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Inferencing questions embedded in a children’s book help children make more inferences

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The ability to deduce implicit information about relations in a text (i.e., inferencing) is essential to understanding that text. Hence, there is increasing attention for supporting inferencing skills among children in early literacy programs including shared book reading interventions. This study investigated whether embedding scripted inferencing questions in a story that children (4.3–6.6 years) and parents ( N = 32 parent–child dyads) read together increases the number of inferences during shared reading and supports children’s story comprehension. Results showed that during shared book reading parents and children made more inferences when the book contained scripted inferencing questions. However, there were no associated benefits regarding story comprehension: having read with scripted inferencing questions resulted in comparable story comprehension as reading without scripted inferencing questions. In addition, after reading with scripted inferencing questions more inferences were made during shared reading of a second book without scripted inferencing questions.
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FIRST
LANGUAGE
Inferencing questions
embedded in a children’s
book help children make
more inferences
Björn B. de Koning
Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Stephanie I. Wassenburg
Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Carnegie Mellon University, USA
Lesya Y. Ganushchak
Eke Krijnen
Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Roel van Steensel
Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Abstract
The ability to deduce implicit information about relations in a text (i.e., inferencing) is
essential to understanding that text. Hence, there is increasing attention for supporting
inferencing skills among children in early literacy programs including shared book
reading interventions. This study investigated whether embedding scripted inferencing
questions in a story that children (4.3–6.6 years) and parents (N = 32 parent–child
dyads) read together increases the number of inferences during shared reading and
supports children’s story comprehension. Results showed that during shared book
reading parents and children made more inferences when the book contained scripted
inferencing questions. However, there were no associated benefits regarding story
Corresponding author:
Björn B. de Koning, Department of Psychology, Education, and Child Studies, Erasmus School of Social and
Behavioural Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, 3062 PA Rotterdam,
The Netherlands.
Email: b.b.dekoning@essb.eur.nl
894770FLA0010.1177/0142723719894770First Languagede Koning et al.
research-article2019
Article
2 First Language 00(0)
comprehension: having read with scripted inferencing questions resulted in comparable
story comprehension as reading without scripted inferencing questions. In addition,
after reading with scripted inferencing questions more inferences were made during
shared reading of a second book without scripted inferencing questions.
Keywords
Inferencing, literacy intervention, parent–child interaction, shared book reading, story
comprehension
Over the past decades, research has demonstrated that understanding a text requires
forming a coherent mental representation of that text (de Koning & van der Schoot,
2013; Kintsch, 1998). Relying on the literal textual information, however, is usually not
sufficient to construct an accurate mental model: information relevant for mental model
construction is often implicit, which makes successful understanding strongly dependent
on a reader’s ability to make inferences based on their prior knowledge or text clues
(Cain & Oakhill, 1999; Perfetti et al., 2005). Inference making is a cognitive activity
where readers attempt to fill in details that are not mentioned in the text, connect ideas,
and establish coherence in their mental model (Cain & Oakhill, 1999; van den Broek,
Bohn-Gettler, et al., 2011). For example, to understand Eric Carle’s (1969) classic pic-
ture book The very hungry caterpillar, which tells the story of a caterpillar looking for
food, children need inferencing skills to make sense of the following excerpt:
On Monday he ate through one apple. But he was still hungry. On Tuesday he ate through two
pears, but he was still hungry. On Wednesday he ate through three plums, but he was still
hungry. On Thursday he ate through four strawberries, but he was still hungry. On Friday he ate
through five oranges, but he was still hungry. On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate
cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one
lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. That
night he had a stomach ache! (Carle, 1969, pp. 5–15)
The causal relation between stomach ache and eating too much is something children
need to infer: it is not given explicitly in the text. Research has shown that children are
already able to engage in textual inferencing from an early age (Kendeou et al., 2008;
Tompkins et al., 2013; van den Broek, Kendeou, et al., 2011; van den Broek et al., 2005).
In a recent review of studies on preschoolers’ textual inferencing, Filiatrault-Veilleux
et al. (2015) suggest a developmental order. The youngest children (three-year-olds) are
able to make inferences about characters’ emotional states (‘She is sad’), but the ability
to draw causal inferences such as problem resolutions (‘If he opens the window, the bird
can escape’) or predictions (‘I don’t think the witch will find the little boy’) is only
acquired at age five or six. The latter types of inferences are particularly important for
comprehension. Research by Kendeou et al. (2008), for instance, has shown that pre-
schoolers’ references to causal relations in story retelling significantly predicted their
story comprehension. Some researchers have also shown positive relations between
de Koning et al. 3
causal inferencing in young children and later reading comprehension (Ferreiro &
Taberoski, 1982; Kendeou et al., 2009; Kontos & Wells, 1986).
Given the importance of early literacy interventions for improving text comprehen-
sion, it has been suggested that early literacy interventions should, in addition to support-
ing lower level reading skills like word recognition and letter-knowledge, also target
inferencing skills (Lever & Sénéchal, 2011; van Kleeck, 2008). This aligns with the
simple view of reading, which proposes that understanding the meaning of a text requires
both word recognition skills and language comprehension skills (Gough & Tunmer,
1986). A natural way of scaffolding young children’s inferencing skills is through adult–
child interactions during shared reading. Various studies have examined so-called ‘extra-
textual discussions’ during parent–child shared picture book reading (Beals et al., 1994;
Hammett et al., 2003; Leseman & de Jong, 1998). Usually, such studies examine the
extent to which parents and children engage in ‘decontextualized talk’, which refers to
whether parent and child utterances extend beyond the directly readable or visible con-
text of the book. The use of decontextualized talk often involves making inferences, such
as making predictions or providing explanations about story events (e.g., ‘What do you
think Frog will do next?’ or ‘I think rabbit is unhappy, because he lost his carrot’). The
frequency of such utterances has been shown to predict children’s vocabulary knowledge
and narrative skills (Reese, 1995; Rowe, 2013, 2012; Sparks & Reese, 2012), even up to
mid-adolescence, as has been shown recently by Uccelli et al. (2019).
