Is the Socioemotional Quality of Emergent Reading Interactions Related to Young Children's Emergent Reading Skills?

Symonne S. Kennedy
Stephanie M. Curenton*
Rutgers University

Keywords: emergent readers, emergent reading skills, parent-child reading interaction


Emergent reading is an important developmental milestone wherein young children read familiar books to a parent or teacher. Few inquiries have been made about how the quality of emergent reading interactions are associated with children's concurrent emergent reading performance or their standardized reading skills. The current study addresses this gap by investigating the association between the socioemotional quality of parent-child emergent reading interactions and children's emergent reading skills on a standardized test of reading and an emergent reading rubric. Sixteen boys and 14 girls 36-60 months of age (M=48.90, SD=8.92) were recorded reading The Snowy Day by Ezra J. Keats to their mothers. An emergent reading rubric was developed based on children's extra-textual comments during the emergent reading interaction and a standardized early reading assessment was administered to the children before the interaction. The mothers and children's socioemotional contributions to the emergent reading interaction were used to assess the socioemotional quality of the interaction. Mother's level of Balanced Control-Redirection as well as children's Task Orientation-Compliance were both significantly and positively associated with children's emergent reading rubric scores. Children's Task Orientation-Compliance was significantly and positively associated with mothers' level of Balanced Control-Redirection. These results suggest that mothers' behavior during emergent reading interactions can influence children's concurrent emergent reading performance; however, this influence does not extend to standardized scores on early reading assessments.


Reading is the gateway to academic success. It would be nearly impossible to do well in school or in life with poor reading skills. Lonigan and colleagues (2013) asserted that children who have good reading skills tend to read more than others and in doing so, these children develop still better reading skills while acquiring more vocabulary as well as general book-based knowledge. In support of these findings, Mol and Bus (2011) maintained that increased exposure to print enables children to develop proficient reading skills, which causes them to read more habitually, thereby improving their reading skills with each successive year of schooling. They found that preschool and kindergarten experience with print accounted for 12 percent of the variance in oral language skills; in primary school, print exposure accounted for 13 percent of the variance in oral language and by middle school, high school, and college, print exposure accounted for 19 percent, 30 percent, and 34 percent of the variance in oral language skills respectively (Mol & Bus, 2011). These findings indicated that continued exposure to print through reading is important for developing long-term reading ability and achievement. 

Many studies have shown that, indeed, early reading skills are related to future reading skills. Research by Duncan, Dowsett, Claessens, Magnuson, Huston, Klebanov, et al., (2007) suggested that early reading skills (school entry reading skills) were predictive of later reading achievement in school. Similarly, Cunningham and Stanovich (1997) found that not only is first grade reading ability linked to previous exposure to reading, it is also linked to future reading ability in eleventh grade, even when controlling for cognitive ability. The authors go on to assert that children who get early and fast exposure to reading will make a habit of reading throughout their lifetime, thus giving them more practice with print and developing their literacy skills (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). For this reason it is important to engage children in early reading interactions when they are at a young age.

Nation-wide data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress has shown that many school-age children have below grade level reading skills. According to these assessments, 33 percent of fourth-graders had scores that were below the basic reading level for their grade (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010, 2011). Likewise, 24 percent of eighth graders and 26 percent of twelfth graders also scored below the basic reading level for their respective grades (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010, 2011). Children who are most at risk for reading below the basic grade level are those who belong to minority groups and those who come from low-income families (Lonigan et al., 2013). Consequently, it is important to make sure that these at risk children learn to develop and maintain their reading skills early on in childhood so that they can become good readers with high academic achievement.  

Emergent Reading

Emergent reading is when a young child "reads" a story or picture book either to themselves or to others. Emergent reading typically occurs before children become able to read the actual text within a story (Sulzby, Branz, & Buhle, 1993). In other words, emergent readers do not read the printed words in a book; they use different cues to help them tell the story. Some indicators of emergent reading include: attention to pictures, recall of certain words or phrases used when a particular book was previously read, pretending to read books, and reading in "their own way" (Elster, 1994; Sulzby et al., 1993).

