Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Editor’s note: While learning at home, children can make progress toward grade-level reading and writing standards. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers support children’s and teens’ literacy learning at home.

When planning home literacy learning activities for your children to do during school breaks, on weekends, or any time they need extra practice, make sure not to leave out activities that involve listening. Children who experience difficulties with listening comprehension are at an increased risk for reading difficulties compared to their typically developing peers (Hair et al., 2006). Listening comprehension is the ability to understand information communicated through spoken language. For example, this might be demonstrated by successfully conversing with someone or watching and listening to a movie and understanding the storyline (Catts et al., 2006). Other literacy skills, like identifying the narrative elements of a story, making inferences and drawing conclusions, and recognizing the main idea of a story are components of the broader ability to listen and comprehend (Tompkins et al., 2013). Therefore, students can build and demonstrate listening comprehension skills when they are guided to retell a story after it is read aloud and orally respond to comprehension questions about that story (Spencer et al., 2017).

Listening Comprehension and Guided Play

Caregivers can provide opportunities for children to improve their listening comprehension skills at home. Young children commonly engage in different kinds of play­ that are linked to literacy development like making up stories and telling them orally, role-playing, and pretending that physical objects represent other things, like a spaceship, for example (Sutton-Smith, 1998). An instructional approach that promotes a playful yet structured learning environment is called “guided play.” It is defined as an adult playing with one child or multiple children while modeling and scaffolding literacy skills (Roskos & Christie, 2011a). Our previous blog post contains more information on how guided play broadly relates to literacy learning. Caregivers can use guided play to promote listening comprehension by creating opportunities to retell and act out stories in a playful setting (Nicolopoulou et al., 2015). Toys commonly found at home (e.g., stuffed animals, baby dolls, and playhouses) can be used as props to help children reenact events in a story (Roskos & Christie, 2011b). The caregivers’ responsibility during guided play is to facilitate the dialogue about characters and events in a story and expand on children’s responses (Roskos & Christie, 2011a).

Let’s examine how caregivers can use guided play to promote children’s listening comprehension skills at home.

1. Read Aloud a Storybook

Storybook read alouds often are coupled with guided play activities for the purpose of providing a narrative that can be retold or reenacted in a playful setting. When choosing a book to read aloud, it is important to consider children’s interests and select books that will motivate them to engage in the read aloud and subsequent guided play activities. During school breaks and year-round, your local library is a great place to find books that will be of interest to your children, and the librarians can help you with specific recommendations. Locate your local library and its online catalog by searching libraries.org.

Typically, fictional storybooks include narrative elements like characters, setting, plot, and sequence of events, which can be portrayed during guided play. For example, adults reading aloud Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Aylesworth, 2003) can draw children’s attention to narrative elements in the story and associated illustrations by asking questions like:

  • “Who went to the three bears’ house?”
  • “What did Goldilocks eat at the bears’ house?”
  • “Where did Goldilocks go after she ate the little bears’ porridge?”

These types of questions also help the adult monitor the child’s listening comprehension during the read aloud. See our previous posts on dialogic reading and caregiver involvement when reading books to children for information about how to ask children questions while reading a book aloud.

2. Implementing Guided Play

After reading aloud a storybook, the adult will implement guided play with the child. During guided play, the adult’s role is to support retelling skills by using household items and toys to represent the characters, setting, and sequence of events from the story. Below is an example scripted dialogue between an adult caregiver and child (applicable for children from pre-kindergarten to Grade 2) implementing guided play after reading aloud Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Scripted dialogue between caregiver and child during guided play Helpful tips

Caregiver: Let’s tell the story of Goldilocks and the three bears using your toys. What is the name of the character that went to the three bears’ house?
Child: Goldilocks.
Caregiver: What toy do you think should represent Goldilocks?
Child: My doll because she has blonde hair like Goldilocks. 
Caregiver: That is right. Goldilocks has the same hair color as your doll. Which other characters were in the story? 
Child: The three bears!
Caregiver: Yes, there were three bears in the story. One big bear, one medium-sized bear, and one little bear. Which toys will you choose to represent the three bears?
Child: My teddy bears.

The caregiver prompts the child to identify the toys that represent the characters in the story.

Caregiver: Do you remember the setting of the story? The setting is where the story takes place.
Child: The three bears’ cottage.
Caregiver: You are right. The setting of the story is the three bears’ cottage in the woods. What do you want to represent the three bears’ cottage?
Child: Let’s use this cardboard box to make a playhouse. We can pretend it is the bears’ cottage. 

The caregiver prompts the child to identify the setting of the story. 

Caregiver: That is a great idea. Now that we have identified our characters and setting, let’s act out the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. What happens at the beginning of the story?
Child: Goldilocks finds the three bears’ cottage in the woods (child pretends that her doll is walking up to the door of the playhouse). Goldilocks knocks on the door of the cottage (child uses the hand of the doll to knock on the door of the playhouse).
Caregiver: Good idea! You can pretend to be Goldilocks and I will pretend to be the three bears. Where are the three bears when Goldilocks arrives at the cottage?
Child: They are taking a walk in the woods because their breakfast is too hot to eat.

