speak Spanish at home and are not formally introduced to English until they enter preschool (Gael & Cohen, 2000). As immigration in the United States increases, it is estimated that one in every five Americans under18 is a Latino immigrant or the child of a Latino immigrant (Jensen, 2001), and these numbers are rising. Bilingual children from Spanish-speaking backgrounds are at higher risk for academic difficulties than are other groups and perform poorly on national indicators of reading achievement when compared to children from other backgrounds (United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1997). Despite this national trend, few studies have addressed the early literacy experiences of bilingual children and how teachers might accommodate their book reading style to promote their emergent literacy, be it in one or both languages, or how teachers deal with the added demands of a bilingual environment. Teachers who serve dual-language-learners face a more challenging task since they need to resolve additional issues (e.g., how to approach a bilingual book, different linguistic proficiencies in the classroom)not present in monolingual classrooms, while still meeting every student’s need.

The present study examined the ways in which teachers in bilingual Head Start Centers shared picture books with the children in their classrooms. Two main questions guided the study: (1) What global literacy practices are observed in bilingual classrooms, and (2) What are the characteristics of the discourse teachers use during two typed of book sharing activities (e.g., text-based picture-book and wordless picture-book)? As noted earlier, sharing text-based picture-books is standard practice in preschool classrooms. For the purpose of this study, we introduced a wordless picture-book to the classroom to see its functionality in preschool classroom settings serving dual-language learners (for a review see Jalongo, Dragich, Conrad, & Zhang, 2002)


Participants and Setting

The present study is a part of a larger investigation examining the home and school literacy practices of Latino children enrolled in a bilingual Head Start center in New York City. As part of the larger project, a partnership with the Center was developed, and the investigator volunteered in the Center as a classroom assistant twice a week for two years.

The participating Head Start center was chosen because of its unique status as one of the only bilingual Head Start centers in New York City; that is, both Spanish and English are primary languages in each of the classrooms. The Head Start center serves approximately 250 children (between the ages 3-5), of whom approximately 90% are Latino, primarily Mexican, and come from Spanish-speaking homes. Following Head Start policies, each classroom has a lead teacher and an assistant teacher. Most lead teachers at the center are of Latino background and are bilingual speakers of English and Spanish. All lead and assistant teachers at the center are female. All lead teachers (N =12) participated in the study.


All teachers were asked to complete a demographic questionnaire to gather basic information including age, race/ethnicity, country of origin, language spoken, number of years in U.S., level of education, and teaching experience. Additionally, all lead teachers were visited in their classrooms on two occasions, during their regularly scheduled circle-time, and, were asked to share picture books with the children as they normally would. During the first visit, teachers were asked to share the wordless picture book, A Boy, A Dog and a Frog1 (Mayer, 1967). This book was chosen because wordless books of this nature have been used successfully to elicit narratives from individuals of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds (see Berman & Slobin, 1994; Melzi & Caspe, 2005; Caspe,2009). Although the pictures provide structure to the story, the wordless nature of the book allows teacher to tell their own story. During the second visit, teachers were asked to share a bilingual picture book (i.e., the text appears in both Spanish and English on each page), Moon Rope/Un Lazo a laLuna (Ehlert, 2003). This book was chosen because it is an original oral folktale from Latin America (i.e., Peru), and it was written in both English and Spanish by the same author (i.e., the Spanish is not merely a translation of the English), with text in both language appearing on each page. Both books are age appropriate as well as novel to the classrooms. No time limit was placed on the length of the book sharing interactions, and all interactions were both audio- and video-recorded.

All teachers received a copy of the books a week before their scheduled visit, so that they could read through them and prepare any desired lesson plans. Upon completion of both book sharing activities, teachers completed a classroom literacy questionnaire describing their typical classroom literacy activities (adapted from the FACES Head Start Teachers Self-Administered Survey the FACES Parent Survey, 1999) as well as how these book sharing interactions compared to their typical reading activities.