Most of the research on emergent reading comes from the study of children's interaction with stories they have heard at least once before (Sulzby et al., 1993). A number of researchers hold that the link between familiarity of a text and emergent reading is such that the more familiar a book is to a child, the more closely the language used by the child matches the actual words in the book (Elster, 1994; Martinez & Teale, 1988; Mason, Peterman, Powell, & Kerr, 1989; Pappas & Brown, 1989; Putnam, 1989). Story retelling, a form of emergent reading wherein a child engages in emergent reading with a book that has already been read to them before, has been shown to promote literacy and language development, specifically in terms of story comprehension and expressive vocabulary (Gambrell & Dromsky, 2000; Geva & Olson, 1983; Soundy, 1993). However, children can and do read emergently from books that they have not read before or have limited experience with (see Curenton, Craig, & Flanigan, 2008; Curenton & Kennedy, 2013). 

Emergent Reading Interactions

The role of the child. Preschool age children who engage in emergent reading are able to exercise their reading skills, regardless of whether they can actually read print or not. Elster (1994) proposed that these children are able to do so by using three different strategies or resource domains. The first, he suggested, is the actual book being read. The child uses visual cues from the pictures to make sense of what is happening on the pages and to tell the story (Elster, 1994). The second domain is the knowledge that children brings to the situation, including their memory, either of the particular book being read or of other books read in the past, and their life experiences (Elster, 1994). The third domain is the social context in which the child is reading. When a child engages in emergent reading it allows for dialogue to occur between the adult and the child. This dialogue allows the child to interact with the adult in a way that lets the verbalization of the child's thoughts and ideas come through; the dialogue serves as a resource guide to more information about the book and can enhance the child's emergent reading skills (Elster, 1994).

The role of the parent. In accordance with the idea that the dialogue during an emergent reading interaction is important, Whitehurst et al. (1988) developed a training technique called dialogic reading designed to help parents engage their children during reading interactions. Dialogic reading is based on the notion that parents play an integral role in reading interactions (Whitehurst, Falco, Lonigan, Fischel, Valdez-Menchaca, & Caulfield, 1988). Arnold and colleagues asserted that parental feedback, scaffolding techniques, and continued practice could foster accelerated language development for the child (Arnold, Lonigan, Whitehurst, & Epstein, 1994). The dialogic reading program teaches parents to ask "what" questions, provide encouragement and praise, accommodate their child's interests, and, among other things, treat the reading interaction as a fun activity (Arnold et al., 1994). In this way, reading becomes an important arena for the realization and practice of emergent reading and development of reading skills.

When a child engages in an emergent reading interaction with a parent, that parent is able to cater to the interests and developmental needs, or comprehension level, of the child (Arnold et al., 1994; Sulzby et al., 1993; Whitehurst et al., 1988). The extensive and repeated use of these adjustments are signs that the parent is treating the reading interaction as an experience to engage in, rather than as a chore to be completed (Sulzby et al., 1993). A study conducted by Dunst, Simkus, and Hamby (2012) showed that there were a number of things a parent could do to help engender positive outcomes for emergent reading interactions such as story retellings. This list includes but is not limited to: relating the story to the child's interests and experiences, introducing or explaining concepts in the story, asking open-ended questions, providing an introduction to the story, asking the child to make predictions based on the introduction given, and prompting the child to verbally elaborate on story telling. Interestingly, this research suggested that using a combination of 3-6 of these behaviors would be beneficial to children's understanding of the story and augment their developing vocabulary (Dunst et al., 2012). Thus, emergent reading can be an advantageous activity for a parent engagement with their children to exercise their emergent reading and improve their literacy and language skills.

Present Study

Much research has been conducted on emergent reading interactions on the part of the parent and how the parent's participation affects the child. However, not enough research has focused on the quality of the reading interaction, with respect to parent and child contributions, in relation to children's actual reading ability. Based on Elster's (1994) theory that children use three main resources while engaging in emergent reading interactions (as stated above) and on the research provided by Whitehurst et al. (1988), Arnold et al., (1994), and Dunst et al. (2012), hypothesized that socioemotional quality of emergent reading interactions is linked to children's actual reading ability. Using measures on both a standardized test of reading ability and an emergent reading task, the current study examined the association between the quality of mothers and children's individual socioemotional contributions to a reading interaction and the child's emergent reading skills. The authors hypothesized that children in parent-child dyads where both the mother and child have high quality socioemotional contributions during the interaction would exhibit adept emergent reading abilities.



