The University of Iowa

Caregiver Involvement When Reading Books to Children

Mother and child reading together

Caregivers asking questions while reading to children can help introduce or reinforce story elements, new words, literal and inferential information, and illustrations.


Posted on: April 23, 2019

Book reading is a common practice for teaching early literacy skills, such as narrative and vocabulary development, to young children at school and home (Wasik, Hindman, & Snell, 2016). Caregivers who read to children provide opportunities for their children to hear and use language that is not part of their typical conversations (Mol, Bus, de Jong, & Smeets, 2008). In particular, caregivers can support children’s understanding of the story and vocabulary development by making connections between the story and children’s personal experiences, as well as labeling, defining, and describing words (Stahl & Nagy, 2006).

There are four key components drawn from research that are easy for caregivers to implement when reading with their children. The acronym IDEA stands for identify story elements, define unknown words, elicit inferential and literal information, and analyze illustrations. Below is a brief description of the components and examples of how to use them during storybook reading:

I - Identify Story Elements     

Story elements include the character, setting, events, and main idea. Identifying story elements can help children understand how books are organized in a purposeful way (Zevenbergen, Whitehurst, & Zevenbergen, 2003). While reading a book, caregivers can point out these elements explicitly or ask children to identify them by posing wh- questions (who, what, when, where, why). For example, a caregiver may ask, “Where does the story take place?” or “What is the name of the character in the story?”

D - Define Unfamiliar Words

How many words a child knows and can use is an indicator for later reading comprehension achievement (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). Caregivers can help children learn vocabulary by defining and explaining at least one unfamiliar word during book reading. The explanation should help the child make personal connections to the new word. For example, after reading a sentence that uses the word return, a caregiver might say, “Return means to take something back. You have to return your library book when you finish reading it.” Although these explanations are important, children will need to hear the words used several times to retain their meanings (Wasik et al., 2016). Therefore, caregivers can continue to emphasize the word when rereading the book and can look for ways to repeat the word in everyday situations, such as “After you borrow your sister’s toy, be sure to return it to her.” 

E - Elicit Literal and Inferential Information

Literal questions can be answered with information directly stated in the book. For example, a caregiver may ask, “Where is the giraffe in the picture?” or “What is the girl cooking for dinner?” To answer these questions, children must recall information the caregiver read to them (van Kleeck, Vander Woude, & Hammett, 2006). Inferential questions are those that require the child to think about information from the story and combine it with something they already know. For example, a caregiver might ask, “What do you think will happen when Jared takes his puppy to the party?” or “How do you think John feels when others laugh at him on the playground?” Making inferences is an advanced skill for young children, so practicing with caregivers can help build this skill (Tompkins, Bengochea, Nicol, & Justice, 2017).

A - Analyze Illustrations

The illustrations in storybooks are intended to support young children’s listening comprehension, so caregivers can use them to point out story elements (e.g., character, setting, events) and reinforce new vocabulary words (Beck & McKeown, 2007). For instance, a caregiver may point to the illustration of a barn and say “Charlotte lives in the barn on Mrs. Wilson’s farm. Can you point to the barn in the picture? Yes, Charlotte lives in the barn.”

To help caregivers remember to discuss these four components while reading to children, IDEA bookmarks are offered in the supplemental materials.

Example of Caregiver-Child Book Reading

In the story that follows, IDEA questions are presented in red font to show how and when a caregiver might ask about story elements, new words, literal and inferential information, and illustrations.

Liz’s Big Day

Liz dancing
“My dance recital is today!” Liz thought as she leaped out of bed to get ready for her big day. (Look at the illustration. What is Liz getting ready to do today?) Today, Liz will perform her tap dance routine in front of all her friends and family. She practiced all summer for the opportunity to show off her new moves. (What is the character’s name in the story?)

Liz ran downstairs to join her family at breakfast when she noticed something that stopped her in her tracks. She realized that she did not smell fresh pancakes or hear the chatter of her parents discussing the morning news. “That’s odd,” she thought to herself as she crept down the stairs. “My dad always cooks me pancakes for breakfast on Saturdays. Where did everyone go?” (Where do you think Liz’s family is?) Liz walked into her dad’s bedroom, but no one was there. Liz started to cry as she wondered, “Has my family forgotten about my big day?” (How do you think Liz felt when she could not find her family on her big day?)

Then, she heard an unusual sound in the dining room. (Liz heard an unusual sound in the living room. “Unusual” means strange or odd. What unusual sound do you think she heard?). When she peeked around the corner, she was immediately filled with joy. “Surprise!” chanted a group of familiar faces. Liz was so startled she could hardly move. (Where was Liz’s family the whole time?) “I thought you forgot about my big day,” cried Liz. Just as he always does, her dad walked over to give her the biggest hug. “We would not miss this day for anything, Liz.” Liz hugged her dad and said, “This is the best day ever!”


Identify story elements

Define unfamiliar words

Elicit literal and inferential information

Analyze illustrations

Caregivers play an essential role in children’s early literacy development by reading storybooks to them, allowing children to understand their meaning, identify critical elements, and learn new vocabulary words. Using the IDEA components will help caregivers easily incorporate these strategies at home.

Supplemental Materials for Families

PDF iconIDEA Bookmarks

Includes information on how to make use of the IDEA components when reading to children at home.


Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal107, 251-271. doi:10.1086/511706

Hindman, A. H., Wasik, B. A., & Erhart, A. C. (2012). Shared book reading and Head Start preschoolers' vocabulary learning: The role of book-related discussion and curricular connections. Early Education and Development, 23, 451-474. doi:10.1080/10409289.2010.537250

Mol, S. E., Bus, A. G., De Jong, M. T., & Smeets, D. J. (2008). Added value of dialogic parent–child book readings: A meta-analysis. Early Education and Development, 19, 7-26. doi:10.1080/10409280701838603

Stahl, S. & Nagy, W. (2006). Teaching word meanings. New York: Routledge.

Tompkins, V., Bengochea, A., Nicol, S., & Justice, L. M. (2017). Maternal inferential input and children's language skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 52, 397-416. doi:10.1002/rrq.176

van Kleeck, A., Vander Woude, J., & Hammett, L. (2006). Fostering literal and inferential language skills in Head Start preschoolers with language impairment using scripted book-sharing discussions. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 15, 85–95. doi:10.1044/1058-0360(2006/009)

Wasik, B, Hindman, A., & Snell, E. K. (2016). Book reading and vocabulary development: A systematic review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 37(4th Quarter 2016), 39-57. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2016.04.003

Zevenbergen, A., Whitehurst, G., & Zevenbergen, J. (2003). Effects of a shared-reading intervention on the inclusion of evaluative devices in narratives of children from low-income families. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(1), 1–15. doi:10.1016/S0193-3973(03)00021-2