Transcription and Coding

All book sharing interactions were transcribed using a standardized format, Codes for the Analysis of Human Language (CHAT), available through the Child Language Exchange System (CHILDES; Mac Whinney, 2000).Transcriptions were later verified by a native Spanish speaker.

Both teacher and child discourse were coded at the utterance level using an adaptation of the coding schemes developed by Dickinson and Smith(1994) and Melzi and Caspe (2005). Utterances were coded for speaker (i.e., teacher, one child, or the class), language used (i.e., Spanish only, English only, or a combination of both Spanish and English within the utterance), and narrative speech event (i.e., pre-reading, reading, or post-reading), In addition, utterances were further coded for pragmatic function and cognitive difficulty. Cohen’s Kappa was established for codes on pragmatic function(K=.90) and cognitive difficulty (K=.85). Pragmatic function codes included: provision and request of information, responses to questions, conversational utterances whose main function was to ensure optimal communication and maintain flow of conversation and non-narrative contributions.

Utterances that received a pragmatic function code of provision, request, response, or non-narrative related were further coded for degree of cognitive difficulty. Cognitive difficulty was defined according to the extent to which de-contextualized talk was used. Cognitive challenging utterances included: analysis of characters or events, predictions, recall of extended-chunks of the story or text-reader links or linking the storyline to children’s everyday experiences and vocabulary analysis. Less cognitively challenge utterances included: directly telling the story, chiming and skill routines (such as counting and singing), labels, recall of immediate events and comments made about the book itself.


Data Analysis

To explore the global literacy practices in bilingual classrooms, descriptive statistics were run on teacher’s responses to each of the items on the literacy practices questionnaires. To investigate teacher discourse across text-based and wordless books, descriptive statistics and, when possible, exploratory paired sample t-test were run on the following features: length of book sharing, use of Spanish and English, pre-reading and post-reading activities, pragmatic function, and cognitive challenge of discourse. These features were target to reflect the most salient features of the three teacher book reading styles previously defined by the literature. Data from all 12 teachers was used to compare across length of book sharing. However, given the richness of the data at the time of writing this manuscript, verification and coding was only complete for half of the teacher transcripts, and as a result, in-depth analysis of book sharing interactions from only half of the teachers (n = 6) was included the remainder of the analyses.

Global Literacy Practices

Descriptive statistics were run to determine the language(or languages) used most in the classrooms, the types of books available to the class, and the type of literacy and narrative practices most common to the classrooms. Sixty-six percent of the teachers reported using both English and Spanish to similar extents. Teacher from the remaining classrooms reported using both languages, but using English more than Spanish. In addition, regardless of the language most frequently used in the classroom, 91% of teachers reported having more than 20 picture books in English in their classroom. By contrast, there was much more variability in number of books in Spanish in the classroom, with eight out of the twelve teachers (66%) reporting having fewer than 20 books in Spanish.

In terms of the literacy practices most common to the classroom, results showed that the most common form of classroom narrative interactions were teacher-class book sharing interactions, with 83% of teachers(n = 10) reporting reading to the class on a daily basis, and the remaining two teachers reporting sharing books at least on a weekly basis. Interestingly, there was much more variability in teacher’s self-report on the frequency in which they told oral stories to the class. Fifty-nine percent (n = 7) reported sharing oral stories daily. Of the remaining 41% of teachers, two reported doing so weekly, two reported doing so monthly, and one teacher reporting never sharing stories with her class.

Teachers also reported encouraging independent literacy activates among their students. All teachers reported encouraging children to look through books by themselves at least on a weekly basis, with the majority(n = 10) doing so daily. Teachers also reported encouraging children to share stories among peers. Nine teachers reported doing so on a daily basis, one at least once a week and two at least once a month. Another common practice to promote emergent literacy was teaching students the letters of the alphabet. Nine of the teachers reported teaching letters (in English) on a daily basis, 2reported doing so on a weekly basis, and 1 reported doing so monthly.

