By Julian Pine, Claire Noble & Caroline Rowland, The ESRC LuCiD Centre, University of Liverpool

It is a sad fact that many disadvantaged children enter school without the language skills they need to succeed in the classroom. For example, one recent study in the UK found that almost 60% of children from low-income families were already delayed in their language development by the time they started school. The most vulnerable of these children can be as far as 19 months behind their more affluent peers in terms of their vocabulary development – and 19 months is a long way when you are only 5 years old.

One way of boosting toddlers’ language development is to engage them in joint book reading. This doesn’t mean trying to teach them to read; it means interacting with them over books, talking to them about what is going on in the pictures, and giving them plenty of opportunity to contribute to the conversation by telling parts of the story in their own words. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, this kind of one-to-one interaction over books is like ‘rocket fuel’ for language development. This is partly because it exposes children to a much wider range of different words and sentence types than they would hear in normal conversation; and partly because it encourages them to use their language to talk about a favourite story or series of illustrations, and so helps them to learn to tell meaningful stories of their own.

For many families, joint book reading is already a highly enjoyable part of their daily routine. But reading books with small children can feel alien to some parents – and there is some evidence that book reading interventions are less effective with low-income families. So how can we bring the benefits of joint book reading to disadvantaged children?

The Story Starters Project

Recently, researchers from the ESRC LuCiD Centre at the University of Liverpool were approached by two reading charities: Beanstalk and Dolly Parton’s (yes, the Dolly Parton’s) Imagination Library (DPIL), and asked to help design a project to do just this. The aim was to develop a joint book reading intervention that could be delivered by trained volunteers in preschool settings, and to test its effectiveness in increasing the language skills of disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds. What the three partners developed was ‘Story Starters’, a project that harnessed Beanstalk’s experience recruiting and training reading volunteers, DPIL’s experience selecting and providing age-appropriate books to children, and LuCiD’s knowledge about child language development, and about how to evaluate language interventions effectively.

To find out more about how our partnership developed, what happened next and what we are trying to achieve, read our case study