The sample originally consisted of 30 parent-child dyads; however, due to some missing data that lead to an exclusion of father-child dyads, the sample was narrowed to 25 mother-child dyads. Investigators sent letters home with the children to recruit them and their parents for the study. There were 12 boys and 13 girls in the study. Children in these dyads ranged from 37-63 months old (M=50.96 months, SD=8.34months). Ten (40%) of the children were enrolled in voluntary pre-kindergarten and 13 (52%) were not enrolled in voluntary pre-kindergarten; 2 of the children (8 %) had missing data for this particular variable. The sample was racially/ethnically diverse such that 16 of the children were black (64%), 7 were white (28%), 1 child was Latino (4%), and 1 child was Asian/Native American/Biracial (4%).

The mothers in the sample ranged from ages 23-41 years old (M=30.60 years, SD=5.04). The fathers of the children in the sample had ages that ranged from 22-42 years old (M=31.79 years, SD=5.29); the ages of 6 of the fathers were not documented. Most of the children's parents either had a Bachelor's Degree or went to Graduate School (76% of sample), while the rest of the parents went to Trade/Vocational School or had at least some college level education (24%). Parents' reading abilities were assessed using the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT3; Wilkinson, 1993). The mean WRAT reading score of the moms in the sample was 107.05 with scores ranging from 92-118 and a standard deviation of 7.85 (4 of the mothers had missing WRAT scores). Out of the analytic sample of 25 mothers one parent (4%) was not currently working while the other 24 (96%) reported that they currently had a job. To assess the income level of the families, dividing each family's annual income by the poverty threshold for their family size created an income-to-needs ratio. This income-to-needs ratio has been used in many studies to assess families' socioeconomic status (see Bradley & Whiteside-Mansell, 1997; Brook-Gunn, Duncan, & Maritato, 1997; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, 2001; Curenton, Craig, & Flanigan, 2008). The mean income-to-needs ratio was 2.77 (SD=1.09, range=1-5, n=21). Based on the distribution of the income-to-needs ratios it was determined that 1 family was in poverty (4%), 4 families were near the poverty line (16%), and 17 families were above the poverty line (68%); 3 families' income with respect to poverty were undetermined (12%). See Appendix 1.


Ethnically diverse research assistants met with the families for roughly 60 minutes in a university laboratory inside a Department of Communications Disorders. For the first 45-50 minutes the mothers and children were interviewed separately. In the remaining 10-15 minutes the mothers and their children were reunited and the dyads were videotaped participating in a shared reading interaction that consisted of three different story-telling modalities. One shared reading interaction involved the mother reading a story to the child; the second shared reading interaction involved the mother telling the child a story about their past that contained a moral; the last shared reading interaction involved an emergent reading task wherein children, to the best of their abilities, retold the story to their mother. For the purposes of this study, data were collected only from this latter shared reading interaction in order to assess the child's emergent reading skills.

An interviewer read The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats to each child in the sample before they were videotaped reading the same story to their mother. The Snowy Day is a popular story for children and has been used in a number of other studies to analyze children's narrative abilities (Dickinson & Tabors, 1991; Reese & Cox, 1999; Snow, Tabors, Nicolson, & Kurland, 1995). Before the recording, mothers were instructed to act just as they would were they at home reading with their child to ensure a more natural and genuine reading interaction. Each child read to their mother in the absence of all researchers on a cushioned bench in a room containing only a video camera for recording purposes. 

Three trained research assistants transcribed the videotapes verbatim into the Child Language Analysis program (CLAN: MacWhinney, 1994) so that complete written copies of each parent-child reading interaction were available. The transcripts were segmented and appropriately constructed into C-unit format with subject verb clauses, allowing for the natural flow indicative of conversation (for details see Curenton et al., 2008). 


