objective should be to create lifetime readers—graduates who continue
to read and educate themselves throughout their adult lives.
But the reality is we create schooltime readers—graduates
who know how to read well enough to graduate. And at that
point the majority take a silent vow: If I never read another
be too soon.
The National Endowment for the Arts has been surveying adult reading habits for almost 25 years and their most recent report coincided perfectly with the NAEP assessment of pleasure reading among 13- and 17-year-olds. Adult reading of literature (fiction books, short stories, or poetry) was down 22 percent from its 1982 survey, and the decline was evidenced in every age, gender, ethnic, or educational category. By 2002, only 46.7 percent of 17,000 adults surveyed had read any fiction in the last year.1 When that was expanded in a different survey to include newspapers or any kind of book or magazine, the figure rose to only 50 percent of adults.2 In short, half of America is alliterate.
In comparing 2004 NAEP scores with those of 1971, there is no change for 17-year-olds and an insignificant change for the 13-year-olds.3 That's 30 years, with half of it devoted to national and state curriculum reform and higher standards, yet no improvement. Actually there was a change among the high school seniors in the last 20 years and it mirrored the change in adult reading habits. As I noted, the adult recreational reading dropped 22 percent in the last 20 years. Among 17-year-olds (where all the elementary instruction is supposed to take root and finally blossom), the percent who never read anything for fun increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. When you add on those who read only once a month or a few times a year, the figure expands to 48 percent, pretty close to what you find among adults.
This trend was first noticed as far back as 1983 and a national committee was created to explore the causes and solutions. It was called the Commission on Reading, organized by the National Academy of Education and the National Institute of Education and funded under the U.S. Department of Education. It consisted of nationally recognized experts in how children develop, how they learn language, and how they learn to read. Since nearly everything in the curriculum of school rested upon reading, the consensus was that reading was at the heart of either the problem or the solution. This commission was markedly different from the one created in 2000, the National Reading Panel, the one that created the reading curriculum under the No Child Left Behind Act (Reading First). More on that later.
The 1983 commission took two years to pour through more than 10,000 research projects done in the last quarter century to determine what works, what might work, and what doesn’t work.
In 1985, the commission issued its report, Becoming
a Nation of Readers. Among its primary findings, two simple declarations rang loud and clear:
“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for
eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”4
The commission found conclusive evidence to support reading aloud not
only in the home but also in the classroom: “It is a practice that should continue
throughout the grades.”5
In its wording—“the single most important activity”—the experts were saying reading aloud was more important than worksheets, homework, assessments, book reports, and flashcards. One of the cheapest, simplest, and oldest tools of teaching was being promoted as a better teaching tool than anything else in the home or classroom. What exactly is so powerful about something so simple you don’t even need a high school diploma in order to do it and how exactly does a person get better at reading? It boils down to a simple, two-part formula:
The more you read, the better you get at it; the better you get at it,
the more you like it; and the more you like it, the more you do it.
The more you read, the more you know; and the more you know, the smarter
How can something so simple as reading aloud to a
child be so effective?
We start with the brain. As lumber is the primary support for building a house, words are the primary structure for learning. And there are really only two efficient ways to get words into a person's brain: either through the eye or through the ear. Since it'll be years before the eye is used for reading, the best source for ideas and brain building in a young child becomes the ear. What we send into that ear becomes the "sound" foundation for the rest of the child's "brain house." Those meaningful sounds in the ear now will help the child make sense of the words coming in through the eye later when learning to read.
We read to children for all the same reasons we talk with children: to reassure, to entertain, to bond; to inform or explain, to arouse curiosity, to inspire. But in reading aloud, we also:
Condition the child’s brain to associate reading with pleasure
Create background knowledge
Provide a reading role model
One factor hidden in the decline of students' recreational reading is that it coincides with a decline in the amount of time adults read to them. By middle school, almost no one is reading aloud to students. If each read-aloud is a commercial for the pleasures of reading, then a decline in advertising would naturally be reflected in a decline in students recreational reading.
There are two basic "reading facts of life” that are ignored in most education circles, yet without these two principles working in tandem, little else will work.
Reading Fact No. 1: Human
beings are pleasure-centered.
Reading Fact No. 2: Reading
is an accrued skill.
Let’s examine Fact No. 1: Human beings are pleasure-centered. Human beings will voluntarily do over and over that which brings them pleasure. That is, we go to the restaurants we like, order the foods we like, listen to the radio stations that play the music we like, and visit the in-laws we like. Conversely, we avoid the foods, music, and in-laws we dislike. Far from being a theory, this is a physiological fact. We approach what causes pleasure, and we withdraw from what causes unpleasure or pain.7
This fact applies to nearly everything we do willingly. Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a “pleasure” message to the child’s brain. You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure. There are, however, “unpleasures” associated with reading and school. The learning experience can be tedious or boring, threatening, and without meaning—endless hours of worksheets, hours of intensive phonics instruction, and hours of unconnected-test questions. If a child seldom experiences the “pleasures” of reading and but increasingly meets its “unpleasures,” then the natural reaction will be withdrawal.
And that brings us to Reading Fact No. 2: Reading is
an accrued skill. This means reading is like riding a bicycle, driving a car, or sewing: in order to get better at it you must do it. And the more you read, the better you get at it.
The last 30 years of reading research8 confirms
this simple formula—regardless of sex, race, nationality, or socioeconomic
background. Students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and
stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much, cannot get
better at it. (The NEA report of 2007 confirmed this right into adulthood;
see “Study Links Drop in Test Scores
to a Decline in Time Spent Reading.”)
Why don’t students read more? Because of Reading Fact No. 1: the large number of “unpleasure” messages they received throughout their school years, coupled with the lack of “pleasure” messages in the home, nullify any attraction from the book. They avoid books and print the same way a cat avoids a hot stove burner. There is ample proof for all these hypotheses in my answer to the next question.
2010 when the Obama administration was dismantling much of No Child Left Behind,
it was still focusing heavily on scorekeeping in the classroom, much to the
consternation of education scientists specializing on how children really
learn. One such person was Susan Engel, senior lectuer in
psychology and director of the Williams College teaching program. Professor
Engel wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times (2-2-2010, p. A23, "Playing
to Learn" ) that included
the following advice for what truly helps children's learning in elementary
Imagine, for instance, a third-grade classroom that was free of the laundry
list of goals currently harnessing our teachers and students, and that was
devoted instead to just a few narrowly defined and deeply focused goals.
this classroom, children would spend two hours each
day hearing stories read aloud, reading aloud themselves, telling stories
to one another and reading on their own. After all, the first
step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling,
in a reading environment; the second is to read a lot and often. A school
day where every child is given ample opportunities to read and discuss books
would give teachers more time to help those students who need more instruction
in order to become good readers.
would also spend an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to
them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters
to one another. People write best when they use writing to think and to communicate,
rather than to get a good grade.
Do you have any
handouts on reading
we can give to parents?
So many schools and libraries asked
Jim Trelease that question after he retired from public speaking,
he made such a series of free brochures as one of his first projects.
Based on his books, films, and lectures, these double-sided, single-page
brochures are available for free downloads here at FREE
search this site, use the Google search
engine to the left. You can also consult the Site
Contents page. 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 2006,
2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 by Jim Trelease and Reading Tree
All rights reserved. Any problems
or queries about this site should be directed
Reading Tree Webmaster