of this essay come from the 2006 edition of The Read-Aloud
more than twenty years ago, I saw a poster in a school’s
faculty room that read: “Anyone can count the number of seeds
in a single apple, but only God can count the number
of apples that will come from a single seed.” And it is that single
seed that the reader-aloud plants in a child’s mind — the
seed that says to him or her, “This reading stuff is so delicious
I must have it every day of my life.”
Unfortunately, such seeds don't germinate overnight
or even annually. Sometimes they take decades, which
frustrates parents and bureaucrats who want
instant results from any action. This may account for
Reading Panel mentioning "reading aloud" only
twice in its 7,000-sentence Report that became the reading
rule book for No Child Left Behind.
Parents, I might
add, are just as guilty of this impatience; they're forever
asking me: "I read to my son throughout his childhood
but still he's not an avid reader. What did I do wrong?"
how old is your son today? "Nineteen."
"Excuse me, but do you really think nineteen
is the finished product? Are you the same person today
that you were when you were nineteen?" Then they hang their head
Of all the things I beg parents and teachers
to do, none is more important than to be patient. Some
blossoms take longer than others, some less. And some,
sad to say, never take root at all—but those are rare and
usually are the result of bad nurturing.
For the teacher or librarian, that book you are sharing
today may take root in only one child's mind but how
many other children will be affected in that one child's
adulthood? In his 2003
Jefferson Lecture, the historian David
McCullough spoke of the gigantic impact
made in his subsequent life and reading appetite by meeting
Robert Lawson's Ben and
Me when McCullough was six-years-old.
Sowing the reading seed
From my own experience, here is how a seed sown back
in the 1940s ended up blossoming beyond anyone's wildest
dreams in Poland sixty years later.
was born in 1941 and raised in, if not the state of sanctifying
grace, at least the state of New Jersey. My parents were
not college-educated and struggled to raise four sons
in a small two-bedroom, second-floor apartment. I was
first-born and the most difficult to handle. Today they
would have called me hyper-active and dosed me with medications,
but back in those days there were no such terms or medicines.
Luckily for me, my
father found a way to “calm
me down” — he read to me. He read to me from children’s
books (Katy and the Big Snow was a special favorite),
from the evening newspaper (Newark Evening News), and
from the magazine (The
Saturday Evening Post) he subscribed to. And what I learned from
those nightly readings was simply this: “Reading
is so delicious I must have it every day of my life.”
The next thing I remember was entering the local
Catholic school (St. Michael's, Union, NJ) which, in the late 1940s,
was a little crowded— there
were 94 children in my first-grade class. And Sr. Elizabeth
Francis was up in the front of the room chanting all
the letter sounds and I was so far in the back of the
room I could hardly see her, never mind hear her, over
93 other kids. I’m
not sure what motivated the others to pay attention
and master this strange language called reading but I
know what motivated me: I wanted to be able to work this
magic reading stuff that my father and mother could do.
If all the sounding-out of letters and vowels was what
I needed to do, OK— I would do
it. Simply put, I came to school motivated to learn.
(To give Sr. Elizabeth Francis her due, she did read
to us daily from a series of short novels (beginning
about a lilly-white novice guardian angel assigned to
"client"—a black child in deepest Africa. The series
held the 94 of us in such rapture, we would do anything
for a second chapter later in the day. It was the ultimate
treat or threat. With the birth of the Internet in the
90s and the arrival of online used-book sites like Bookfnder.com,
I located a copy of the long-out-of-print Wopsy for a
bargain $12, figuring it would have the same hold on
my grandchildren. Unfortunately, it was
so politically and theologically incorrect for the times,
I never attempted to use it and it's only hold today
is on a corner of one of my book shelves.)
Now let’s skip ahead 25 years, departing
New Jersey for Massachusetts, to when my wife Susan and I were raising
our two children. Needless to say, I read to them every night—every night.
No, I didn’t do it to them to make them smarter or to
give them better grades. I read to them simply because
I remembered what it felt like all those years earlier
when my father read to me. I didn’t want my children cheated out
of that good feeling.
