top of page

V.1 #1 Early Intervention - Using Print Referencing to Support Children's Awareness of Written L

Between birth and the end of the preschool period, children acquire a host of skills that are precursors to formal reading. These skills, called emergent literacy skills, include phonological awareness (children's awareness of the sound segments of language) and written language awareness (children's awareness of the forms, features, and functions of written language). This column focuses on written language awareness, and describes how early childhood educators can use print referencing techniques in the context of shared storybook reading to stimulate children's interest in and awareness of print.

Although children's awareness of print is a critical prerequisite to formal reading, research indicates that young children do not naturally look at print when adults read to them. In a study that tracked children's eye gaze as they looked at a storybook on a computer screen as an adult read to them, children looked at print only about seven percent of the time (Justice, Skibbe, Canning, & Lankford, 2005). However, a separate study confirmed that using print referencing techniques significantly heightens children's attention to print (Justice, Pullen, & Pence, under review). Directing children's attention to print is thus an important step toward promoting their print interest and awareness.

Print Referencing Defined

Print referencing describes an adult's use of verbal and non-verbal cues that direct a child's attention to print. Verbal print referencing strategies include making comments about print, making requests about print, and asking questions about print. Non-verbal print referencing strategies include pointing to print and tracking print while reading. Examples of verbal and non-verbal print referencing techniques are provided below.

How to Use Print Referencing

Print referencing strategies are simple to embed in one-on-one, small group, and whole group shared storybook reading activities, and there are a few ways that educators can use such strategies so that they are most beneficial to children. First, educators should use print referencing strategies that are neither too easy nor too hard for children. The goal of print referencing is to promote children's awareness of the forms, features, and functions of written language that they have not yet mastered but that are within their grasp with adult assistance. This requires that teachers be sensitive to children's abilities and tailor the strategies that they use so that children can be successful with an appropriate amount of support. For example, for children who are not yet talking, educators can track print while reading and make comments about the letters and words appearing in books. As another example, for children who are learning to count and who are learning alphabet letters, teachers can ask children to help count the number of words on a page and find specific letters.

A second recommendation for using print referencing is to do so in a way that does not disrupt the flow or enjoyment of reading. To preserve the flow of a storybook, educators might also make comments or ask questions about the plot, characters, or vocabulary words they encounter. To keep reading enjoyable for children, teachers might intersperse only three to five print referencing techniques per book rather than use several techniques.

Evidence that Print Referencing Contributes to Children's Emergent Literacy Development

Print referencing is an evidence-based strategy for enhancing children's emergent literacy development, meaning that it has been evaluated in the context of rigorous scientific studies. For example, an experimental evaluation by Justice and Ezell (2002) demonstrated that three- to five-year-old children from low-income households who participated in a shared storybook reading intervention with a focus on print demonstrated significantly better gains on measures of print awareness than children who participated in a shared storybook reading intervention with a focus on pictures. Evidence also suggests that print referencing techniques are beneficial for children who are struggling to develop emergent literacy skills (e.g., Ezell, Justice, & Parsons, 2000) or those children who have a developmental disability or language impairment (e.g., Lovelace & Stewart, 2007). In sum, print referencing is a simple, fun, natural, and evidence-based method that early childhood educators can use to engage children with an important emergent literacy skill - written language awareness!


Ezell, H.K., Justice, L.M., & Parsons, D. (2000). Enhancing the emergent literacy skills of preschoolers with communication disorders: A pilot investigation. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 16, 121-140.

Justice, L.M., & Ezell, H.K. (2002). Use of storybook reading to increase print awareness in at-risk children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 11, 17-29.

Justice, L.M., Pullen, P.C., &Pence, K. (2007). Influence of verbal and nonverbal references to print on preschoolers' visual attention to print during storybook reading. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Justice, L., Skibbe, L., Canning, A., & Lankford, C. (2005). Preschoolers, print, and storybooks: An observational study using eye-gaze analysis. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 229-243.

Lovelace, S. & Stewart, S.R. (2007). Increasing print awareness in preschoolers with language impairment with non-evocative print referencing. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 16-30.

Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia in the Curry School of Education with an appointment in the Preschool Language and Literacy Lab. She is editor of Assessment in Emergent Literacy (Plural Publishing) and author of Language Development from Theory to Practice (Merrill/Prentice Hall). A more thorough discussion of how to build children's print awareness is available for free by downloading chapter two of Scaffolding With Storybooks: A Guide for Enhancing Young Children's Language and Literacy Achievement (Justice & Pence, 2005) from the website of the International Reading Association (

LD WorldWide
Recent Posts
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page