Emergent reading rubric score. An emergent reading rubric was developed to assess emergent reading. This rubric was based on the simplified version of the Sulzby storybook reading classification scheme (Valencia & Sulzby, 1991). The rubric consisted of 7 items each with a 0 or 1 coding. The first item measured whether or not children used any of the actual words on the page. If children used words on the page at least 50 percent of the time they received a one for that category. The second item measured whether the children consistently produced an accurate portrayal of the events taking place on the current page that they were reading. Because the children were not reading conventionally, this category of the emergent reading rubric helped capture whether the child was keeping up with the current page or whether they were simply telling the story from memory. The third item assessed whether the child made a reference to the main character's (Peter's) thoughts or feelings. The fourth, fifth, and sixth items pertained to the children's understanding of the three important events of the story: (a) that Peter's stick was making the third set of tracks, (b) that Peter is too young to play with the older boys, and (c) that Peter's snowball melted in his pocket. Children received a 1 for each event that they remembered and correctly "read" to their mother; children received a 0 for each even that they did not remember. The final item of the emergent reading rubric assessed whether children used typical story words like "one day", "once upon a time", or "the end" while reading to their mothers. Children received a 1 if they used any of these phrases and a 0 if they did not use any. Each child's score from the 7 items was added up to yield a total emergent reading score. The emergent reading scale ranged from a possible 0-7 points with higher scores indicating that children had more superior emergent reading skills. Chronbach's alpha for the scale was .85 and the mean emergent reading score of the sample was 3.44 with a standard deviation of 2.50; scores ranged from 0-7.

Standardized reading ability. Each child's literacy skills were assessed using scores on the Test of Early Reading Ability-Third Edition (TERA; Reid, Hresko, Hammill, 2001), which yielded a numeric reading quotient. Possible scores on this test range from 55-145. Sample scores ranged from a low of 76 to a high of 119 with 5 children missing data for these scores. The mean TERA score for the sample was 100.80 with a standard deviation of 11.70.

Socioemotional quality. Trained undergraduate research assistants rated mothers and children independently on six qualitative interaction ratings (see Curenton & Kennedy, 2013). Only four of these ratings were used for the current study: Balanced Control and Redirection for the mothers and Task Orientation and Compliance for the children. Each score ranged from 5 (highest) to 1 (lowest) with anchor descriptions set at 5, 3, and 1. A description of these ratings, along with their corresponding anchor scores, is described in detail below.

The Balanced Control rating was used to assess mothers' pattern of control throughout the emergent reading interaction. A rating of 5 meant that the mother fostered a balanced interaction, meaning that both the mother and the child were equally contributing to the pace and the task at hand and that the interaction had a back and forth, turn-taking, and rhythmic quality. A rating of 3 indicated that the mother was in control of the interaction; the mother might ask a question, the child would respond, and so on, creating a dialogue. A rating of 1 meant that the mother allowed the child to set the pace of the interaction to the extent that the mother became a passive observer rather than an active member. Ratings for Balanced Control ranged from 1 to 5 (M=4.22, SD=1.48).

The Redirection rating was used to gauge how mothers redirected their children back to reading if they got sidetracked. A rating of 5 indicated a mother who used a variety of Redirection techniques when the child got distracted. For example, they redirected the child by drawing his or her attention to the book saying, "Oh, look what happened now" or "Look at this page" or gently chiding, "Listen, listen." A rating of 3 would be characteristic of a mother who used criticism such as "You are not being nice because you don't want to read." Such criticisms may be blatant and harsh or polite or even sarcastic. Mothers in this category might use verbal or physical discipline to redirect their child. For instance, the mother might say, "Sit down!" or pick their child up and put them back down if they had stopped reading and wandered away. A rating of 1 for the Redirection category consisted of a mother who did not attempt to redirect the child if distracted. These mothers do not attempt to manage the child's behavior during the reading interaction; they might ignore the child's misbehavior or ignore the child's distraction. Ratings for Redirection ranged from 3 to 5 (M=4.52, SD=0.79). The ratings for mothers were combined to create a summary rating representing mothers' Balanced Control-Redirection (M=8.74, SD=1.76, range=4-10).

In terms of children's ratings, Task Orientation ratings measured the children's focus on the task. A rating of 5 indicated that the child was on task and interested in reading. Markers of this rating included concentrating on the book or responding to the mother's comments and questions. A rating of 3 meant that the child was sometimes disinterested in reading the book and sometimes looked away from the book. A rating of 1 was indicative of a child who refused to read and never focused on the book. These children were completely off task, actively looking away from the book, moving around, or playing with a toy during the interaction. Ratings for Task Orientation ranged from 1 to 5 (M=4.00, SD=1.35).