At the same time I was working at a newspaper in Massachusetts (Springfield
Daily News) as a writer and artist. Eventually I began
to visit local schools as a volunteer, talking about
journalism as a career. And one day, on a classroom visit,
after finishing my talk to the class, I spotted a novel
I had just read to my daughter (The Bears' House by
Marilyn Sachs). I picked up the book and began to talk
about it with the class. This had nothing to do with
my visit to the class; it was just something I did spontaneously.
A week later the teacher wrote to tell me how excited
the students were about my visit and how they all wanted
to read the book I had talked about.
What the research showed
And that got me thinking. I had planted a seed in
the mind of those children about that book, something that made it sound
delicious. You might say I had given them a commercial, an advertisement
for the book. As time went on and I visited more classrooms, I began
to notice that the classes that were read to were the ones with the
most interest in books. Was there a connection between reading to children
and how much they read themselves— a connection between want
to and how to? Suppose reading to them was the motivation
that was missing in letter sounds or phonics?
When I looked at the research in professional
journals, sure enough—there
was a clear connection and the research proved it. The
problem was: only a small number of people read such
research. Everyone else thought reading to children was
just a way of entertaining them and television did that
just fine, so why read to them? Let them watch television
and then you can talk on the phone or go shopping.
Who needs the reading aloud? Today there are school administrators
and government bureaucrats who think reading aloud can't
be doing any good, especially if the kids were enjoying
it so much—kind of the Vince Lombardi approach to learning.
So I self-published a little 30-page booklet
on the subject of reading to children. I self-published it because
I never thought any of the big-time New York publishers would be interested
in it. After all, there was no sex or violence in the
book. But as luck would have it, a neighbor of mine told
a family friend about it and he was just starting in
business as a literary agent and was looking for clients.
He called and asked me if he could take my little booklet
around New York and show some publishers. I thought to
local asylum has just lost one of its patients.” But I let him
try and—what do you know? He found a publisher—Penguin,
the oldest paperback publisher in the world.
1982. When the book became a bestseller in the United
States six months later (thanks to a write-up in "Dear
Abby"), I thought about those seeds my father planted
every night as we sat in his big red chair. And, to be
honest, I thought that my book was the end of that journey.
I had yet to grasp the concept of that "seed poster."
1982 I had to give a speech to secondary teachers from
inner-city Boston. There were about 125 of them, a well-seasoned
and cynical lot, if I remember correctly. But there was
one teacher in the audience who caught my eye—a
male, sitting in the front row—a
rare location for male teachers. Usually the men like
to sit in the back so they can read the newspaper or
sleep. This fellow, however, was with me all the way.
day I spoke to them of two things: reading aloud to students,
even high school students; and Sustained Silent Reading
(SSR). The latter
is simply giving students the time to read in school —not
for grades, not for discussion or evaluation but just
is the purpose the author probably had in mind when he
wrote the thing in the first place. The strategy is for
the reading aloud to motivate the students to read more
and by giving them the time in class (along with the
books, magazines, and newspapers), the motivation
will be put to work. And just as important, neither the
reading-aloud nor the SSR will be evaluated or graded—so
there’s no threat
Putting the research to work in the most challenging
The guy in the front row came up to me afterward
and identified himself as Tom
told me he didn’t
think it would work with inner-city kids at Southie,
where he taught junior English, but he’d give
it a try. A year later I was back in Boston to give another
seminar and sure enough—there’s
the same guy in the front row and he’s telling me his students
are now reading more than any year in his 12 years of
Tom O'Neill Jr.
One year later, O’Neill became the principal
of the lowest scoring junior high school in all of Boston
(the Solomon Lewenberg Middle School), in the most murder-infested,
drug-infested area of the city. Of the 22 junior high
schools, his school was at the very bottom and Boston
teachers routinely called it "The Looney Bin." The
first thing he did was to institute reading aloud and
SSR for all classes, including physical education, much
to the dismay of some of the veteran
teachers. Within four years, O’Neill’s
school had the highest reading scores in all of Boston.
A few years later I detailed the O’Neill
story in a new edition of my Read-Aloud Handbook and it was
that edition that was translated for the Japanese edition.