Although in many shared reading interventions, particularly those following a
Dialogic Reading approach (Arnold & Whitehurst, 1994; Whitehurst et al., 1994), infer-
encing is part of the types of parent–child interactions that are encouraged, only a few
interventions have been developed that explicitly focus on promoting young children’s
inferencing. Van Kleeck et al. (2006) examined the effects of ‘scripted inferencing’ in
storybooks. In their intervention, preschoolers were read to by trained research assistants
who made use of picture books containing question scripts. These elaborate scripts con-
tained either literal or inferential questions to help children understand the story, prompts
to aid children in responding to these questions, and (correct) answers to the questions.
A control condition that did not engage in a reading activity served as a comparison
group. The researchers found positive intervention effects on children’s ability to respond
to decontextualized talk (including inferencing), as measured with the Preschool
Language Assessment Instrument (PLAI; Blank et al., 1978). Building on van Kleeck
et al.’s approach, Desmarais et al. (2013) exposed four- to six-year-olds with specific
language impairment to comparable literal and inferential questions. In a 10-week inter-
vention, speech-language pathologists read to children from five books using scripted
questions (16 per book). They compared children’s progress on the PLAI during the
intervention to their progress during a baseline and a maintenance phase, but found no
pre- to post-intervention differences. Finally, Dawes et al. (2019) examined the effects of
an inferencing intervention on the narrative comprehension skills of five- to six-year-old
children with developmental language disorder. In four sessions, a researcher used mod-
eling and inferential comprehension questions to help children build a ‘story map’ (i.e.,
a mental overview of the story structure) of four storybooks. The researchers found a
significant intervention effect on inferential comprehension during a transfer task and
this effect was maintained eight to nine weeks later.
4 First Language 00(0)
While the intention of these studies is to be commended, they have a number of draw-
backs. One limitation is that the scripts in all three studies included both literal questions
and inferential questions, making it difficult to isolate the effects of inferencing. Another
is the lack of a (suitable) control condition. Whereas Desmarais et al. (2013) failed to
include a control group, the control children in the van Kleeck et al. (2006) study did not
receive any treatment and those in the Dawes et al. (2019) study received no storybook
reading but another type of intervention (phonological awareness). Therefore, it is
unclear whether the positive intervention effects were a consequence of the use of extra-
textual talk or whether they were the result of shared reading per se. A more precise test
of the effects of scripted inferencing during shared reading would thus require an experi-
ment in which scripted questions focus exclusively on supporting children to make infer-
ences (i.e., scripted inferencing questions) and a comparison is made with a control
group in which children are involved in shared reading without scripted inferencing. An
additional drawback of previous studies is that effects were only tested by assessing
children’s general ability to respond to decontextualized talk (i.e., by their PLAI scores)
or by their scores on a test of narrative comprehension. The studies did not analyze
whether children actually engaged in more inferencing during the interaction and whether
scripted inferencing contributed to comprehension of the story at hand. A final limitation
is that the studies either drew on the effort of trained staff or the intervention was
researcher-delivered, whereas the family would be a more natural environment for
encouraging inferencing during shared reading.
In the current study, we addressed these limitations and aimed to extend prior research
by (1) experimentally testing the impact of scripted inferencing questions on the interac-
tions between parents and children during reading and children’s story comprehension,
and (2) making a comparison with a control situation in which the same books are used
but no inferencing questions are offered. We were particularly interested in the effects
scripted inferencing questions have during and after a shared reading activity. The fol-
lowing research questions were formulated:
Research question 1: Do scripted inferencing questions support parents and children in
making more inferences than during natural shared reading interactions (i.e., without
scripted questions)? Based on the research discussed above, it was expected that shared
book reading with scripted inferencing questions would result in more inferences dur-
ing parent–child interactions than shared reading without such questions.
Research question 2: Does engaging in shared reading with scripted inferencing ques-
tions result in better story comprehension? We expected that, compared to shared
book reading without scripted inferencing questions, children being read to with
scripted inferencing questions would show higher story comprehension on a compre-
hension test administered after the reading activity.
Research question 3: Do parents and children learn from using scripted inferencing
questions; that is, if scripted inferencing questions result in more inferencing, does
this effect transfer to a regular shared reading activity where no scripted inferencing
questions are provided? Therefore, we explored whether parents and children made
more inferences during a second shared book reading activity, when their first reading
de Koning et al. 5
activity was supported with scripted inferencing questions, as compared to when their
first reading activity was without scripted inferencing questions.
Method
Participants
Participants were parents and (one of) their kindergartners. They were recruited by (1)
brochures about the study distributed by four Dutch primary schools, and (2) a call for
participation in the study on social media. Parents who indicated their interest to partici-
pate were given more information about the content and procedural aspects of the study
(without giving away the main purpose). Parents received a small financial reward and
children received a small present for their participation.
Thirty-two parent–child pairs (31 mothers, one father; 14 girls, 18 boys) participated.
The average age of the children was 5.5 years (SD = 0.5; range 4.3–6.6 years).