Comparisons across Book Types

Length of time. In looking at teachers' book sharing styles across book types, the first comparison explored the length of book reading in minutes. Text-based book reading interactions (M = 16.33, SD = 5.8) tended to be longer than wordless interactions (M = 22.17, SD = 6.43). An exploratory paired samples t-test showed that, in fact, wordless book interactions were significantly longer that text-based interactions, t(11) = 3.35, p< .01.

Use of English and Spanish. Book sharing interactions (n = 6) were also compared for language use, that is, use of English and Spanish. Three of the teachers used consistently more English over Spanish across both book types. Two teachers were balanced in their language use in the text-based book, but chose one language over the other in the wordless book, and one teacher used more Spanish across both types. Overall, controlling for total number of utterances, use of English (M = 54.87, SD = 29.78) and Spanish (M = 42.87, SD= 29.98) were balanced in the text-based book. However, teachers' use of English (M = 60.48, SD = 41.28) was greater than their use of Spanish (M = 37.53, SD = 40.26) in the wordless context.

In balancing their language use in the text-based book sharing interactions, teachers read the text in one language first and then in the other, going back and forth by page. By contrast, in the wordless context, teachers switched languages for multiple purposes, such as: drawing in particular children, controlling behavior, teaching vocabulary and summarizing the story. In some cases, the teacher shared the story in English and code-switches to Spanish only to engage particular children who are not English-dominant in the book sharing interaction. In other words, she translates her utterances for the benefit of specific children in the class who might not otherwise be able to follow the storyline. Interestingly, each time she does so, she prefaces her code-switching by noting the child's name, and only then translates what she has said into Spanish.

By contrast, other teachers use Spanish throughout the sharing of the book, rarely translating to English. When she does code-switch, however, she does so to control classroom behavior. What makes this particularly interesting is that in some cases, the children of those particular classrooms are Spanish-dominant, while the teacher herself is English-dominant. Thus, it appears that she shares the events in the story in Spanish, the language the children are most comfortable with, but then switches to English, her own dominant language, when attempting to control behavior.

Pre-reading and post-reading activities. The third comparison explored pre-reading and post-reading activities across the book types. Results showed that teachers engaged in pre-reading activities, and there were no differences found across book types. However, when controlling for total number of utterances in the narrative exchange, pre-readings in the text-based books (M = 19.78, SD= 14.65) were longer than in the wordless books (M = 15.41, SD =6.82). Four main types of activities were prevalent throughout pre-reading. They included: songs & chants, behavioral talk, book-focused comments and request for labels. Song and chants included teachers singing good morning song with their class during circle time or engaging in activities like counting, to engage children’s attention. Behavioral talk included asking children to sit quietly in a circle. Book-focused comments were those questions and statements related to the book itself. They included information on how to hold a book, and on the author and illustrator. In addition, before sharing the wordless book, 3 out of the 6 teachers commented on the wordless nature of the book. A final activity common during pre-reading was discussion of pictured depicted on the covers of the books, mainly providing and requesting labels for the pictures. Interestingly, though, there were very few predictions about what the stories might be about during pre-reading across both book types.

Additionally, all teachers engaged in post-reading activities when sharing the wordless book and all but one of the teachers engaged in post-reading after sharing the text-based book. Across both book types, the most common form of post-reading activity was recall of extended chunks of the story. All teachers engaged in some form of recall activity, asking children what had happened in the story and what their favorite part had been. Some teachers also encouraged text-reader links, asking children if they had liked the story and why.

There were some noteworthy differences in the post-reading across book types. After controlling for total number of utterances, the text-based book (M = 8.14 SD = 7.67) contained shorter post-reading interactions than did post-readings following the wordless book (M= 10.45 SD = 7.44). Additionally, after completion of the wordless books, teachers were frequently engaged the class in follow-up literacy activities. For example, two teachers asked children to draw their favorite part of the story after sharing the wordless book, and one teacher engaged in an extensive vocabulary lesson with words used in the story after sharing the wordless book. No such activities followed the reading of the text-based book.

