published: 21 March 2017
Yvette Renee Harris,
Miami University, USA
Rosana Maria Tristão,
University of London, UK
University of Perugia, Italy
†These authors have contributed
equally to this work and shared first
This article was submitted to
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 20 January 2017
Accepted: 24 February 2017
Published: 21 March 2017
Wesseling PBC, Christmann CA and
Lachmann T (2017) Shared Book
Reading Promotes Not Only
Language Development, But Also
Grapheme Awareness in German
Front. Psychol. 8:364.
Shared Book Reading Promotes Not
Only Language Development, But
Also Grapheme Awareness in
German Kindergarten Children
Patricia B. C. Wesseling1†, Corinna A. Christmann1,2† and Thomas Lachmann1*
1 Cognitive and Developmental Psychology Unit, Center for Cognitive Science, University of Kaiserslautern, Kaiserslautern,
Germany, 2 Junior Research Group wearHEALTH, Department of Computer Science, University of Kaiserslautern,
Effects of shared book reading on expressive vocabulary and grapheme awareness
without letter instruction in German kindergarteners (longitudinal; N D 69, 3;0–4;8 years)
were investigated. Expressive vocabulary was measured by using a standardized test;
grapheme awareness was measured by asking children to identify one grapheme per
trial presented amongst non-letter distractors. Two methods of shared book reading
were investigated, literacy enrichment (additional books) and teacher training in shared
book reading strategies, both without explicit letter instruction. Whereas positive effects
of shared book reading on expressive vocabulary were evident in numerous previous
studies, the impact of shared book reading on grapheme awareness has not yet
been investigated. Both methods resulted in positive effects on children’s expressive
vocabulary and grapheme awareness over a period of 6 months. Thus, early shared
book reading may not only be considered to be a tool for promoting the development
of expressive vocabulary, but also for implicit acquisition of grapheme awareness.
The latter is considered an important precondition required for the explicit learning of
grapheme–phoneme conversion rules (letter knowledge).
Keywords: literacy enrichment, letter knowledge, expressive vocabulary, dialogic reading, reading development,
alphabetic phase, letter processing, implicit learning
Children need intensive and diverse input in order to develop language skills properly
(Huttenlocher et al., 1991). Shared book reading with adults represents one important potential
to implement such an input (see Sénéchal et al., 1998). For instance, story books contain clues
that help one to understand the meaning of unknown words and, therefore, shared book reading
provides a tool for the promotion of language development. Positive effects of shared book reading,
either with parents or teachers, on children’s receptive and expressive language development, such
as growth of vocabulary, and grammar skills, have been reported frequently (e.g., Bus et al., 1995;
Neuman, 1996; Sénéchal et al., 1996; Wasik and Bond, 2001; DeTemple and Snow, 2003; Stahl,
2003; Ennemoser et al., 2013).
Aside from its effects on the development of spoken language skills, early shared book reading
was also shown to have a positive effect on later literacy development (Brown et al., 1986; Mol and
Bus, 2011; Sim and Berthelsen, 2014). In most studies showing this effect, however, an additional
explicit instruction of grapheme–phoneme conversion rules was given, i.e., within the context
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Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
of shared book reading the child was actually taught letter
knowledge (Ezell and Justice, 2000; Lovelace and Stewart, 2007;
Piasta et al., 2012). Letter knowledge was generally identified
as one of the strongest predictors of later reading and writing
success and functions as an important link between the various
emergent literacy components (see Adams, 1990; Aram, 2006; see
van Kleeck, 2003, for reviews).
The fact that letter knowledge is increased by explicit
instruction to grapheme–phoneme conversion rules is not really
surprising. However, it was shown that alphabetic instruction
within the context of shared book reading has no larger
effect on letter knowledge and literacy development compared
to alphabetic instruction alone (e.g., Aram, 2006). Thus, the
question remains if shared book reading without alphabetic
instruction has any effect on the development of the precursors
to literacy, i.e., by implicit learning before the alphabetic phase of
literacy development (Frith, 1985; Lachmann and van Leeuwen,
In a recent study, Sim (2012; Sim and Berthelsen, 2014)
compared the effects of shared book reading combined with
explicit letter instruction with the effects of a special form of
shared book reading, i.e., instructed dialogic reading (Whitehurst
et al., 1988), without explicit alphabetic instruction on several
measures of letter knowledge and print awareness. The author
found equally positive effects for both methods when compared
with a control group. How could this be explained?