Information obtained from a demographic questionnaire completed by participating par-
ents indicated that the sample represented a range of socioeconomic backgrounds,
defined in terms of parent’s reported educational level: 18 parents had received higher
professional education, seven parents had a university degree, four parents had com-
pleted vocational education, and three parents had only completed secondary education.
All parents spoke Dutch with their child at home. Six parents were born in another coun-
try than the Netherlands and also spoke a second language with their child. The families
were generally interested in reading: 29 parents indicated that they read to their child
every day, two parents did this once or twice per week, and one parent did this once or
twice per month. Most of the parents (26) indicated that they read at least 15 minutes a
day themselves. Only two parents reported that they hardly ever read. All parents gave
written informed consent before taking part in the study, which included permission to
make audio and/or video recordings during the experiment. The study was conducted in
accordance with the code of ethics for the social and behavioral sciences endorsed by all
universities in the Netherlands, and the guidelines of Erasmus School of Social and
Behavioural Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Design
The study had an experimental set-up with provision of parent–child interaction sugges-
tions during shared picture book reading (through scripted inferencing questions vs. no
scripted questions) as a within-subjects factor. Each parent–child pair was asked to read
two picture books, one with and one without scripted inferencing questions. The order of
picture books and versions (both books were available with and without scripted inferenc-
ing questions) was counterbalanced across parent–child pairs and each parent–child pair
was randomly assigned to one of four orders (see Table 1). This set-up allowed us to
investigate (1) the effect of scripted inferencing questions on parent–child interactions,
and (2) whether there was a ‘transfer’ effect from reading a book with scripted inferencing
questions to reading a book without such questions, while controlling for an effect of story
content.
6 First Language 00(0)
Materials
Stories. Two picture books were used, which were specifically written and illustrated
for this study by a professional writer/illustrator. Each picture book contained 12
pages, with about four to five lines of text and one corresponding drawing per page.
The picture book Eekhoorn en Ekster gaan op zoek naar eikels (in English: Squirrel
and Magpie go looking for acorns’) was 388 words long and described how Squirrel
invites his friend Magpie to search for acorns. Because Magpie is more interested in
shiny things, he overlooks all kinds of special situations (e.g., an elephant making a
handstand). At the end of the story, Magpie realizes that due to his inattention he
missed a lot of beautiful things in his surroundings. The picture book Het geluid van
Eend (in English: ‘The sound of Duck’) was 450 words long and described the story of
Duck, who seeks friendship with the animals on a farm by mimicking their sounds.
However, the animals laugh at her because she cannot do it properly. Then she meets
Frog, who encourages Duck to make her own sound (i.e., quacking). When the other
animals hear Duck and Frog ‘singing’ beautifully together (in Dutch, representations
of sounds that ducks and frogs make are similar, i.e., kwaak), they come over to listen
and Duck no longer feels sad and alone.
For each picture book, two versions were created: (A) a version with six scripted
inferencing questions, and (B) a version without such questions. Except for the scripted
inferencing questions, both versions of a picture book were identical. The scripted infer-
encing questions were always at the bottom of a page, and a page contained no more than
one question. Each question was preceded by an icon (a speech bubble) and was pre-
sented in green, so that it was clearly distinguishable from the main text. The scripted
inferencing questions required either forward inferences (e.g., requiring the child to pre-
dict what will probably happen in a subsequent scene), or backward inferences (e.g.,
asking the child to explain the cause of a story event or an emotion of one of the charac-
ters in the just read text). Figures 1 and 2 show an example of a scripted inferencing
question from each of the two picture books (a forward and a backward inferencing
question, respectively).
Measures
Comprehension. For each picture book, a comprehension test assessed the extent to which
the child had an adequate understanding of the content of the picture book. An overall
measure of comprehension was used as the scripted inferencing questions were expected
to support children in constructing an accurate mental representation of the story ele-
ments and their relations, and hence their story comprehension. The comprehension tests
Table 1. Counterbalancing of parent–child pairs across different orders.
Order 1
Squirrel-A, Duck-B (8 pairs)
Order 2
Duck-A, Squirrel-B (8 pairs)
Order 3
Squirrel-B, Duck-A (8 pairs)
Order 4
Duck-B, Squirrel-A (8 pairs)
de Koning et al. 7
were developed based on the Narrative Comprehension of Picture Books task (Paris &
Paris, 2003). Each comprehension test consisted of 10 open-ended questions. Half of
these questions were about explicit information in the text (i.e., literal questions) and
addressed the story characters, setting, initiation event, problem, and outcome resolution.
The other half required children to make inferences based on the characters’ feelings,
dialogues, causal relations, predictions, and themes (i.e., inference questions). Questions
were read to the children by the experimenter. For questions that referred to a picture in
the picture book, the experimenter showed the corresponding picture. Children’s answers
to the questions were recorded with a speech recorder and later transcribed. From the
transcriptions, answers were scored according to rubrics that were developed for the
present comprehension test. The rubrics contained all correct answers and their
English translation of the text:
Magpie does not respond and continues to search.
Squirrel bends down and skillfully passes under a large branch.
Magpie follows Squirrel, but does not pay attention to
where he is walking.
What will happen to Magpie next?
Figure 1. Example of a scripted forward inferencing question: ‘What will happen to Magpie
next?’
8 First Language 00(0)
corresponding scores. Similar to the method used in Paris and Paris (2003), a 0-1-2 score
was awarded per question. A score of 0 points indicated a wrong answer; 1 point repre-
sented a correct answer; 2 points were awarded if the correct answer was accompanied
by a suitable explanation of why the child thought this was the correct answer. For each
picture book separately, an overall comprehension score was computed by summing the
scores on all 10 questions (ranging from 0 to 20 points) about the picture book. The total
comprehension score was converted to proportion correct for further analyses to correct
for missing data (the experimenter accidentally failed to pose one of the questions about
the Duck text to one participant and failed to pose one of the questions about the Squirrel
text to another participant; all other participants answered all questions). All answers on
English translation of the text:
‘Of course’ Cow says.