Pragmatic function. The fourth comparison across book types looked at the pragmatic function of the utterances, or the extent and manner in which teachers engaged the children in the book sharing. Overall, there was very little variation across teachers. In the text-based book teachers mainly provided information from the story (M= 50.37, SD = 6.81), asking few questions (M = 11.62, SD =5.99) and more frequently controlling behavior (M = 18.82, SD =9.6). In the wordless book sharing activities teachers also provided more information (M = 42, SD = 8.75) than they requested (M=19.55, SD = 8.98). However, results of an exploratory paired sample t-test showed that teachers asked significantly more questions as they shared the wordless books as compared to the text-based books, t(5) = 3.22, p< .05. Additionally, teachers used significantly more conversational talk during the wordless book sharing activities, encouraging children to narrate t(5)= 3.97, p < .05.

Cognitive difficulty. The final comparison investigated the degree of cognitive challenge of the discourse directed to children. Cognitive difficulty was defined according to the extent to which de-contextualized talk was used. Overall, teachers used more less-cognitively challenging talk (M =59.04, SD = 9.81 for the text-based book; M = 46.14, SD =6.22 for the wordless book) than cognitively challenging talk (M = 9.00,SD = 6.22 for the text-based book; M = 11.40, SD = 4.53for the wordless book). Moreover, exploratory paired sample t-test showed that teachers used significantly more cognitively challenging talk during the wordless interactions as compared to the text-based narratives t(5) =3.197, p < .05.

In terms of type of cognitive difficulty, there was little variability in the less-cognitive challenging category, when controlling for the total number of less-cognitively challenging utterances. Teachers mainly told or read the story (M = 83.14, SD = 7.90 for the text-based book; M = 77.00, SD = 11.99 for the wordless book) and assessed children’s immediate comprehension (M = 10.94, SD = 3.87 for the text-based book; M = 15.34, SD = 7.36 for the wordless book). By contrast, there was much more variability in the cognitive challenging category across book types. When controlling for total number of cognitively difficult utterances, teachers used more analysis in the wordless book (M= 53.52, SD = 23.49) followed by predictions (M = 20.93, SD= 14.26) and text-reader links (M = 13.20, SD = 10.30). The opposite was true in the text based book, with teachers mainly using text-reader links (M = 56.50, SD = 28.59) followed by analysis (M= 22.85, SD = 21.24) and predictions (M = 15.02, SD =13.39).


The present examined the ways in which teachers in a bilingual Head Start support the emergent literacy development of children by looking at their global literacy practices and book reading styles. Two main questions guided the study: (1) What are the global literacy practices that support children’s oral narrative development in bilingual classrooms, and (2)What are the characteristics of the discourse teachers use during two typed ofbook sharing activities (e.g., text-based picture-book and wordless picture-book)?A combination of descriptive statistics and exploratory paired sample t-tests were used to address these questions, and contributed to the development of several more, as the number of Latino dual-language learners in the U.S. increases and continue to face unique academic challenges.

Analysis of global literacy practices showed that all teachers engaged in activities to support children’s emergent literacy skills. For example, to help children develop letter recognition skills, teachers reported teaching the letter of the alphabet on at least a weekly – if not daily basis. Interestingly, though, although the Head Start is officially a bilingual center(i.e., the curriculum fosters the development of both Spanish and English),teachers typically taught children only the English alphabet. It is possible that teachers might be doing so as a way to prepare children for their transition into Kindergarten. In other words, once they leave Head Start, most of the children will enter monolingual kindergarten classrooms where they will be expected to speak and understand English. Therefore, teachers appear to be fostering the development of English emergent literacy skills for their school readiness. Nevertheless, most teachers reported using both English and Spanish to similar extents in the classrooms. Future studies should investigate further teacher language use to build a better understanding of the uses of both languages across various classroom contexts.

