This study compared the amount and style of maternal communication with toddlers and preschoolers while mother-child pairs watched TV, read books, and played with toys. We found that mother-child communication was less frequent and less verbally responsive when dyads viewed TV compared with when they read books, and in many cases, when they played with toys. In addition, some forms of maternal responsiveness were positively associated with indicators of youngsters' emergent literacy. Mothers' use of directive language was negatively related to emergent literacy. These findings suggest that TV co-viewing produces a relatively detrimental communication environment for young children, while shared book reading encourages effective mother-child exchanges.