Duck pouts her beak: ‘Kwoe, kwoe, kwoe’.
‘But Duck, that is not how you moo at all’, Cow says,
‘Come Calf, let’s go’.
Duck sadly watches how Cow and Calf walk back to the cowshed.
Why is Duck sad?
Figure 2. Example of a scripted backward inferencing question: ‘Why is Duck sad?’
de Koning et al. 9
the comprehension test were independently coded by two experimenters. Inter-coder
reliability, as measured by Krippendorff’s α (Hayes & Krippendorff, 2007), was high for
both the comprehension test about the picture book named The sound of Duck (α = .95)
and the test about the picture book Squirrel and Magpie go looking for acorns (α = .87).
Parent–child interactions. Parent–child interactions during shared picture book reading
were video recorded and later transcribed. All utterances (by either parent or child) were
coded based on the scheme used by de la Rie et al. (2018). This scheme was translated
and adapted from the coding framework applied by van Kleeck et al. (1997), who based
their categories on earlier studies (Blank et al., 1978; Sorsby & Martlew, 1991). The cod-
ing scheme distinguishes story-related utterances (questions and statements) from other
utterances (e.g., interaction-related utterances such as giving feedback and procedural
utterances such as ‘Let’s turn the page’). Story-related utterances are categorized into
four ‘levels of decontextualization’ according to the extent to which they move beyond
the literal storyline and pictures. Levels 1 and 2 contain utterances pertaining to elements
within the directly observable context of the story, with utterances on Level 2 being
somewhat more cognitively challenging. Levels 3 and 4 refer to utterances in which par-
ent and child tend to go beyond the directly observable context of the story. In Level 3,
this is still rather superficial and includes activities such as summarizing and connecting
elements of the story. For the purpose of this study, we focused on the highest level of
decontextualization (i.e., Level 4), which focused on meaning-making based on infer-
encing, and coded this into three additional subcategories. On Level 4, parent and child
make inferences about the story by making predictions (subcategory A: ‘I think Duck
will do it right.’), providing explanations (subcategory B: ‘Duck is happy, because she
can quack with Frog.’), and formulate conclusions and implications (subcategory C:
‘What has Magpie learned from this?’).
Three trained experimenters coded the parent–child interactions according to the
above coding scheme. To calculate inter-coder reliability, 25% of the transcripts (i.e., 8
families; 16 parent–child interactions) were coded by all three experimenters. After
removing the literal text utterances (including the actual scripted inferencing questions),
1500 utterances remained which were coded into the seven aforementioned story-related
and interaction-/procedure-related (sub)categories (i.e., Levels 1–3, Levels 4A, 4B, 4C,
and procedural). Inter-coder reliability was sufficient (Krippendorff’s α = .69;
Krippendorff, 2004) and the remaining transcripts (75% of total) were, therefore, not
double coded. According to prior research (e.g., Hallgren, 2012), the reliability of the
codings in a subset may be used to generalize to the full sample. Each experimenter
coded another 25% of the total amount of transcripts. To ensure objectivity, experiment-
ers only coded parent–child interactions that had been observed and transcribed by a
different experimenter.
Demographic questionnaire. The demographic questionnaire consisted of questions about
parents’ country of birth, the language that was spoken at home with the child, and par-
ents’ educational attainment. A Dutch translation of the Stony Brook Family Reading
Survey (Whitehurst, 1992) was included to measure the extent to which families engage
in reading activities in their home environment.
10 First Language 00(0)
Procedure
Testing. Depending on the parent’s preference, test sessions were scheduled at their
home or at their child’s school. During the test session, which lasted about one hour, the
experimenter followed a standardized protocol. First, a brief explanation of the research
and the procedure was given, after which the parent provided written informed consent
for participation in the study. Parents were told that they would read two picture books,
one of which contained scripted questions embedded in the story. Then, the parent and
child were asked to read the first book. During both reading activities, the experimenter
was present in the room but sat apart from the dyads. If a parent had objections to their
interactions being recorded with a video camera, only a voice recording was made (with
the parent’s permission). Prior to reading the A-version of a book (i.e., the version with
scripted inferencing questions), parents were asked to read the book to their child and
were additionally told that the book contained scripted questions embedded in the story
that they could use during reading. Inspection of the transcripts showed that in 98% of
the cases, parents used the scripted questions as intended (i.e., three times parents altered
the question and only once a question was skipped, because the child had already spon-
taneously answered it). Prior to reading the B-version of a book (i.e., the version without
scripted inferencing questions), parents were just asked to read the book to their child.
After the parent and child had finished reading the first book, the experimenter asked the
child to complete the corresponding comprehension test. The parent was asked to leave
during this part of the experiment to ensure that the parent could not (un)consciously
help the child answer the questions. However, if the child was uncomfortable with the
parent leaving, the parent was allowed to stay and was asked to refrain from any interac-
tion with the child and not to comment on the child’s answers. After completion of the
comprehension test, the parent was asked to read the second picture book, after which a
corresponding comprehension test was administered using the same procedure as
described above.