It has been shown that even without explicit letter instruction
young children implicitly become aware of the difference between
letters and non-letter configurations (e.g., Bialystok, 1995;
Brenneman et al., 1996); 4- to 5-year-old children developed a
concept about how readable material looks like, from a more
figural level to the consideration of specific word constituents,
including the order and the orientation of letters within a
word (Lachmann and Geyer, 2003; Levy et al., 2006). Children
progressively understand that letters are symbols (Deacon, 2000;
Lachmann, 2002), i.e., graphemes, even though they still do
not understand the meaning. We may call this letter awareness,
or more precisely grapheme awareness. We suggest grapheme
awareness to be one important prior condition for children’s
According to the Functional Coordination Model (Lachmann,
2002; Lachmann and van Leeuwen, 2014), learning to read
requires the modification of various pre-existing functions,
mainly from the auditory (Serniclaes et al., 2005) and visual
domain (Pegado et al., 2011; Fernandes et al., 2014; Lachmann
et al., 2014), before these become coordinated and automatized
in a cross-modal fashion (Blomert, 2011) optimal for reading
and writing. This includes the modification of visual strategies
originally applied for object recognition (such as pictures in
book). These are predominantly holistic (both holistic and
analytic processing is possible, holistic processing is, however,
faster and less effortful in object recognition, see Lachmann
and van Leeuwen for discussion). The learning of grapheme–
phoneme conversion rules in the alphabetic phase (Frith, 1985),
however, requires analytic strategies (Frith, 1985; Lachmann and
van Leeuwen, 2014; Lachmann et al., 2014), including view-point
dependency and symmetry-/context suppression (Lachmann,
2002; Lachmann and van Leeuwen, 2007; Pegado et al., 2011;
Fernandes et al., 2014). Thus, grapheme awareness may be
seen as a very first step in this process of reading-specific
modification of visual strategies required for learning to read and
Accordingly, we argue that shared book reading supports the
development of important prior conditions for learning to read
and to write (Goodman, 1986; Robins et al., 2012; Lachmann and
van Leeuwen, 2014; Sim and Berthelsen, 2014), even before or
at a very early stage of formal reading instruction, i.e., before
children learn grapheme–phoneme correspondences (i.e., in the
logographic phase of learning to read; Frith, 1985). Therefore,
in the present study, we investigated the effects of shared book
reading on grapheme recognition, i.e., we did not test the effect
on letter naming, as was done in all studies in which shared book
reading was combined with any form of explicit letter instruction
(e.g., Piasta et al., 2012), but rather how well a child recognizes a
grapheme within a set of non-letter distractors. We consider this
performance to be a measure of grapheme awareness.
In an eye-movement study Evans and Saint-Aubin (2009)
showed, that during shared book reading children mainly look
at the pictures on the page and did not fixate very often on the
printed text (see also Justice and Lankford, 2002; Evans and SaintAubin, 2005; Justice et al., 2005). Therefore, the question still
remains whether shared book reading without explicit alphabetic
instruction really does have an effect on grapheme awareness,
and if so, whether it depends on formal instruction of teachers
about communication strategies during shared book reading, or
not (Whitehurst et al., 1988). We tested these questions in the
We implemented two methods of shared book reading in the
present study. Method 1 – Literacy enrichment: A large number
of additional books chosen as optimal for shared book reading
was provided in the kindergarten. The children were encouraged
to take these books home, and in a letter the parents were
requested to take advantage of the additional books and to read
them together with their children. We expected an increase of
shared book reading activities at home (Robinson et al., 1996;
Wade and Moore, 1996) and, as a consequence, an increase of
expressive vocabulary (Sénéchal et al., 1996). The main question
was, however, if this literacy enrichment would also increase
Method 2 – Teacher training: Kindergarten teachers
participated in a formal dialogic reading instruction on
reading techniques using an established training program
(Buschmann and Jooss, 2011) for shared book reading. As for
literacy enrichment, we expected a positive effect of teacher
training on children’s expressive vocabulary (Hargrave and
Sénéchal, 2000). The main question, here too, was, if teacher
training has an effect on grapheme awareness.
A further group received both methods: literacy enrichment
and teacher training, in combination. The two methods operate
in different contexts of shared book reading, home vs. school.
All groups were compared with a control group which received
neither of the two interventions. These results in a four-group
longitudinal design allowing to test which of the two used
methods may be more effective and if a combination is the most
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Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
effective approach for improving vocabulary and/or grapheme
Quantity and quality of literacy environment and interaction
during shared book reading have been found to be strongly
correlated with socioeconomic status (SES; Hart and Risley,
1995), in particular with family income and parental education
(McCormick and Mason, 1986; Adams, 1990; Payne et al., 1994;
Hart and Risley, 1995; Sénéchal et al., 1996; Arterberry et al.,
2007). Therefore, in the present study, care was taken to select
groups with comparable SES (see the Materials and Methods
section for details).
MATERIALS AND METHODS
In total, 69 children (43 male) from four German kindergartens,
all born in Germany, who ranged in age from 3;0 to 4;8 years
(M D 4.12, SD D 0.54) at the time of their initial assessment,
participated in the present longitudinal study. In Germany, about
one third of the children younger than 3 years and about 90%
of the children aged between 3 and 6 (maximum 7) years attend
a kindergarten (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2012), the majority of
them from morning to late afternoon, including lunch.
The participating four kindergartens each have several
kindergarten groups, more or less mixed in age, with several
teachers minding a group of 10 to 25 children. These kindergarten
groups are not considered as fixed “classes,” however, they were
kept constant during the period of data collection. As standard
in Germany (Niklas and Schneider, 2013), there was no formal
reading and writing instruction provided in any the participating
Four samples of children, one from each of the four
participating kindergarten centers, were created in a way that
these did not differ statistically in mean age, age-range from 3
to 4 years, gender, mean time spent in kindergarten per week,
number of books for children and adults in household (note
that in the literacy enrichment group the number of books
in household, except children books, even though being about
twice as high as in the other groups, did not differ significantly;
TABLE 1 | Comparisons of the four groups (group 1 D literacy enrichment, group 2 D teacher training, group 3 D combination, group 4 D control group)
regarding gender, age, time spent in kindergarten and the number of books in each household.
Group 1 (N D 13) Group 2 (N D 18) Group 3 (N D 17) Group 4 (N D 21) F p
Male 7 13 13 10 0.56 0.64
Female 6 5 4 11 0.17 0.91
Mean (SD) Mean (SD) Mean (SD) Mean (SD) F p
Age in years 4.24 (0.56) 4.08 (0.63) 4.22 (0.42) 4,02 (0.55) 0.66 0.58
Time spent in kindergarten per day in hours 6.69 (0.86) 6.12 (1.41) 6.64 (1.34) 7.00 (1.00) 1.71 0.18
Number of children’s books in household 32.38 (19.17) 23.75 (18.16) 29.85 (25.65) 25.95 (30.17) 0.37 0.78
Number of books in household 145.00 (274.31) 55.71 (88.27) 47.92 (69.46) 45.24 (47.40) 1.49 0.23
Statistical comparisons were conducted with univariate ANOVAs. The last two columns depict the corresponding F- and p-values.