That summer, a Japanese junior high school teacher
read the book and was intrigued by the O’Neill
story. Contrary to what most people think, Japan is not
overflowing with motivated students. Those are the ones
the world hears about but there are hundreds of thousands
of others who are disinterested or unmotivated or both.
He taught those kinds of students. The teacher was especially
impressed by SSR; after all, reading for fun was a pretty
foreign idea in Japanese schools. Students read to learn,
to achieve. Reading for fun? That comes after you graduate.
With the permission of his principal, the teacher
instituted SSR in his classes. It was such a success,
the school went school-wide with it the following year.
when the teacher went to his principal again and asked
if he could invite other schools to come see how their SSR program worked.
The principal, having no idea he was working with a “maniac,” again
said yes. That summer the teacher wrote invitations to 40,000
schools. The last I heard, there are 3,500 Japanese schools
that have adopted SSR—all
from a little seed planted one afternoon among
125 Boston teachers. By now I had begun to understand
the "apple seed"
Competing with the Nancy-Tonya face off
And then there was a cold Friday night in
1994 when I was to speak to parents in St. Helena in
northern California wine country. Usually a small town
will provide a large audience — they’re
just so glad an outsider came to their little town—but
not this night. There were only 35 people in the audience.
But I knew it wasn’t my fault. That was the night two
of America’s most famous
Harding and Nancy Kerrigan—were competing head-to-head on national
television before the 1994 Olympics. Everyone stayed
home to watch—except
for 35 people, which included one schoolteacher and her
boyfriend. She wanted to hear my presentation and he
wanted to stay in her good graces, so he tagged along,
though not expecting to learn much .
As it happened, the boyfriend of the school teacher was a freelance
journalist, David Schwartz, writing for some of the
most prestigious magazines in America. And what he heard that
night intrigued him enough to approach me afterward and
ask he could interview me for a piece I’d like to write
on reading aloud. I told him sure, call any
time. That was 1994.
A year later, his article appeared in Smithsonian magazine,
one of those dignified publications that American doctors
like to have in their waiting rooms to impress the patients.
And to one of those offices in Washington, DC—a
dentist’s office—came a woman named Irena
happened to be the wife of the Polish ambassador to the
United States and,
after taking off her coat
in that office, she picked up that issue of Smithsonian.
Mrs. Kozminka had been thinking ahead to what she
wanted to do with her life when she returned to Poland
after her husband's ambassadorship was completed. With
the Soviets happily departed, a new day was dawning in
Eastern Europe but there were 68 years of repression
at the hands of the Nazis and Communists to overcome.
This reading aloud, she reasoned, that was something
every family could participate in and would help to regain
some of the lost ground.
Today Mrs. Kozminska heads a thriving national
foundation called "All Poland Reads to Kids," complete with
an awareness campaign unlike anything we have
for reading in the United Sates. As she explains:
"After six years, we have over 2400 volunteers throughout
the country, over 1400 Reading Schools, which have
introduced daily reading to students, and over 1300
Reading Kindergartens. In 2007, over 1500 cities and
villages participated in our VI National Week of Reading
to Children, in comparison with 150 in the year 2002.
According to the polls, over 85 percent of Polish people know our
reading campaign and 37 percent of parents of preschoolers report
they are reading daily to their children. In 2006 in China,
our Foundation was awarded the prestigious international
IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award at the 30th IBBY
you might say a seed was planted that day in Washington
when she picked up Smithsonian — or
was it planted that night in northern California among
just 35 people? Or was it planted 60 years earlier in
those nights in New Jersey when a father took his over-active
son on his lap and read to him?
can count the number of seeds in a single apple.
only God can count the
number of apples that
become a single seed."
search this site, use the Google search
engine to the left. Occasionally Google reports
older, out-of-date pages ("404
Error") which can usually be found using
Archives (pasting the missing URL
the "WayBackMachine" space).
COPYRIGHT NOTICE Trelease on Reading is copyright, 2011, 2014 by Jim Trelease and Reading Tree
All rights reserved. Any problems
or queries about this site should be directed
Reading Tree Webmaster