Results
Effect of scripted inferencing questions on parent–child interactions
Table 2 shows the mean (and standard deviation) number of all utterances that parents
and children produced (Levels 1–4) during shared book reading for the experimental and
control conditions. As can be seen in this table, shared book reading with scripted infer-
encing questions resulted in significantly more parent–child interactions (i.e., total num-
ber of utterances) than shared book reading without such questions, t(31) = 5.55, p <
.001, d = .93. This applied to both the number of utterances of parents, t(31) = 5.07, p
< .001, d = .98, and of children, t(31) = 5.50, p < .001, d = .93. All three tests showed
large effect sizes.1
To investigate the extent to which scripted inferencing questions impacted inference
making (Research question 1), a 2 × 3 × 2 repeated measures Analysis of Variance
(ANOVA) was conducted with the total number of inference-related (Level 4) utterances
as the dependent variable. Speaker (parent vs. child), Sublevel (4A vs. 4B vs. 4C, see
de Koning et al. 11
parent–child interactions coding scheme), and Condition (with vs. without scripted infer-
encing questions) were included as within-subjects factors. For reasons of clarity and
space, we focus on reporting significant findings.
There was a significant and large2 main effect of Speaker, F(1, 31) = 105.60, p < .001,
ηp2 = .77, Sublevel, F(1.65, 51.103) = 35.16, p < .001, ηp2 = .53, and a significant
medium to large effect of Condition, F(1, 31) = 4.22, p = .049, ηp2 = .12. These main
effects were qualified by a significant Speaker × Sublevel × Condition interaction with
a large effect, F(1.38, 42.784) = 18.17, p < .001, ηp2 = .37. Unpacking this interaction, it
appeared that in the condition without scripted inferencing questions, there was a signifi-
cant interaction with a large effect between Speaker and Sublevel, F(2, 62) = 5.72, p =
.005, ηp2 = .16. In comparison to children, parents produced more utterances related to
predicting (sublevel 4A: Mchildren = .75, SE = .21 and Mparents = 1.22, SE = .29; p = .005)
and explaining (sublevel 4B: Mchildren = .69, SE = .21 and Mparents = 1.59, SE = .45; p =
.001). There was no such interaction effect for formulating conclusions and implications
(sublevel 4C: Mchildren = .13, SE = .10 and Mparents = .16, SE = .10; p = .745). In the
condition with scripted inferencing questions the Speaker × Sublevel interaction was also
significant with a large effect, F(2, 62) = 14.16, p < .001, ηp2 = .31. However, in this
condition the children produced more utterances than parents with regard to predictions
(sublevel 4A: Mchildren = 4.00, SE = .31 and Mparents = 1.66, SE = .28; p < .001) and
explanations (sublevel 4B: Mchildren = 5.34, SE = .49 and Mparents = 4.16, SE = .59; p =
.053). Once again, such an effect was not found for conclusions and implications (sub-
level 4C: Mchildren = .34, SE = .15 and Mparents = .66, SE = .23; p = .057). Most interest-
ing in light of our hypotheses, is that in the condition with scripted inferencing questions
children produced more predictions (Mdifference = 3.25, SE = .28, t(31) = 11.59, p < .001,
d = 2.15) and explanations (Mdifference = 4.66, SE = .45, t(31) = 10.44, p < .001, d =
2.14) in their utterances than children in the condition without these questions. Both these
effects were large based on the effect size.
Effect of scripted inferencing questions on story comprehension
Table 3 shows the proportions of correctly answered comprehension questions separately
for type of question and condition. The emerging pattern is that children answered more
literal and inference questions correctly in the condition with scripted inferencing ques-
tions compared to the condition without scripted inferencing questions. This difference
appeared to be largest for the inference questions compared to the literal questions.
Table 2. Mean number of all produced utterances per condition (standard deviation in
parentheses).
With scripted questions Without scripted questions
Total number of utterances 99.31 (44.45) 58.94 (42.59)
Utterances – parent 59.56 (28.05) 35.25 (27.75)
Utterances – child 38.41 (18.16) 22.66 (15.60)
12 First Language 00(0)
To investigate whether shared book reading with scripted inferencing questions
affected story comprehension (Research question 2), a repeated measures ANOVA was
conducted on the story comprehension scores with Condition (with vs. without scripted
inferencing questions) and Question type (Literal vs. Inference) as within-subjects fac-
tors. Additionally, correlational analyses were performed to investigate the relations
between parent–child interactions and story comprehension.
The analyses revealed neither significant main effects of Condition and Question type
nor a significant Condition × Question type interaction (all Fs < 1). When collapsing
the literal and inference questions, the analyses showed a similar pattern, i.e., no signifi-
cant difference in comprehension score between the conditions with vs. without scripted
inferencing questions (M = .53, SD = .19; M = .48, SD = .21, respectively; t(31) < 1).5
Nevertheless, in the condition with scripted inferencing questions, the number of sub-
level 4B utterances (i.e., explaining) was significantly and positively associated with
story comprehension scores (r = .70, p < .001). This relation was not observed in the
condition without scripted inferencing questions (r = .29, p = .11).
Effect of scripted inferencing questions on transfer
To investigate whether the effects of shared book reading with scripted inferencing ques-
tions transfer to reading without such questions (Research question 3), a 2 × 3 × 2 × 2
mixed ANOVA was conducted on the Level 4 utterances, with Speaker (parent vs. child),
Sublevel (4A vs. 4B vs. 4C), and Condition (with vs. without scripted inferencing ques-
tions) as within-subjects factors and Order (with-without vs. without-with scripted infer-
encing questions) as between-subjects factor.