TABLE 2 | Comparisons of the four groups regarding preferred leisure time activities, parents’ level of education, professional situation, frequency of
public library visits and family net income.
Variable $2 p Relative frequencies for the whole sample in %
Preferred leisure time activities: Each day Some days a week Once a week < Once a week Never
Watching TV 9.05 0.43 46.97 34.85 15.15 3.03 0
Listening to music/singing 8.85 0.72 37.88 39.39 10.61 7.58 4.54
Books (alone) 10.64 0.56 30.30 46.97 10.61 10.60 1.52
Shared book reading 12.34 0.42 53.03 33.33 7.58 4.54 1.52
Playing outside 13.28 0.15 54.54 34.85 9.09 1.51 0
Playing alone 10.56 0.57 37.88 40.91 9.09 4.54 7.58
Playing with other children 11.93 0.22 63.64 27.27 3.03 6.06 0
Computer games 19.48 0.08 3.08 6.15 4.62 18.46 67.69
Highest school level qualification 8.83 0.46 None 1.56 Low 12.5 Medium 42.19 High 43.75
Highest professional situation 13.35 0.34 Full-time 78.46 Part-time 12.30 Education 1.54 No job 3.08 Other 4.62
Frequency of public library visits 11.09 0.27 Never 70.77 Rarely 13.85 Sometimes 9.23 Often 6.15
Net income 21.37 0.44 <1000 € – 8.77 1000–2000 € – 38.60 2000–3000 € – 38.60 3000–4000 € – 12.28 >4000 € – 1.75
Relative frequencies for the whole sample are provided for each category. Statistical comparisons were conducted with χ2 tests. The first two columns depict the
corresponding $2 and p-values.
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Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
two parents from this group held an exceeding collection of
dime novels), preferred leisure time activities (e.g., TV watching,
computer gaming, playing outside), frequency of visiting public
libraries (see Tables 1, 2 for details), and, most important, in
SES (family income, school-leaving qualification and professional
situation of the parents; see Table 2). These factors were evaluated
using a family socio demographic questionnaire (Simon and
Sachse, 2013) completed by all parents before the data collection.
The majority of the parents in our study had high or medium
school level qualification and a family net income of more than
2000 Euros per month (see Table 2), which both is comparable to
the total population in Germany (59 and 54%, German Federal
Statistical Office, 2016).
The authors received Institutional Review Board Approval for
this study. The study was carried out in accordance with the
recommendations of The German Society of Psychology, with
written informed consent from the parents of all children. All
parents gave written informed consent in accordance with the
Declaration of Helsinki. The protocol was approved by the
administration of the City of Kaiserslautern, Council for Youth
and Sports. Each of the four samples was randomly assigned to
serve as one of the three shared book reading intervention groups
(experimental groups): (1) Method 1 D literacy enrichment
group (N D 13); (2) Method 2 D teacher training group
(N D 18); (3) combination group: Method 1 and 2 combined
(N D 17); or as the control group: none of the methods
were applied until post-test (N D 21). See Table 1 for sample
The literary enrichment group and the combination group,
each acquired 100 additional different storybooks in order to
establish a library system. The storybooks were chosen according
to their potential to support vocabulary growth (following
guidelines and suggestions by stiftunglesen.de; kinderbuchcouch.de; kidsbestbooks.com; lesestart.de) with colorful pictures
and related text on each single page, in order to support emergent
literacy. Each of these storybooks was registered with a code and
positioned within easy reach of the children. A letter was sent
to all parents in which they were informed about the availability
of these books and encouraged to read them with their children
at home “as often as possible.” Managed and controlled by a
graduate student, once a week the children could borrow a new
book after bringing back the one borrowed the week before.
This procedure was chosen in order to acquaint the children
with library rules. There was, however, no financial consequence
or any kind of punishment if the book was lost or damaged;
borrowing a new book was still possible. Children were free to
choose any storybook; the graduate student did not pressure nor
make any suggestions. In order to inform the parents, each child
received a form with their name and the date when the book was
borrowed and when it should be returned.