The Compliance rating was used to assess the children's acceptance of help and assistance from their mothers. A rating of 5 for this category meant that children openly accepted their mothers help, cooperating in a way that allowed for holding the book together and turning pages together. A rating of 3 indicated that children inconsistently accepted help from their mothers in a kind of tug-of-war or power struggle. A rating of 1 indicated that the child did not welcome help from the mother at all; these children may even be disobedient, aggressive, or whiny. Ratings for Compliance ranged from 1 to 5 (M=4.30, SD=1.43). Children's ratings were combined, yielding a summary rating that represented children's Task Orientation-Compliance (M=8.30, SD=2.67, range=2-10).


A series of correlations were conducted to determine if there was an association between the socioemotional qualitative interaction ratings and the children's emergent reading ability. The first correlation looked at mothers' combined Balanced Control-Redirectionand the emergent reading scores of children (n=23). A significant positive correlation was found such that higher ratings were associated with higher emergent reading scores, r(23)=.622, p<.002. The second correlation looked at mothers' Balanced Control-Redirection and children's standardized TERA reading quotient scores, but no statistically significant results were found. The third correlation looked at the association between the children's Task Orientation-Compliance ratings and their emergent reading scores. A significant positive correlation was found such that children with higher ratings had higher emergent reading scores, r(23)=.557, p<.006. The fourth correlation depicted the association between the children's socioemotional qualitative interaction ratings and their standardized TERA reading quotients. However, no statistically significant correlation was found between these two variables. Lastly, the association between mothers' socioemotional qualitative interaction ratings and children's socioemotional qualitative interaction ratings was assessed. There was a strong significant positive association between mothers' ratings and children's ratings, r(23)=.693, p<.001, indicating that Redirection and Balanced Control on the part of the mother was associated with children who were more task oriented and compliant.

Another set of correlations was conducted to determine whether there was a possible association between the TERA reading quotient and the emergent reading scores. A significant positive association was found such that higher emergent reading scores were associated with higher standardized TERA reading quotient scores, r(20)=.453, p=.045. In order to detect any case of spuriousness, a partial correlation was conducted to examine the association between the mother and child combined qualitative ratings and the children's emergent reading scores while controlling for each child's standardized TERA reading quotient scores. Even when controlling for the standardized TERA scores, there was a significant positive association between mothers' socioemotional ratings and the children's emergent reading scores rp(17)=.550, p=.015. Similarly, when controlling for each child's TERA scores, there was a significant positive association between children's socioemotional ratings and their emergent reading scores, rp(17)=.574, p=.010. Likewise, when controlling for the children's TERA scores, the association between mothers socioemotional ratings and children's combined qualitative interaction ratings was exacerbated such that there was an even stronger positive association, rp(17)=.707, p=.001. See Appendix 2.


The main objective for this study was to determine how the quality of individual mother and child socioemotional contributions to emergent reading interactions was associated with children's early reading skills and abilities. Mothers' socioemotional contributions (as measured by the mothers' Balanced Control-Redirectionduring the emergent reading interaction) were positively associated with children's emergent reading scores. Additionally, children's socioemotional contributions (as measured by the children's Task orientation-Complianceduring the emergent reading interaction) were positively associated with their emergent reading scores. These findings are consistent with the proposed hypothesis and suggest that when the child is paying attention and focused on the task at hand, and when both the child and the mother are participating in a back and forth, rhythmic fashion, with the mother keeping the child on task, the child will perform better during the emergent reading interaction.

