a brief excerpt from Chapter 1 of
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
See also Handbook
Chapter One: Why read aloud?
So how do we fix the reading problem?
We start by looking at the recommendation of the 1983 Commission on Reading, funded by the U. S. Department of Education, which was alarmed by school scores. Since nearly everything in the curriculum rested upon reading, the consensus was that reading was at the heart of either the problem or the solution.
The commission spent two years poring through thousands of research projects conducted in the previous quarter century, and in 1985 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.” “It is a practice that should continue throughout the grades.” The commission found conclusive evidence to support reading aloud not only in the home but also in the classroom.
In their wording—“ the single most important activity”—the experts were saying reading aloud was more important than work sheets, homework, book reports, and flash cards. One of the cheapest, simplest, and oldest tools of teaching was being promoted as a better tool than anything else in the home or classroom— and it’s so simple you don’t even need a high school diploma in order to do it.
And how exactly does a person become proficient at reading? It’s 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 you grow.
The vast majority of students know how to read by fourth grade. In fact, by eighth grade, 24 percent are below basic level, 42 percent are at basic level, 25 percent are at proficient level, and only 3 percent are at advanced level. To improve from basic to proficient and then advanced, one must practice by reading a lot. This is identical to riding a bicycle. The more you ride it, fall off, climb back on, and ride some more, the better you get at it. You learn to lean left when turning left, where to place your 01feet when coming to a stop, etc. This practice amounts to what Margaret Meek called “private lessons.”
The beginning of students’ negative attitude toward reading appears to begin in fourth grade, when they must take the individual skills they have learned in the three previous years and apply them to whole paragraphs and pages. This juncture is famously called the "Fourth Grade Slump," a phrase coined from the research of the late Jeanne Chall. It’s where school separates the readers from the strugglers and remedials. But— and this is a very loud but—if the way they have learned or been exposed to basic reading skills is so boring and joyless they hate it, they will never read outside their classroom. Since the bulk of their time (7,800 hours a year) is spent outside school, these hours dictate whether they read often enough to become proficient or begin to fall behind. No reading outside school, low scores inside school.
Reading to these students, preferably from infancy but certainly as they got older, in school and out of school, is what the Commission on Reading was begging the nation to do— to sow the seeds of reading desire.
How can something as simple as reading to a child be so effective?
As lumber is the primary support for building a house, words are the primary structure for learning. There are really only two efficient ways to get words into a person’s brain: either by seeing them or by hearing them. Since it will be years before an infant uses his or her eyes for actual reading, the best source for vocabulary and brain building becomes the ear. What we send into that ear becomes the foundation for 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, and to inspire. But in reading aloud, we also:
- build vocabulary
- condition the child’s brain to associate reading with pleasure
- create background knowledge
- provide a reading role model
- plant the desire to read
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 will voluntarily do over and over that which brings them pleasure. That is, we continually 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 neighbors we like. Conversely, we avoid the foods, music, and neighbors we dislike. Far from being a theory, this is a physiological fact: We approach what causes pleasure, and we withdraw from what causes displeasure or pain.
HEN 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, displeasures associated with reading and school. The learning experience can be tedious or boring, threatening, and often without meaning— endless hours of work sheets, intensive phonics instruction, and unconnected test questions. If a child seldom experiences the pleasures of reading but increasingly meets its displeasures, then the natural reaction will be withdrawal.
And that brings us to Reading Fact No. 2. 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 past thirty years of reading research confirms this simple formula, regardless of gender, race, nationality, or socioeconomic background. Students who read the most also read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much cannot get better at it.
Why don’t students read more? Because of Reading Fact No. 1. The large number of displeasure messages they received throughout their school years coupled with the lack of pleasure messages in the home nullify any attraction books might have. They avoid print the same way a cat avoids a hot stovetop.
Do you have any
handouts on reading that
we can give to parents?
So many schools and libraries asked
Jim Trelease that question after he retired from public speaking,
he made a series of free brochures one of his retirement projects.
Based on his books, films, and lectures, these double-sided, single-page
brochures are available as free downloads here at FREE