The caregiver prompts the child to retell the sequence of events of the story, using words such as “beginning,” “next,” “then,” and “end.”

Caregiver: You have a good memory. The three bears were outside walking in the woods while their porridge was cooling. Porridge is like oatmeal. You eat oatmeal for breakfast sometimes. What is the first thing Goldilocks does inside the bears’ cottage (This is an example of how to teach a new vocabulary word during conversation and then relate the word to the child’s life.)
Child: Goldilocks eats the little bear’s porridge.

This is an example of how to teach a new vocabulary word during conversation and then relate the new word to the child’s real life.

Caregiver: That’s right. Goldilocks ate the little bear’s porridge. What does Goldilocks do next?
Child: Goldilocks is tired so she sits down in the bear’s chair (child sits the doll in a play chair).

The caregiver repeats the child’s response. Then, the caregiver asks the child what happens in the story using the word “next.”

Caregiver: Goldilocks is so tired that she sits in the little bear’s chair. Then what does Goldilocks do?
Child: The bears come home!

The caregiver expands on the child’s response to provide a complete response to the prompt. The caregiver asks the child to describe what happens after Goldilocks sits in the bear’s chair. The sequencing word used for this prompt is “then.”

Caregiver: The three bears do come home at the end of the story, but Goldilocks does one more thing before the bears return from their walk in the woods. You said that Goldilocks was tired, so what does she do to rest from the day? 
Child: Oh yeah, I forgot. Goldilocks rests on the little bear’s bed because she was tired. Then, she fell asleep. 
I don’t have a bed for my doll, so I am going to use a pillow as a pretend bed for Goldilocks 
(child lays the doll on a pretend bed).

This is an example of prompting the child to make a correction. The caregiver provides a hint for the correct response to the question but allows the child an opportunity to self-correct. 

Caregiver: Good idea. What happens at the end of the story?
Child: The three bears come home and see that someone has been in their cottage (caregiver and child pretend to walk the teddy bears to the door of the playhouse.) The bears see that someone has been eating their porridge, sitting in their chairs, and sleeping in their bed!
Caregiver: I like how you used the new word “porridge.” You are right, the bears see that Goldilocks ate their porridge, sat in their chair, and slept in their bed! Oh no! What does Goldilocks do when she walks up and sees the bears in the bedroom?
Child: Goldilocks is scared of the three bears, so she jumps out of the window and runs all the way home. The three bears never saw Goldilocks again. The end.

The caregiver prompts the child to describe what happens last in the story. The sequencing word in this prompt is “end.”
The caregiver praises the child for using the new vocabulary word “porridge.”

Caregiver: That’s right. You did a great job retelling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Do you think you could retell me the story all by yourself? Give it a try, I think you can do it! I will be here to help you if you need me. 

The caregiver praises the child for retelling the story and then encourages the child to retell the story independently.
Child: I think I can do it! 

The child resets the toys and playhouse and then retells the story independently.

Adult caregivers can support the development of children’s listening comprehension through read alouds and guided play activities using common household items and toys to represent characters and objects in the story. Caregivers can facilitate intentional conversations by asking comprehension questions about characters, settings, and events from the story and prompting the child to retell or reenact the story during guided play. Guided play is a feasible instructional approach for caregivers to implement with their children at home.


Aylesworth, J. (2003). Goldilocks and the three bears. Scholastic Press.

Catts, H. W., Fey, M. E., Zhang, X., & Tomblin, J. B. (2002). A longitudinal investigation of reading outcomes in children with language impairments. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research45, 1142–1157. https://doi.org/10.1044/1092-4388(2002/093)

Catts, H. W., Adlof, S. M., & Weismer, S. E. (2006). Language deficits in poor comprehenders: A case for the simple view of reading. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research49, 278–293. https://doi.org/10.1044/1092-4388(2006/023)

Hair, E., Halle, T., Terry-Humen, E., Lavelle, B., & Calkins, J. (2006). Children's school readiness in the ECLS-K: Predictions to academic, health, and social outcomes in first grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly21, 431–4534. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2006.09.005

Nicolopoulou, A., Cortina, K. S., Ilgaz, H., Cates, C. B., & de Sá, A. B. (2015). Using a narrative-and play-based activity to promote low-income preschoolers’ oral language, emergent literacy, and social competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly31, 147–162. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.01.006

Roskos, K. A., & Christie, J. F. (2011a). Mindbrain and play-literacy connections. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy11, 73–94. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1468798410390889

Roskos, K. A., & Christie, J. F. (2011b). The pre-literacy nexas and the importance of evidence-based techniques in the classroom. American Journal of Play4, 204–224. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ985588.pdf

Spencer, T. D., Weddle, S. A., Peterson, D. B., & Adams, J. L. (2017). Multi-tiered narrative intervention for preschoolers: A head start implementation study. National Head Start Association Dialog20, 1–28.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1998). The ambiguity of play. Harvard University Press.

Tompkins, V., Guo, Y., & Justice, L. M. (2013). Inference generation, story comprehension, and language skills in the preschool years. Reading and Writing, 26, 403–429. https://doi.org/10.1007/s1114 5-012-9374-7