For teacher training (Method 2), formal instruction was given
to the teachers of the two groups for which this method was
applied, the teacher training group and the combined group,
using one component of the Heidelberger Interaktionstraining
für pädagogisches Fachpersonal zur Förderung ein- und
mehrsprachiger Kinder – HIT (Buschmann and Jooss, 2011),
namely shared book reading. The goal of the training, which
integrates dialogic reading techniques, is to directly increase
the opportunities for children’s language development through
shared book reading. Dialogic reading is an intervention
approach, originally developed by Whitehurst et al. (1988),
that involves high levels of adult–child language interactions
during book reading. The program follows three main principles:
(a) encouragement of the child to participate, (b) provision of
feedback to the child, and (c) adaptation of the adult’s reading
style to the child’s language ability. The child is supposed to be
active while the adult is reading; the child learns to become a
An important part of the teacher training program is that
teachers learn to select the right storybook for optimal shared
book reading activities. The storybooks should, according to
the authors, contain colorful illustrations with related text at
each single page. The illustrations should motivate to interactive
communication. In order to foster this, the topic of the storybook
should meet the interest of the child and the text should include
terms and concepts appropriate to the level of her/his cognitive
Sixteen teachers completed the teacher training (teacher
training group, N D 7; combined group, N D 9). The training
was conducted by a professional instructor, one of the authors of
HIT (Buschmann and Jooss, 2011), for a total charge of €3,900
Euros. In order to control for the quantity and the quality of
the instruction between the groups, the teachers of both groups
were randomly assigned to two mixed training classes. The shared
book reading training was conducted in three sessions of four
1-h lessons each with an interval of 1 month between each
session. At the end of each session, the teachers received written
material (about 10 pages including pictures) in an understandable
and motivating form with a synopsis of the strategies learned
at the sessions (cf. Buschmann and Jooss, 2011). The training
sessions were conducted in a seminar room at the University
of Kaiserslautern. The training contained verbal instructions,
video demonstrations, model learning, and joint elaboration of
activities. Additionally, at the end of the final session coaching
was offered, i.e., before session 3 the participants were asked
to apply what they had learned in practice and to videotape
their shared book reading activities for professional supervision
and feedback. Four digital video cameras (two per group) were
provided for this purpose.
The teachers were instructed to apply the dialogic book
reading strategies three to four times a week in a 1:1 manner,
i.e., with one child at time, for approximately 15 min per child,
in a quiet room. Each teacher was in charge of three to four
children. The teachers used storybooks available in the classroom
book corners, if they were in accordance with what they have
learned in the training about the selection of storybooks (see
above). This holds also for the combination group, i.e., the books
provided additionally to this group (Method 1) were not used for
In reading logs, for every day (Monday–Friday), each teacher
marked her/his frequency of shared book reading activities with
each of the three to four children she/he was assigned to. Both
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Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
kindergartens were visited weekly to collect the logs, to check
compliance and to provide guidance.
The control group did not participate in any special
instruction or activity. At the end of the study this kindergarten
received €300 worth of books as a thank-you gift.
In order to measure expressive vocabulary in preschool age before
and after shared book reading intervention, a subtest of the
Revised Vocabulary Test for 3- to 5-year-old Children (“Aktiver
Wortschatztest für 3- bis 5-jährige Kinder – AWST-R 3-5”; KieseHimmel, 2005) was used. Children were instructed to look at a
picture and to verbalize what they saw and what action could
be described by asking them “what is it” (“Was ist das?”) – for
vocalization of substantives, or “what are they / is she / he doing”
(“Was macht sie/er: : :?”) for verbalization of verbs. According to
the tests manual, one point was given for each correct answer. The
total of 74 items was divided in two parallel forms of 37 items
each. The two forms had equal difficulty. One version was used
for pre-testing and the other for post-testing. The pictures were
presented on the screen of a laptop computer.
In order to measure grapheme awareness, we developed a
task which tested children’s familiarity with grapheme forms.
In each of 10 trials they had to identify a grapheme presented
amongst three non-letter distractors displayed simultaneously
on the computer screen, by pointing to it without having to
name it. Thus, the test could be applied before formal instruction
on grapheme–phoneme conversion rules. For each of these 10
trials a display with four items was presented individually. Each
display consisted of one upper case letter and three distractors:
one pseudo-letter, one number, and one symbol, each presented
in varying location either in the upper left/right, lower left/right
part of the screen. All distractors looked similar to letters and
may even be used in text (symbols and numbers). Thus, the task
required more than just an idea how readable material looks
like (Bialystok, 1995), it rather requires familiarity with concrete
forms of a real graphemes. The letter items were D, M, W, P, G,
H, S, K, F, R, deformed versions of them served as pseudo-letters.
Further ten symbols from regular keyboards (e.g., #, $, %) and the
ten first numbers (e.g., 1,2,3) were used as distractors.
The question given orally to the children after the onset of
each trial was “where is the letter” (“Wo ist der Buchstabe?”). For
each correct answer, the child received one point. The chance
level was 25% in total. Considering a 95% confidence interval
for chance level a score up to 4 must be considered as within
chance level. Four children in the combination and the control
group, respectively, and two children in the literacy enrichment
and teacher training group, respectively, reached a score higher
than this. These frequencies do not differ between the groups,
$2(3) D 1.02 (p D 0.80).
The duration of conducting both tests together (first
expressive vocabulary, measured with a subtest of the AWST-R
3–5, followed by the grapheme awareness task) did not exceed
30 min. After 6 months intervention time, these two tests, were
repeated in the posttest section.
We registered parameters of compliance in order to test whether
the effects of both methods is influenced by the frequency of
which children were exposed to shared book reading. Literacy
enrichment group and the combination group were comparable
regarding the number of borrowed books, frequency and length
of shared book reading with a parent, number of books forgotten
to return, and frequency of children’s absence from kindergarten
(see Table 3). Regarding teacher training group no difference
between the teacher training group and the combined group in
the frequency of absence of teachers and children was found.
The higher frequency of teacher–child shared book reading in the
combination group as compared to the teacher training group did
not reach significance after Bonferroni correction (see Table 3).
Influence of the Own First Name on
Knowledge for letters which are part of the child’s first name
has been shown to be enhanced in some studies (Treiman
and Broderick, 1998). To rule out corresponding biasing effects
on the grapheme awareness task, $2 tests were performed to
check whether the frequency of the target letters of this task is
comparable within the prenames of the children for the four
groups. The occurrence of the target letters within the prenames
was comparable in all four groups, $2(3) D 7.00 (p D 0.86).
