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Learning English With Your Children and Teens: Focus on Language Development During Shared Reading

Father and son reading

When reading aloud with a young English learner, pay attention to the emphasis in your voice when reading rhyming words, and go over instances of language elements, such as alliteration.


Posted on: October 26, 2021

Editor’s note: Learning together can improve your children’s and teens’ English language skills as well as your own. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers who are English learners find English learning opportunities for the family in their everyday lives.

The practice of shared book reading, or reading a book aloud with one or more people, is an important contributor to children’s oral language and literacy skills in their early years of development (Riordan et al., 2021). Although shared reading is beneficial for all children, including English learners (ELs), selecting books to read together can be overwhelming. One way to narrow the scope of literature to choose from is to look for books with characteristics that support the language development of elementary-aged ELs. 

Practicing Listening and Speaking with Rhyming Books

Beginning readers learn that sentences are made up of words, and that words are made up of sounds. These skills are part of phonological awareness, which helps prepare children for becoming successful readers in English as well as other alphabetic languages (McBride et al., 2021). For ELs, books that include rhymes offer practice with the particular sounds and language patterns found in English. To understand how to use rhymes during a read aloud, let us look at the first line from Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough.

This is the tale of a duck in a truck.

Reading this sentence aloud allows you and your children to practice making the word segment /uck/. Explain to your children that the words “duck” and “truck” both have the sound /uck/ at the end. Take turns reading the sentence aloud with your children. Each time, emphasize making the /uck/ sound in “duck” match the /uck/ sound in “truck,” and encourage your children to match the sounds as well (see our video below for a demonstration).

Rhyming books such as Duck in the Truck also help children learn acoustic elements of the English language, such as pitch, tempo, volume, stress, rhythm, and intonation. Hearing rhymes and the expressiveness of reading stories aloud can help ELs distinguish between stressed and unstressed syllables (Fleta, 2017). Let us look at some lines from the end of Duck in the Truck:

This is the pull as the boat takes the strain.

These are the wheels finally gripping.

This is the knot suddenly slipping.

This is the truck with the engine on fast.

Back on the track... UNSTUCK AT LAST!

This text provides opportunities for you and your children to hear and practice many of the acoustic elements of English. For example, the multisyllabic words “gripping” and “slipping” have the same /ip/ and /ing/ sounds. Together, “-ipping” creates the rhyme, but the stress in both words is on the first syllable with the /ip/ sound alone. Reading the rhyming words aloud offers a chance to practice stressing the first syllable.

These lines also provide an opportunity to practice intonation and pitch. Notice how the last phrase—“UNSTUCK AT LAST!”—is written in all capital letters. This is done to signal the added emphasis on the words intended to convey the duck’s feeling of relief at the end of the story. With your children, practice adjusting your pitch (how high or low your voice is, usually associated with the speaker’s emotion) and intonation (how a voice rises and falls or changes in pitch) to create the emphasis and convey the emotion.

Video Demonstration

This video provides demonstrations of reading rhymes and reading with pitch and intonation.

Beginning ELs may find it difficult to identify these aspects of English from the written text alone. Luckily, some picture books that you can check out from your local library come with recordings (digital or CD) of the books being read aloud. Listening to the recording of the book being read aloud can provide a good model of the acoustic elements of these wonderful stories. But rather than just listening, you and your child can try reading along with the audio to practice matching the rhymes and rhythms of the recorded reader. There are also videos online that show the text of stories as they are being read aloud. For example, The Children’s Storytime Bookshelf is one creator of such videos.

Building Language Awareness with Chapter Books

As your children’s and your own language skills improve, you may be ready for the challenge of something longer than picture books, such as chapter books. Chapter books describe episodes in characters’ lives that are divided into chapters. They do not contain illustrations on every page as picture books do, but chapter books for children usually have at least one illustration in each chapter.

It is rare for chapter books to have the same frequency of rhythm and rhyming as picture books, but many still offer opportunities to practice the acoustic elements of language. Let us look at the opening of a chapter from Ramona the Pest by Beverly Clearly:


At last Ramona felt a tap on her shoulder. Her turn had come to run around the circle! She ran as fast as she could to catch up with the sneakers pounding on the asphalt ahead of her. The boing-boing curls were on the other side of the circle. Ramona was coming closer to them. She put out her hand. She took hold of a curl, a thick, springy curl—

“Yow!” screamed the owner of the curls.

Startled, Ramona let go. She was so surprised by the scream that she forgot to watch Susan’s curl spring back.

One of the unique characteristics of chapter books is that each chapter has a title, and these titles may contain ways to practice language. In the example from Ramona the Pest, Cleary’s chapter title uses words that begin with the letters “R” and “C.” Reading the title aloud allows you and your child to hear how “Ramona” has the same beginning sound as “Resist,” and how “Can’t” has the same beginning sound as “Curl.” When words, like those in Cleary’s chapter title, have the same beginning sound(s), this acoustic element of language is known as “alliteration.” This element can add interest to practicing the beginning sounds.

Another acoustic element of language is onomatopoeia, or when something is named by a vocal representation of the sound it makes. The italicized words in the text above, “boing-boing,” are an example of onomatopoeia because, when read aloud, the words sound exactly like a spring being pulled and released. In reality, the curl doesn’t make that sound, but it does in Ramona’s imagination. Therefore, using onomatopoeia helps us visualize the curls’ coiled, spring-like appearance, which helps us understand why Ramona is so tempted to pull one. With your child, practice reading the word “boing-boing” out loud to imitate the sound the curls make in Ramona’s imagination.

Reading anything offers practice that can help improve English language skills. However, when you and your child read out loud together, the experience offers you a chance to hear acoustic elements of the language and practice speaking with the rhythm and stress that characterize English.


Alborough, J. (1999). The Duck in the Truck. HarperCollins.

Cleary, B. (1968). Ramona the Pest. HarperCollins.

Fleta, T. (2017). The sounds of picturebooks for English language learning. Children’s Literature in English Language Education Journal, 5(1), 21–43. | Full text

McBride, C., Pan, D. J., & Mohseni, F. (2021). Reading and writing words: A cross-linguistic perspective. Scientific Studies of Reading.

​​​Riordan, J., Reese, E., Das, S., Carroll, J., and Schaughency E. (2021). Tender shoots: A randomized controlled trial of two shared-reading approaches for enhancing parent-child interactions and children’s oral language and literacy skills. Scientific Studies of Reading.

Wade-Woolley, L. (2015) Prosodic and phonemic awareness in children’s reading of long and short words. Reading and Writing, 29, 371–382.

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