In terms of narrative practices in the classroom, there was much variability with teachers regard to how often teachers shared oral stories with the class, with some doing so only a daily basis, whereas other reported do so far more infrequently. By contrast, most teachers did report encouraging children to share stories with their peers, at least on a monthly basis. This finding was surprising as it contradicts previous research that has demonstrated that few, if any, oral narratives are shared among peers in head start classroom(Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Schick & Melzi, 2010). It is important to note, however, that the findings of the current study are based on teachers’self-reports, as opposed to observations used in previous studies. It is possible that teachers are over-reporting the extent to which they encourage children to engage in peer narratives, because they truly do think that they engage in this practice, but in reality are unable to do so on a regular basis due to time constraint of the short preschool day. Moreover, although it is conceivable that teachers are over-reporting the extent to which they encourage children to tell stories with their peers, it is equally plausible that the observational techniques used in past work were limited, given that they only provide a snapshot of a day in the classroom, rather than reflect general practices. As a result, future researchers should employ more rigorous methods in order to explore fully the oral stories shared in classrooms between teachers and children and among peers.

All teachers also reported encouraging children to engage in independent book reading activities (e.g., teachers encourage children to go to the library corner, pick out a book and quietly look through the pages). Such activities are especially important for the development of pre-literacy skills, including concepts about print (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Encouraging this practice in preschool setting seems particularly critical for children from low-income families, as research suggests that they generally have fewer book sat home and do not visit public libraries on a regular basis (Raikes et al.,2006; Reese & Gallimore, 2000). Therefore, preschool might be the only context where children have access to books and are able to look through them independently. Given the bilingual context of the Head Start, however, it is somewhat unfortunate, then, that teachers reported having far more books available to the children in English than they do in Spanish.

Overall, book sharings in large group settings (i.e., during circle-time) were the most common form of teacher-child narrative interactions. This supports the findings of previous work that book readings during circle-time are the most common form of teacher talk in preschool classrooms(Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Schick & Melzi, 2010; Wasik & Bond,2001). When sharing picture books with the class, about half of the teachers consistently used English more than Spanish across both book types, whereas the remaining teachers used more Spanish in at least one of the books. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the teachers were balanced in their language use in the text-based book (where the text appeared in both English and Spanish on each page), but chose one language over the other when sharing the wordless book. This suggests that bilingual text-based books provide a more balanced form of language use, thereby simultaneously promoting literacy in both languages, as opposed to emphasizing one over the other.

Teachers’ book sharings were further explored for length. Findings demonstrated that, although there was variability across teachers, overall, wordless book sharings were significantly longer than were text-based books. In other words, sharing wordless, books seems to promote more discourse and hence longer interactions. Nevertheless, the longest book sharings, even for the wordless books, were just under 30 minutes. Thus, the book sharing interactions were significantly shorter than the 45 minutes a day of book reading interactions researchers have recommended for teachers of Head Start classes (i.e., Dickinson, 2001; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). However, findings of the current project suggest that these guidelines might not be feasible, given that teachers also have to incorporate activities other than literacy to promote school readiness. This is particularly true for half-day classes, where teachers have to incorporate lessons, two meals (i.e., breakfast and lunch), free play and other social-emotional and school-based activities in a 3-hour day. Interestingly, a closer look at the book sharing interactions highlighted that teachers incorporated other literacy activities as part of post-reading in the wordless book, thereby using the book reading for multiple literacy purposes, such as vocabulary lessons.

Past research has identified three styles of teacher-child book reading that differ in the extent to which teachers involve children, the cognitive difficulty of the content of their language, and the pre-reading and post-reading activities. In general, results of this study showed that teachers did not fall into any of the previously identified book sharing styles. If anything they were a combination of the three: using didactic-interactional features, such as asking basic recall questions, engaging in extensive pre and post-reading talk as suggested by the performance-oriented style, and in some cases, drawing connection between plotline and children’s everyday experiences, as do co-constructors (Dickinson, 2001; Dickinson & Smith, 1994). Across book types, teachers spent most of the interaction sharing the story to the children (i.e., reading or telling). However, they involved children more in the wordless book than in the text based book. Moreover, teachers used more cognitive challenging discourse in the wordless book as compared to the text-based book. In the wordless book teachers engaged in more analysis, exploring motivations and general knowledge whereas in the text-based book they mainly engaged in text-reader links. Although researchers recommended that teachers engage in both of these de-contextualized skills when sharing books with children, results from previous studies show that analysis or exploring character motivations, are more predictive of children’s later literacy development (Dickinson, McCabe, & Anastasopoulos, 2003).