Results revealed a large significant Condition × Order interaction, F(1, 30) = 7.47,
p = .010, ηp2 = .20. This interaction showed two separate effects. First, it appeared that
when reading a picture book with scripted inferencing questions overall more Level 4
utterances were produced (M = 2.70) than when reading a picture book without scripted
inferencing questions (M = .76; p < .001). Second, irrespective of whether scripted
inferencing questions were embedded in the picture book, in the second reading activity
more Level 4 utterances were produced (M = 1.96) than in the first reading activity
(M = 1.49; p = .018).
Interestingly, as can be seen in Table 4, it appeared that between the first and second
reading activity, the relative difference in the number of Level 4 inferences was smaller
for the picture books with than without scripted inferencing questions. When the picture
book with scripted inferencing questions was read in the second reading activity, approx-
imately 25% more inferences were made compared to when it was read in the first
Table 3. Proportions of correct responses per condition (standard deviation between brackets).
With scripted questions Without scripted questions
Total comprehension score .53 (.20) .49 (.21)
Literal questions .53 (.21) .51 (.22)
Inference questions .52 (.25) .47 (.24)
de Koning et al. 13
reading activity. For the picture books without scripted inferencing questions, however,
there was almost a 50% difference between the first and second reading. This higher
number of inferences produced when reading the picture book without scripted inferenc-
ing questions during the second reading activity is unlikely to result solely from parents
and children being more talkative after the first reading. Rather this seems to suggest that
in the ‘with-without’ order parents and children to some extent applied what they had
done during the first reading activity (i.e., engaging in extra-textual talk focused on infer-
encing) to the second reading activity.
This observation is partially supported by a more fine-grained analysis. Specifically,
the analysis revealed a significant Speaker × Sublevel × Order interaction (large effect),
F(2, 60) = 4.83, p = .01, ηp2 = .14. Unpacking this interaction, it appeared that for both
orders of book type (with/without scripted inferencing questions), there was a significant
interaction between Speaker and Sublevel (without-with order: F(1, 30) = 7.31, p =
.003, ηp2 = .34; with-without order: F(1, 30) = 6.06, p = .006, ηp2 = .29; both large
effects). Irrespective of whether a book with scripted inferencing questions was read first
or second, children made more predictive inferences (sublevel 4A) than parents com-
pared to when reading without scripted inferencing questions. For the utterances related
to explaining (sublevel 4B), a different pattern emerged. Specifically, parents made more
explaining utterances than children did when reading without scripted inferencing ques-
tions but only when this was as a second reading activity. No significant effects of Order
were found for the utterances at the conclusions and implications level (sublevel 4C; see
Table 5). Table 6 shows an overview of the total number of utterances for each group and
order of reading activities.
Table 4. Mean (SE) number of Level 4 utterances.
Without With
Group 1 .58 (.24) 2.99 (.27)
With Without
Group 2 2.40 (.24) .93 (.27)
Table 5. Mean (SE) number of Level 4 utterances as a function of Order and Speaker factors.
Without-with order With-without order
With Without With Without
Predicting (sublevel 4A) Child 4.63 (.34) .94 (.35) 3.38 (.46) .56 (.22)
Parent 2.00 (.45) 1.44 (.48) 1.31 (.33) 1.00 (.32)
Explaining (sublevel 4B) Child 6.06 (.64) .31 (.15) 4.63 (.71) 1.06 (.38)
Parent 3.94 (.70) .75 (.28) 4.38 (.97) 2.44 (.81)
Conclusions and Implications
(sublevel 4C)
Child .38 (.27) .00 (.00) .31 (.12) .25 (.19)
Parent .94 (.433) .06 (.06) .38 (.13) .25 (.19)
14 First Language 00(0)
Discussion
This study investigated to what extent scripted inferencing questions embedded in pic-
ture books support parent–child interactions during shared book reading and improve
children’s story comprehension. Different from previous studies (Dawes et al., 2019;
Desmarais et al., 2013; van Kleeck et al., 2006), we isolated the effects of inferencing
questions by comparing the experimental intervention to a shared reading activity where
scripted inferencing questions were not embedded in the book (i.e., regular reading situ-
ation). We examined effects of inferencing questions on children’s engagement in infer-
encing during the parent–child interaction and on whether inferencing questions
contributed to comprehension of the story at hand, rather than on children’s general
ability to respond to decontextualized language. Additionally, we focused on parents
rather than professional educators as the family provides the most natural context for
shared reading. Finally, we examined whether the interactions elicited by the scripted
inferencing questions would transfer to a regular reading situation, by having parent–
child dyads first read a book with scripted inferencing questions and then a book without
such questions.
The results first of all showed a clear and large effect of the scripted inferencing ques-
tions on parent–child interactions (Research question 1). Overall, parents and children
produced almost twice as many utterances (both when considering utterances at all levels
and utterances only at Level 4) when reading the book with scripted inferencing ques-
tions than when reading the book without scripted inferencing questions. A closer look at
children’s and parents’ contributions to the interactions showed an interesting pattern.
When reading books with scripted inferencing questions, children made more predic-
tions about the story and more often produced explanations of story events than parents
and than children reading without scripted inferencing questions. Parents, however,
made more of such inferences when reading without scripted inferencing questions. This
suggests that having scripted inferencing questions in the book created a situation where
children started to make more inferences. This is especially relevant given that children
are expected to develop into independent readers who are able to derive and understand
the relations within a story (Bos et al., 2016). Caution is warranted regarding the inter-
pretation of these findings given that based on the present study it could still be possible
that the fact that parent–child dyads were prompted to talk about the stories per se led
children to make more inferences. Put differently, it might be that any story-related ques-
tion encourages children to make inferences. Future research could attempt to tease out
the specific benefits of inferencing question prompts by replicating the present study
Table 6. Mean (SE) number of all produced utterances per condition, speaker, and order of
reading activities.
