Young boy sitting on his mums lap reading a book
7 Aug

Improving literacy skills for children on the spectrum

A shared book reading intervention to facilitate language and emergent literacy skills in preschoolers on the autism spectrum has been successfully delivered by Autism CRC in partnership with Griffith University, Autism Queensland and the AEIOU Foundation

Children who are not on the autism spectrum often learn early literacy skills through parent-child interactions with books. Although parents of children on the autism spectrum report exposing their children to a range of early literacy experiences, children on the spectrum do not seem to be reaping the rewards of such experiences to the same extent as their peers, so the collaborative team initiated the shared book reading intervention to see if we could help address this.

The eight week intervention pilot study took place in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast, and involved teaching parents how to expose their children to book-related vocabulary and how to focus their child’s attention to the overall structure of the story. Most importantly, the emphasis was on having fun.

Seventeen families participated in the study. The criteria for participation were that children were able to engage in a book reading activity for approximately five minutes, that book reading was a regular activity in the home, and that they were not attending any other shared book reading interventions.

The intervention resulted in significant changes in parent-child book reading behaviours with our most prominent finding being that parents and children engaged with the books for significantly longer periods following intervention. Moreover, parents increased their use of book-specific language and showed more explicit use of story-related language, such as discussing the characters of the story.

In turn, the children became more talkative and used a wider variety of words. All improvements were maintained eight weeks following the intervention – in fact, children continued to improve their expressive vocabulary.

More about the study

All parents were satisfied or extremely satisfied with all aspects of the intervention and reported it changed the way they shared books with their children. Comments from parents involved in the study included:

“We now don’t just read the story, we explore it. We talk about what the words are telling us and also what is in the pictures and the story behind the story.”
“Taking part of this reading intervention study has been a great way for me to learn new ways to read stories to the kids and make them interesting. It has also helped to develop habits like talking about what words mean, characters, setting, problem, how this makes the characters feel and what they plan to do about it then how they feel at the end.”
“Our reading session has been more fun and my son is learning to interact better. So I am very happy with the little steps we’re making.”

A speech pathologist provided the shared book reading intervention to parents over eight weeks with one training session and four fortnightly follow-up visits, and phone calls on alternate weeks.

Parents recorded videos of shared book reading sessions each week with individualised feedback provided at follow-up visits.

To investigate changes in parent and child behaviours, the team asked parents to video themselves sharing a book with their child prior to, immediately, and eight weeks following intervention.

What can other parents learn from this study?

Engagement in shared book reading during the pre-school years is particularly important, as there are strong links between shared book reading practices and children’s language and emergent literacy development.

Parents can model the strategies that were used in the intervention during their own shared book reading activities with their child. These strategies are aimed at promoting comprehension of oral language by:

  • exposing the child to book-related vocabulary by labelling pictures, explaining word meanings, and linking words to everyday events
  • explicit teaching of oral language-related skills related to the overall structure of the story.

Most importantly, shared book reading activities should promote active engagement with the story (rather than simply reading the words) and making stories fun.

A short video about the initiative is available on the Autism CRC YouTube channel.

The shared book reading intervention is one of many projects being delivered by Autism CRC in collaboration with its Participants and Partners to promote the wellbeing of people on the spectrum across the lifespan. For more information, visit the Autism CRC website or contact

Cally Jackson

Autism CRC

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