Although the styles do not match those reported in previous work with English-speaking monolingual Head Start teachers, the fact that teachers provided more information than requested is congruent with the maternal styles found among various Spanish-speaking Latino groups. Research has suggested that Latino mothers, regardless of socioeconomic status, take different roles depending on the context, acting as an active audience when talking about past experiences with their children and taking the role of storytellers when sharing books, serving as the main narrator and providing information and encouraging little participation from children (Caspe, 2009;Eisenberg, 1985; Melzi & Caspe, 2005; Melzi, Schick, & Kennedy, in press) Therefore, as do Spanish-speaking Latino mothers from various Latino backgrounds, teachers for the most part act as storytellers, providing more information than they are requesting when sharing books (Melzi & Caspe,2005; Caspe, 2009). This affinity between mother and teacher book sharing styles might be due to teacher’s accommodating to children’s home book sharing experiences. It is possible that children respond better to this particular way of interaction therefore teachers accommodate their book reading in order to engage them in what they know instead of introducing a new way of sharing books.

Teachers’ features of providing more information than they are requesting runs counter to the recommended by intervention research that teachers ask specific questions to encourage children to elaborate rather than providing information (Wasik, Bond & Hindman, 2006). Nevertheless, the recent work by Caspe (2009) has shown that children of storytellers (i.e., those that provided more than requested) yielded higher emergent literacy scores in Latino children when compared to other styles used by Latino mothers. Therefore, for Latino children, it might beneficial for mothers and teachers to take the role of the culturally-preferred storyteller as opposed to those styles recommended by intervention researchers that encourage teachers to co-construct the story (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Wasik, Bond & Hindman, 2006).

Future research must examine a larger sample of teachers serving dual-language learners in order to get a more generalizable description on their literacy experiences outside this particular Head Start center. Additionally, the present study followed the protocol of a larger investigation examining home and school literacy experiences of dual-language learners and therefore, book reading tasks were not counterbalanced. Teachers read the wordless book first followed by the text-based book a couple of days later. Although all teachers reported sharing the wordless book as they normally would share any picture book, it is possible that the order of the books might have influenced their book sharing approach, therefore order should be counterbalanced in future research. Lastly, it possible that the content of the books influenced teachers narrative input, particularly in the text-reader link category given that the wordless book focuses on a human character whereas the text-based book does not, therefore books with similar content should be used in future research.

It is predicted that by the year 2100, 33% of the US population will be from Latino backgrounds (Ramirez & de la Cruz, 2002).Given the rapid growth of Latinos in the country, it is essential to examine the literacy experiences of children in dual-language classrooms as their development of one or both languages involves a different experience as compared to monolingual children. Despite the challenging task of supporting emergent literacy in two languages, teachers provided rich linguistic experiences to children when discussing both text-based and wordless books. Both types of books are essential components in classrooms serving dual-language learners, given that they foster different emergent literacy skills. The use of language in the text-based books might foster literacy skills, such as vocabulary and met linguistic awareness (i.e., phonemic and word awareness), whereas the sharing of wordless books seem to be especially important for the development of de-contextualized discourse skills. However, it is important to note that neither of these books is usually found in preschool classrooms, even those serving dual-language learners. In future research, it would be important to examine children’s response to teachers’ book reading styles across different book types, including which discourse features most strongly predict their emergent literacy development. It is particularly important to examine which features of teacher book reading style most strongly predict emergent literacy in Latino children given the recent findings that Latino children might not benefit as much by those styles recommended by the literature based on Euro-American families.


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