Without-with order With-without order
With Without With Without
Child 42.44 (4.50) 19.81 (3.90) 34.38 (4.50) 25.50 (3.90)
Parent 62.94 (7.08) 27.19 (6.74) 56.19 (7.08) 43.31 (6.74)
de Koning et al. 15
with an additional control condition containing another type of question prompt (e.g.,
literal questions). A key challenge in such future work would be to carefully choose an
alternative type of question prompt such that meaningful comparisons can be made (e.g.,
comparing two question types that target higher-level comprehension). To further pin-
point the effects of scripted inferencing questions, future work could also expand the
previous study by investigating the extent to which the inferences children make are in
direct response to the scripted inferencing questions.
We also investigated whether effects of the scripted inferencing question-intervention
would transfer to a second shared reading activity immediately following the first read-
ing activity (Research question 3). The results provided some indication in this direction.
It appears that parents and children who had first read the story with scripted inferencing
questions produced more inferences in the natural reading situation relative to parents
and children who had not read the story with scripted questions first. Importantly, our
findings suggest that this effect is primarily driven by parents explaining more to their
child after they have read the book with scripted inferencing questions. We interpret this
finding as being indicative of parents having learned from using the scripted inferencing
questions: presumably in the second reading activity (without scripted inferencing ques-
tions) parents behaved more like in the first reading session (with scripted inferencing
questions) in an attempt to encourage continued engagement in inferential extra-textual
talk after the first reading activity. As parents knew they were in a test situation and their
child would be tested on the story they read together, there is a reasonable chance that
this made them especially open to using the type of inferencing questions they have seen
in the first reading activity also when reading the second book. This may have increased
their rate of inferential talk relative to what they would naturally do. Moreover, the sec-
ond reading activity immediately followed the first reading activity in the same test ses-
sion. With such a small time span between the reading activities it cannot be excluded
that our findings simply reflect priming from the first to the second reading activity
rather than actual transfer. More research is needed to investigate to what extent these
findings generalize to shared reading outside of a testing situation and shared reading
activities that are separated by longer intervals.
These findings add to the outcomes of prior research (van Kleeck et al., 2006) by
showing that scripting results in more inferencing during parent–child interactions, that
scripting particularly results in more child engagement, and that inferencing can be
trained relatively easily: we were able to influence current and subsequent (unscripted)
interactions during shared book reading in a single 20-minute session that took place
within a natural reading context (untrained parents reading with their child) by only
embedding inferencing questions at specific locations in the story. It is conceivable that
the degree of transfer is stronger after more repeated exposure to shared reading activi-
ties involving books with scripted inferencing questions. This idea could be tested in a
follow-up study in which parent–child dyads read stories with scripted inferencing ques-
tions in multiple sessions before offering them a new book without scripted inferencing
questions. Such an approach also allows for investigating whether and how the use of
scripted inferencing questions could be gradually reduced so as to optimally support
children to become independent readers.
16 First Language 00(0)
Contrary to our expectations, the positive impact of the scripted inferencing questions
on inference generation during the parent–child interactions did not result in correspond-
ing benefits on children’s story comprehension (Research question 2). In general, a simi-
lar number of comprehension questions were answered correctly irrespective of whether
the book with or without scripted inferencing questions was read. These findings corre-
spond to some extent with the outcomes found by Desmarais et al. (2013), who found no
effects on the PLAI, but are at odds with the positive effects established by van Kleeck
et al. (2006) and Dawes et al. (2019). There are several potential explanations. A first
possible explanation lies in the nature of the sample. Van Kleeck et al. (2006) focused on
Head Start children who had limited language skills and Dawes et al. (2019) examined
effects on children with developmental language disorder, whereas our sample consisted
mostly of highly educated families with children who (most likely) possess relatively
well-developed language skills. Although there is evidence that children with better-
developed language skills benefit from parent–child inferential talk (e.g., Reese & Cox,
1999), it might be that these children did not need our intervention to understand the
story, but that an effect would emerge in a group of children with weaker language skills
(and thus would be more likely to benefit from the provided support). Similarly, it might
be that a younger sample would have benefitted. Our intervention targeted five- and six-
year-olds, but a meta-analysis of Dialogic Reading interventions (Mol et al., 2008)
showed that interactive reading for preschoolers is less effective than for kindergartners,
probably because preschoolers need less external support to develop an understanding of
the story. Further research is thus needed to test whether effects on parent–child interac-
tions can be replicated in a younger low-skilled sample and to test whether for these
children increased inferencing does contribute to story comprehension.
A second possible explanation is that the story comprehension test we used was not
sensitive enough to detect an effect. What may have played a role here is that we asked for
children’s general story comprehension and did not focus exclusively on the components
that were covered by the built-in inference questions. Having said that, it was interesting
to note that the number of utterances children produced regarding explaining events in the
story was positively related with higher comprehension scores. This could indicate that
the scripted inferencing questions encouraged children to reason about the story and
develop a more accurate understanding of the story. However, an alternative interpretation
is that scripted inferencing questions simply triggered children to speak out what they had
already understood from the story. Under this view, the scripted inferencing questions did
not contribute to improved story comprehension, but children’s responses to these ques-
tions were merely a reflection of how well they understood the story.
Finally, the present study was set up as a small-scale intervention consisting of one
shared reading activity in which parents were not instructed or trained to use the scripted
inferencing questions. It is possible that some extra guidance is necessary (perhaps over a
longer period of time) for parents to use the scripted inferencing questions to the benefit
of story comprehension. It is conceivable that parents have zoomed in on discussing spe-
cific story elements as dictated by the scripted inferencing questions, but in general did
not manage to support children enough in creating a coherent representation of the story.