Although the mothers' and children's socioemotional contributions to the emergent reading interaction were associated with the emergent reading scores, interestingly neither the mothers' nor the children's socioemotional contributions were associated with the children's standardized TERA scores. This raises the question: Is a child's emergent reading performance a better indicator of their reading skills than their scores on a standardized test? Or is their emergent reading ability bolstered by the fact that they happen to be in a family where their mother encourages socioemotional contributions during emergent reading interactions and therefore not an accurate depiction of their true reading skills? This query is demystified when considering the fact that the children's emergent reading scores are based on their performance during the emergent reading interaction and during this time they are directly experiencing their mothers' socioemotional contributions as well as their own socioemotional contributions. In contrast, when the children take the TERA they are asked a number of different questions that require them to call upon their literacy and reading skills, but they are not exposed to the same socioemotional contributions that factor into their performance when they read emergently. This contextual difference may explain why there appears to be a discrepancy in the effectiveness of mother and child socioemotional contributions. These contributions might be limited by the type of domain in which they can exert their effects. For instance, the socioemotional contributions that both a child and a mother bring to an emergent reading interaction may be directly associated with the child's behavior during that specific interaction; the association may not carry over to the child's overall reading ability as measured by the TERA.

Another finding of the current study is that mothers' socioemotional contribution to emergent reading interactions was associated with children's socioemotional contribution to emergent reading interactions. This finding indicates that when mothers exhibit high levels of Balanced Control and provide high levels of Redirection during an emergent reading interaction, children will exhibit more Task Orientation and Compliance when reading emergently. These results suggest that children whose parents are providing Balanced Control and Redirection during an emergent reading interaction may be more likely to be willing to read (Compliance) and more likely to stay focused on reading (Task Orientation).

There are some limitations to this study that are worth mentioning. For instance, the small sample size of 25 participants highlights the need for replication with a larger sample. However, despite the small sample size, the findings of this study yielded statistically significant correlations, and even when using control measures these correlations only became stronger and more statistically significant. That the current study produced statistically significant correlations at the level of p<.001 with a sample as small as 17 participants, demonstrates the strength of these effects and the importance of these findings.

Another limitation to this study is one that often comes about when dealing with human subjects. One possible explanation for mothers' socioemotional contributions being associated with their children's emergent reading scores is that the mothers may have simply tried harder or put more enthusiasm into the emergent reading interaction. Social desirability bias is an issue pertinent to most (if not all) research involving human subjects. Because the mothers of this study were recorded engaging in an emergent reading interaction with their children, there may have been some part of them trying to enhance their behavior during the interaction to match what they thought would be socially acceptable for a mother who was being read to by her child. For this reason, some of the parent-child dyads may not have been reflective of a typical emergent reading interaction for any given dyad. Although social desirability bias may explain some of these results, it does not fully explain the findings of this study. Not all of the mothers bolstered their performance; some mothers actually provided poor socioemotional contributions to the emergent reading interaction. If social desirability was the main reason for the results presented in this study, then we would not see mothers who were at the lower end of the spectrum, providing an emergent reading interaction with poor socioemotional quality.        

The findings of this study provide important implications for how parents and children should conduct themselves during an emergent reading interaction to ensure high quality emergent reading on the part of the child. These findings are particularly relevant to children in minority families. Approximately 72 percent of the children who participated in this study were minorities (64% were Black, 4% were Latino, and 4% were Asian/Native American/Biracial). Minority children have been identified as a group at-risk for having poor reading skills (Lonigan et al., 2013; Sulzby et al., 1993). Likewise, children in families of low SES are at risk of poor academic performance or failure due to their poor language skills (Arnold et al., 1994) and poor test scores in reading (Sulzby et al., 1993). In order to prevent future at-risk groups of children from becoming poor readers later in life, it is crucial that parents learn the importance of exposing their young children to print through reading. More specifically, parents should be educated about the long-term benefits of allowing their children to read emergently as well as the role that they, as parents, play during this reading interaction.

There may be a need to examine ways in which behavior or socioemotional contributions during an emergent reading interaction can influence or affect present and future reading ability. More research is required to determine the causal relationship (if any) between the individual socioemotional contributions to an emergent reading interaction and children's reading ability. Additionally, the present study should be replicated with larger samples to determine whether emergent reading scores are as different from standardized reading ability scores as the current study suggests. Future research will help answer the question: how can a parent ensure that the benefits (if any) of the socioemotional contributions that they and their child make during an emergent reading interaction extend to their child's actual reading abilities? If later studies can begin to investigate the presence of a causal relationship between the socioemotional quality of emergent reading interactions and children's reading skills, then there is hope that interventions can be created to help parents raise adept and capable readers who will go on to attain success in school and in life.


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