Moreover, the occurrence of the target letters as the first letter
of the prename was comparable in all four groups, $2(3) D 4.09
TABLE 3 | Comparisons of the three intervention groups (group 1 D literacy enrichment, group 2 D teacher training, group 3 D combination group)
regarding measures of compliance.
Group 1 Mean (SD) Group 2 Mean (SD) Group 3 Mean (SD) t p
Number of borrowed books 12.54 (4.28) 15.18 (3.74) 1.80 0.08
Frequency of shared book reading with parents 20.15 (11.25) 23.53 (8.46) 0.94 0.36
Number of forgotten books 6.38 (4,48) 5.60 (3.64) 0.51 0.61
Frequency of children’s absence 3.77 (2.09) 2.93 (2.49) 0.95 0.35
Frequency of shared book reading with teacher 16.11 (5.31) 22.06 (10.40) 2.15 0.04
Frequency of teacher’s absence 15.39 (13.31) 12.35 (7.43) 0.83 0.42
Frequency of children’s absence 25.11 (15.50) 17.88 (12.88) 1.50 0.14
Statistical comparisons were conducted with t-tests. The last two columns depict the corresponding t- and p-values.
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Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
(p D 0.25). There were no correlations between the number of
target letters within the own prename and the performance in the
grapheme awareness pretest, r < 0.01 (p > 0.99), and posttest,
r D –0.03 (p D 0.83), indicating that the results of the grapheme
awareness task were not influenced by the occurrence of the target
letters in the children’s first names.
AWST-R scores (expressive vocabulary as measured by the
number of correct words in the AWST-R 3-5) and grapheme
awareness scores (number of correct letters in the letter
recognition task) were analyzed including the factors Time
(before vs. after the intervention) as within-participants
factor, and Group (Library Group, Teacher Training Group,
Combination Group, Control Group) as between-participants
factor. Since these dependent variables were associated (AWST-R
Pretest with grapheme awareness Posttest: r D 0.32, p < 0.01;
AWST-R Posttest with grapheme awareness Posttest: r D 0.29,
p D 0.02) a multivariate analysis of variances (MANOVA) was
run first, followed by univariate ANOVAS of each dependent
variable. Partial eta squared and Cohen’s dz (Cohen, 1988) are
reported as measures of effect size.
The Box’s M test revealed homogeneity of the covariance
matrices, $2(30) D 20.33 (p D 0.91). In line with this
finding, the Levene test revealed homogeneity of variances
between groups for both, the AWST-R, F(3,65) D 0.30
(p D 0.83), and the grapheme awareness task, F(3,65) D 0.30
(p D 0.82).
Since Kolmogorov–Smirnov tests revealed that grapheme
awareness scores were not normally distributed (p < 0.01, for
the data at both time points), for post hoc analyses of this
dependent variable we additionally used bootstrapped t-tests,
appropriate for data not normally distributed (Bollen and Stine,
1990; Preacher and Hayes, 2004).
The MANOVA revealed a main effect of Group, Wilk’s
l D 0.76 (p < 0.01, !2 p D 0.13), a main effect of Time, Wilk’s
l D 0.46 (p < 0.01, !2 p D 0.54), and an interaction between
Time and Group, Wilk’s l D 0.78 (p D 0.01, !2 p D 0.12).
Significant improvements over time were found for all groups, all
ts < –2.75 (ps < 0.01), with the exception of the control group,
t(20) D –0.93 (p D 0.35).
The ANOVA on the AWST-R scores revealed a main effect
of Time, F(1,65) D 30.66, p ≤ 0.01, !2 p D 0.32, with a higher
performance for the second compared to the first time point,
t(68) D –5.54, p ≤ 0.01. Moreover, there was a main effect
of Group, F(3,65) D 3.65, p D 0.02, !2 p D 0.14. The Library
Group achieved higher scores compared to all other groups,
all ts ≥ 2.74, p ≤ 0.01, whereas no differences were found
between the remaining three groups, all ts ≤ 0.09. There was an
interaction between Time and Group, F(3,65) D 2,73, p ≤ 0.05,
!2 p D 0.11. A significant improvement over time was found for all
intervention groups, all ts ≥ –2.48, ps ≤ 0.016 (Library Group:
dz D 0.75; Teacher Training Group: dz D 1.38; Combination
Group: dz D 0.63). No difference over time was found for the
Control Group (see Figure 1).
For the second dependent variable, scores in the grapheme
awareness task, ANOVA revealed a main effect of Time,
F(1,65) D 32.26, p ≤ 0.01, !2 p D 0.33, with a higher performance
for the second compared to the first time point, t(65) D –5.68,
p ≤ 0.01. For the main effect of Group, F(3,65) D 2.60,
p D 0.06, !2 p D 0.11, and the interaction between Time and
Group, F(3,65) D 2.55, p D 0.06, !2 p D 0.11, there was a
clear tendency (6% level), i.e., statistical significance at the 5%
Level was narrowly missed. The scores of grapheme awareness
FIGURE 1 | Mean performance for the four groups before and after the interventions in the expressive vocabulary task. Error bars indicate standard
error of the mean. Asterisks mark significant improvements over time.
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Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
FIGURE 2 | Mean performance for the four groups before and after the interventions in the grapheme awareness task. Error bars indicate standard error
of the mean. Asterisks mark significant improvements over time.
were, as mentioned before, not normally distributed. Therefore,
additional bootstrapped confidence intervals were conducted
(Bollen and Stine, 1990; Preacher and Hayes, 2004). These
analyses revealed that all groups, with the exception of the
Control Group, improved significantly over time (see Figure 2).
For detailed results of the bootstrapped t-tests, see Table 4.
