Conversations with children: Using books to build oral language

Use picture books to promote early literacy with simple language facilitation strategies.

We all know that reading picture books with young children promotes literacy. But there is another way to use books to promote literacy. You can use books to stimulate conversations with young children. For example, you can:

  • Use the book to help the child select a conversational topic,
  • Listen and respond,  
  • Model language by talking about the pictures in the book,
  • Take turns, back-and-forth, talking about the book.

Using a picture book to support an adult-child conversation is a proven language and literacy building strategy. "C.A.R." is a simple way for adults to remember some of these evidence-based strategies.

C stands for Comment and wait.
A stands for Ask questions and wait.
R stands for Respond by adding a little more.

The CAR strategies elicit more child-language when you “follow the child’s lead” and let him choose the conversation topic. (Children are more likely to talk about what they are interested in. Just like adults!!!)

Comment and Wait.   Describing pictures in books (modeling language), then pausing to allow time for a response, is an effective way to get a conversation going. Children need time to think and code their thoughts into language, so it is important for adults to give children at least 5 seconds to respond.    

Ask Questions and Wait. Adults use two major types of questions to encourage children to talk or respond: open-ended and closed questions.

  • Closed questions are those questions that require a yes-no answer, a pointing response, or a one- or two-word label. Asking a child "What do you see?", "Can you point to the cat?" or "What color is the alligator?" are examples of closed questions.
  • Open-ended questions generally demand a more complex response.  Open-ended questions tend to elicit full sentences or even several sentences. "What is the chicken doing?", "What's going to happen next?", or "Why did the girl need a new bicycle?" are examples of open-ended questions.

Respond by adding a little more. Expanding on what children say helps build oral language.  For example, if the child says "ball", the adult might say, "Ball…big, blue ball." This reinforces the child's talking, gives her the support for the next level of complexity and provides new information.

 To see the CAR strategies in action, you can view the video Talking and Books.