This may have negatively influenced children’s performance on the comprehension test.
That children in general correctly answered approximately half of all comprehension
de Koning et al. 17
questions suggests that they could have benefitted from additional guidance from parents
during shared reading to develop a better understanding of the story. Of course, the above
explanations need to be tested and further corroborated in future research.
To conclude, this study shows that offering storybooks with scripted inferencing
questions encourages inference generation during shared book reading. Particularly,
children appear to benefit from scripted inferencing questions in terms of producing
more inferences during reading. Interestingly, this study also provides some indications
that after only one reading session, parent–child dyads seem to make use of their experi-
ences with scripted inferencing questions in a new shared reading activity (without
scripted inferencing questions), supporting them in producing inferences when this is
not encouraged. These positive effects of scripted inferencing questions did, however,
not materialize in improved story comprehension (as compared to a business-as-usual
control condition). Although this could suggest that interactive shared book reading is
not an effective strategy to support story comprehension (cf. Neuman, 1996), a more
optimistic interpretation is that there may be some boundary conditions under which
interactive reading is effective such as when it addresses specific needs. For example,
based on our study it can be suggested that scripted inferencing questions are likely
more effective for younger and disadvantaged children who have less well developed
language or inferencing skills. The present study hopefully serves as an impetus for
future development of effective interventions to support parent–child interactions and
story comprehension.
Acknowledgements
We would like to express our gratitude to Bibi Smaal, Brechtje van Zeijts, and Tosca van Duijnen
for their assistance in collecting the data and scoring the parent–child interactions. We also thank
Mina Nisar for scoring the comprehension test and the schools who have assisted us in recruiting
parents and children for this study. We also thank Simone Hemerik for creating the books used in
this study.
Funding
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship and/
or publication of this article: This research was supported by a grant from the Dutch Reading
Foundation (Stichting Lezen) awarded to Bjorn de Koning, Stephanie Wassenburg, Lesya
Ganushchak, and Roel van Steensel.
ORCID iD
Björn B. de Koning https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5136-2261
Notes
1. A Cohen’s d of .2 is considered a small effect size, .4 is considered a medium effect, and .8 is
considered a large effect (Cohen, 1988).
2. For partial eta-squared, .01 is considered a small effect, .06 is considered a medium effect,
and .14 is considered a large effect size (Stevens, 2009).
3. Degrees of freedom were corrected with the Greenhouse–Geisser estimation of sphericity (ε
= .82), because Mauchly’s test indicated that sphericity was violated, χ2(2) = 7.02, p = .027.
18 First Language 00(0)
4. Degrees of freedom were corrected with the Greenhouse–Geisser estimation of sphericity
(ε = .69), because Mauchly’s test indicated that sphericity was violated, χ2(2) = 17. 91,
p < .001.
5. Based on the suggestion of an anonymous reviewer, we also investigated whether order of
presentation of the A and B versions of a book affected the comprehension scores. This analy-
sis showed no significant main effect of order and no significant interaction between inferenc-
ing questions and order on the comprehension scores (F(1, 30) < 1; F(1, 30) = 1.81, p = .19,
ηp2 = .06, respectively). Similar findings were obtained when comprehension questions were
split into literal and inference questions (Condition × Order: F(1, 30) = 2.17, p = .15, ηp2 =
.07; all other Fs < 1).
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... When the other animals hear Duck and Frog 'singing' together (in Dutch, representations of sounds that ducks and frogs make are similar, i.e. kwaak), they come over to listen and Duck no longer feels sad and lonely. Both books had been developed for a previous study (De Koning et al., 2020), which ensured that families had not seen the books before. ...
... Observations were video-taped, and all extra-textual utterances were transcribed and coded. We used an existing coding scheme (De Koning et al., 2020;De la Rie et al., 2018;De la Rie et al., 2020), that allows to determine how cognitively challenging parent-child interactions are by coding the level of 'decontextualization' for every utterance (Curenton et al., 2008;Snow, 1983). The scheme was adapted from schemes used by Van Kleeck et al. (1997) and Sorsby and Martlew (1991), which were, in turn, based on the distinction in decontextualization levels proposed by Blank et al. (1978). ...
... Utterances in the transcripts were distinguished by 'unit of meaning': a thematically consistent verbalization of a single speech act (De Backer et al., 2012;De Koning et al., 2020;De la Rie et al., 2018;De la Rie et al., 2020). Note: a Other birth countries of parents were Belgium (n = 3), Germany (n = 1), Indonesia (n = 1), Netherlands Antilles (n = 1), Peru (n = 1) and Surinam (n = 1). ...
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... The use of images in learning can motivate and attract students' attention so that it helps students understand the reading (Kasmaienezhadfard, Pourrajab, & Rabbani, 2015;Shabiralyani, Hasan, Hamad, & Iqbal, 2015). Students will be helped to understand the contents of the story in the book if it is equipped with pictures and questions (de Koning, Wassenburg, Ganushchak, Krijnen, & van Steensel, 2020). Related to the improvement of narrative essay writing skills, pictures can also help students in the process of imagination when writing narrative essays. ...
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Chapter
Introduction: Simple Ideas about Reading Comprehension. A Framework for Comprehension. Higher-Level Factors in Comprehension. The Linguistic-Conceptual Machinery for Comprehension. Word Identification, Decoding, and Phonological Awareness .Comprehension Instruction. Conclusion: A More General View of Comprehension Development