In the present longitudinal study, we investigated the effects of
two methods of shared book reading with kindergarten children
on the development of expressive vocabulary and grapheme
awareness. The latter is assumed to be a precursor of later
literacy development. Method 1 was literacy enrichment: an
extra library consisting of storybooks especially suitable for
the purpose of shared book reading with parents was made
available in two kindergartens (literacy enrichment group and
combination group), allowing children to borrow one of them
weekly. Method 2 was teacher training: teachers participated
in a training of shared book reading. The techniques learned
in the training should be applied in two kindergarten samples
(teacher training group and combination group). While in one
kindergarten sample both methods were combined (combination
group), in two other kindergartens samples only one of these
methods was applied, either literacy enrichment or teacher
training, respectively. A fourth kindergarten sample served as a
We expected effects of both methods on expressive vocabulary,
as these have been shown in a number of earlier studies
(Whitehurst et al., 1994; Wade and Moore, 1996; Wasik and
Bond, 2001). Of particular interest, however, was the question
of whether grapheme awareness (measured by the ability to
identify per trial a letter out of a series of items of which
three were non-letter distractors) is also promoted by shared
book reading in terms of literacy enrichment and/or teacher
training, even without formal alphabetic instruction. This, to
the best of our knowledge, has not been investigated before.
Yet another question was what happens when both methods are
Overall, results show that both methods of shared book
reading affected children’s expressive vocabulary development as
well as their grapheme awareness positively. There is no clear
evidence that the combination of the two methods had a greater
effect on expressive vocabulary and grapheme awareness as
compared to when only one method was applied. The results will
TABLE 4 | Improvement over time for each group in the grapheme awareness task.
Group Mean Standard error p Low border of CI High border of CI dz
Literacy enrichment –3.62 1.07 0.02 –5.54 –1.69 0.89
Teacher training –2.72 1.02 0.01 –4.56 –0.83 0.62
Combination –4.47 1.02 <0.01 –6.29 –2.56 1.04
Control –0.86 0.86 0.34 –2.57 0.86 –
Statistical comparisons were conducted with bootstrapped t-tests for dependent samples, as the grapheme awareness data was not normally distributed. Confidence
intervals (CI) which do not include 0 indicate significant results. The last column depicts the corresponding Cohen’s dz values.
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 7 March 2017 | Volume 8 | Article 364
Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
be discussed in greater detail, separately for expressive vocabulary
and grapheme awareness, in the following.
Shared Book Reading and Expressive
Results from the literacy enrichment group show that simply
providing a large number of adequate books to children, followed
by an informal encouragement of the parents to read these
books with the children at home, improves children’s language
development in terms of expressive vocabulary. It seems that the
availability of appropriate books in an educational institution
connects home and school activities in favor of language
development by stimulating literacy activities at home (Wade
and Moore, 1996; Deunk et al., 2013): supporting children to
experience of the “intimacy” of shared reading in home settings
(Merchant, 2008) and making “recreational reading” part of the
routine (Morrow and Weinstein, 1986). In fact, many parents
expressed their gratitude for the opportunity for their children
to borrow good books. Some, for instance, created a special bag
for the home–school book transport. It seems that this method
simply encourages families’ participation in shared book reading
activities (Meyer et al., 2015).
This “opportunity invites” principle seems also to hold true for
the children themselves, who were highly motivated to choose
a new book each week. Some of them were talking about their
expectations regarding the borrowed book or, when returning the
book, they judged it, discussed the content and told us whether
or not they liked it. Borrowing books may have attracted and
increased children’s general attention to books. Such effects have
been reported in the literature (Robinson et al., 1996). Moreover,
with the frequent use of the borrowing method, children may
have acquired skills in how to deal with the wide variety of books,
as usually found in public libraries, and have learned how to
choose a book that meets their subject expectations (Hurrelmann
et al., 1993; Deunk et al., 2013).
The text and pictures of the storybooks used in the present
study were optimal for retaining children’s attention and for
stimulating language development (stiftunglesen.de; kinderbuchcouch.de; kidsbestbooks.com; lesestart.de), with colorful pictures
and related text on each single page, whereas many books
which children usually have at home are not of the same
standard (Elliott and Hewison, 1994; Marsh, 2003). Thus, literacy
enrichment does not only increase the quantity of shared book
reading activities but also its quality.
Altogether, we can conclude that literacy enrichment is an
effective method which can, due to relatively low costs and
without financial liability for the parents, easily be implemented
in kindergarten centers. Only one single book out of the 200 we
sponsored for literacy enrichment was considerably damaged and
only five books were not returned. At the end of the study, the
remaining books were still available to all children of the two
Results from the teacher training group show that providing
formal shared book reading instruction (Method 2) results in
positive effects on children’s expressive vocabulary, corroborating
the findings of other studies which found similar results of
different formal teacher training instruction (Valdez-Menchaca
and Whitehurst, 1992; Wasik and Bond, 2001; Buschmann and
Jooss, 2011; Simon and Sachse, 2013; Milburn et al., 2014). As
a consequence of the training, teachers learned the importance
of open questions, how to do corrective feedback, how to use
expansions and how to motivate children to speak and to be
more active during telling the story. This seems to increase
both quantity and quality of shared book reading activities
(Whitehurst et al., 1988) and its subsequent impact on language
Moreover, teachers learn how to create a scenario for
incidental vocabulary learning, which means the development of
word knowledge may occur through natural contexts that differ
from formal teaching (Valdez-Menchaca and Whitehurst, 1988).
In such incidental context through shared book reading, children
are exposed to an unstructured rich meaningful environment that
can be accessed via language, and the process of acquiring some
knowledge is based on children’s spontaneous interest, and not
followed by a preselected sequence of topics (Valdez-Menchaca
and Whitehurst, 1988). After the child has expressed interest in
some subject or aspect of the story (it could be verbally or nonverbally), the teacher can interact by requiring and helping the
child to verbalize their thoughts in the context of the story.
Results of the combination group showed that combining the
two methods of shared book reading results in positive effects
on children’s expressive vocabulary. This matches finding by
Mason et al. (1990) and Whitehurst et al. (1994) which showed
similar effects of combining shared book reading at home and at
kindergarten in children’s language development.
The effect of combining the two methods was, however,
not higher when compared to the effects of the methods
applied alone, respectively. This may be considered as somewhat
surprising, because in this group both methods were applied
to the same extent as in the other two groups, respectively,
and children were thus exposed to considerably more frequent
shared book activities. It seems that effects of shared book
reading reached a ceiling effect, i.e., the effect increased with an
increase in quantity (Ehmig and Reuter, 2013), however, only to a
certain level, and after threshold, cannot be improved further by
Shared Book Reading and Grapheme
Results from the literacy enrichment group show positive effects
on grapheme awareness. In earlier studies, effects of various
shared book reading activities on letter knowledge were shown
(Ezell and Justice, 2000; Aram, 2006; Piasta et al., 2012). In these
studies, however, explicit letter instruction was given. Children
were, for instance, asked to verbalize the letter names or to point
to the requested letter (Sénéchal et al., 1998; Ezell and Justice,
2000). The present results show that even without explicit letter
instruction, shared book reading may implicitly help children to
become aware of the difference between printed letters and other
visual configurations (Goodman, 1986; Robins et al., 2012). This
awareness was measured by the ability to identify a grapheme
within a set of items including three non-letter distractors, which
all looked similar to letters and may even be used in text. Thus,
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 8 March 2017 | Volume 8 | Article 364
Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
the task requires more than just an “idea how readable material
looks like” (Bialystok, 1995), it rather requires familiarity with
definite forms of existing graphemes (including their orientation
and detailed features), i.e., the awareness that the chosen item
represents a real grapheme. We termed this awareness “grapheme
The finding that shared book reading increases grapheme
awareness is of practical importance because, for German
kindergarten children formal letter instruction is not part of
the pre-school curriculum. Many children enter Grade 1 (after
reaching the age of six) with only little knowledge about letters
and without reading ability (Mann and Wimmer, 2002; Niklas
et al., 2011). In contrast, US kindergartens, for instance, usually
offer activities that encourage learning the letter names and their
sounds with activities that require giving pre-reading attention to
the phonological segments of words (Mann and Wimmer, 2002).
Such cultural differences were also reported for home literacy
activities (see Lego Learning Institute, 2003, for an overview).
Literacy enrichment can easily be implemented and may help
German kindergarten children to be better prepared for learning
to read and write in school.
Whereas the effects of literacy enrichment on expressive
vocabulary has been discussed in the literature extensively, effects
on grapheme awareness were not addressed so far. In the
following, we will discuss how the positive effects we have found
could be explained.
We observed that when children borrowed a book, they
usually first checked its content before making a decision in favor
of one. Related activities, such as choosing some books from the
bookshelf, exploring and handling them, putting the chosen one
in and out of the satchel, etc., provide additional opportunities for
contact with written text.
The books from the literacy enrichment method were
managed by an external person (research assistant from our
lab). In principle, however, this could also be managed by the
teachers without taking away too much time from the other
activities (Morrow and Weinstein, 1986; Robinson et al., 1996).
In fact, when teachers organize the borrowing, it is already part of
reading related interaction; teachers can help children to choose
a book by talking about the title or the expected content (Deunk
et al., 2013), and in the end it is more likely that the child will like
Results from the teacher training group showed a positive
effect of the training program on children’s grapheme awareness,
even though the program is focused on strategies of expressive
language development. It seems, children have still been
supported to informally learn how print looks and thus to acquire
familiarity with the visual characteristics of the letters and their
orientation (Lachmann and Geyer, 2003; Robins and Treiman,
2009; Neumann et al., 2013; Both-de Vries and Bus, 2014).
Results of the combination group showed that combining
the two methods of shared book reading results in positive
effects on grapheme awareness. Even though the effect size
for this group was considerable larger than for the groups in
which the methods were applied alone, there was no statistical
evidence for a difference. Therefore, the finding is identical
to what was found for expressive vocabulary. Here too, this
may be considered as surprising, because in the combination
group both methods were applied to the same extent then in
the other two experimental groups, respectively, and children
were thus exposed to considerably more frequent shared book
activities. As discussed for expressive vocabulary, here too, it
could be that the effect of shared book reading on grapheme
awareness increases with quantity, but only up to a certain
We conclude that both methods, literacy enrichment
and teacher training trigger experiences with print through
shared book reading even without formal letter instruction
(Sonnenschein and Munsterman, 2002; Sawyer et al., 2014).
Thereby children begin to distinguish letters from other visual
configurations and, consequently, will learn that letters are
symbols representing language elements and to visually perceive
and process graphemes analytically. This modification of visual
perception is considered to be an important precondition of
literacy development, in particular to learn grapheme–phoneme
correspondences (Lachmann, 2002; Lachmann et al., 2012;
Lachmann and van Leeuwen, 2014). This is not restricted
to transparent orthographies, such as German (Ehri, 1998;
Lachmann et al., 2010).
To the best of our knowledge the present study is the
first one in which the effect of shared book activities without
letter instruction on grapheme awareness is measured. For
gaining letter knowledge, i.e., for learning the grapheme-tophoneme conversion rules in the alphabetic phase of literacy
acquisition (Frith, 1985), the children have to process graphemes
differently than similar non-letter configurations (Lachmann
and van Leeuwen, 2014). Grapheme awareness may thus be
considered as an important early precondition which promotes
the modification of visual processing of graphemes toward the
analytic processing required for letter knowledge. Since, in turn,
early letter knowledge has been shown to be one of the strongest
predictors of later reading and writing success (Schatschneider
et al., 2004; Leppänen et al., 2008), grapheme awareness may be
considered an important first step in the process of learning to
read and write (Lachmann, 2002; Lachmann and van Leeuwen,
2014; Lachmann et al., 2014).
Although the present study has reached its aim, there are
some limitations to be mentioned. A total of 69 children
participated in the present study. At group level the sample
size is quite small. This works against our hypotheses. Statistical
tests were carefully chosen, taking into account the sample size,
the associations between dependent variables and parameters of
distributions. Moreover, every endeavor has been made to control
for factors such as gender, age, SES, and others. Therefore, the
present results are interpretable. Nevertheless, the sample size
is not large enough for a generalization of the present results,
and the study should, therefore, be considered as pilot study,
the first one on the effects of shared book reading without
additional letter instruction on grapheme awareness, motivating
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Wesseling et al. Shared Book Reading in Kindergarten
There are some limitations related to both methods applied,
literacy enrichment and teacher training. Regarding literacy
enrichment, the frequency of shared book reading at home was
recorded by a graduate student by simply asking the children how
often they have read the book at home with the parents. Future
studies should control for this variable by sending reading logs to
the parents for a clear registration of how often the books were
read during the week.
Regarding Method 2, the teacher training included individual
or small group coaching by supervisors on the basis of videotaped
interactions between teacher and children during shared book
reading activities in kindergarten. None of the teachers, however,
took advantage of this offer. Therefore, no coaching was
performed at all. This may have restricted the effectiveness of
the training (Neuman and Cunningham, 2009; Powell et al.,
2010; Dickinson et al., 2014). Furthermore, it was not controlled
if the teachers really followed the instructions given in the
training for the choice of books. What books were finally chosen,
however, may also have influenced the quality of shared book
reading (de Jong and Bus, 2002; Kaderavek and Justice, 2005;
Moschovaki and Meadows, 2005; Dickinson et al., 2014), and
thus, should be controlled in future research. The children should
be involved in the process of choosing the books. This would
lead to an additional exposure to print and may better meet
the interests of the children (comparable to literacy enrichment
method, see above). A last problem with the teacher training
to be mentioned is that teachers did not always follow the
instruction to perform shared book reading strictly in a one-toone manner.
In the present study, we investigated effects of shared book
reading on the development of expressive vocabulary and
grapheme awareness without letter instruction in German
kindergarten children. Expressive vocabulary was measured with
a standardized German vocabulary test (AWST); grapheme
awareness was measured by a task requiring children to identify
graphemes presented amongst non-letter distractors.
Two methods for promoting shared book reading were
investigated, literacy enrichment by providing additional books,
and teacher training in shared book reading strategies consisting
of adopted components of the Heidelberger Interaktionstraining
für pädagogisches Fachpersonal zur Förderung ein- und
mehrsprachiger Kinder – HIT.
Both of these methods resulted in positive effects on children’s
expressive vocabulary. This finding is in line with earlier studies
(Valdez-Menchaca and Whitehurst, 1992; Wasik and Bond,
2001; Buschmann and Jooss, 2011; Simon and Sachse, 2013;
Milburn et al., 2014) and shows that improving the language
interaction by a specific training of teachers and even a simple
literacy enrichment in kindergarten may increase the quantity
and quality of shared book reading activities and finally promote
the language development of the children.
Both methods also had positive effects on grapheme
awareness. This is the first study showing that even though no
formal letter instruction was given. The children became more
familiar with graphemes, i.e., with letter forms and orientations.
Even though there is no direct evidence it could be concluded
that they became aware of the fact that, in contrast to other
visual configurations, graphemes are abstract representations
of elements of spoken language (without knowing what in
We consider grapheme awareness to be a first step in
the process of reading-specific modification of predominantly
holistic visual strategies toward an analytic processing of
graphemes (Lachmann, 2002; Lachmann and van Leeuwen,
2014), which is required for learning grapheme–phoneme
conversion rules in the alphabetic phase (Frith, 1985) of reading
acquisition. Therefore, we should consider shared book reading
not only to be a tool for promoting the development of expressive
language, but also for supporting the process of learning to read.
TL is the initiator and supervisor of the study and co- as well as
senior author. PW was conducting the study and is first author.
CC contributed in running the analyses and is shared first author.
This project was supported by a grant from the University
Foundation for the TU Kaiserslautern (Stiftung für die TU
Kaiserslautern) given to TL. The books for the literacy
enrichment groups and for the control group were provided by
the association “pro – Verein zur Förderung von Projekten für
junge Menschen e.V.”, coordinated by Heinrich Zankl. Patricia
de Brito Castilho Wesseling was supported by scholarships
from Catholic Academic Exchange Service (KAAD), German
Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the by the Center
for Cognitive Science (Landesforschungsinitiative of the German
Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate).
Thanks are due to Kirstin Bergstroem and Jan Spilski (University
of Kaiserslautern) for their assistance and advice. Thanks are due
to the City of Kaiserslautern, to all children, their families as
well as the teachers of the kindergartens for making this study
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Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
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