How old must a child be before you start reading
That is the question I am
most often asked by parents. The next is: “When is the child too old to be read to?”
In answer to the first question, I ask one of my
own. “When did you
start talking to the child? Did you wait until he was six months old?”
“We started talking to him the day he was born,” parents respond.
“And what language did your child speak the day he was born? English? Japanese?
Italian?” They’re about to say English when it dawns on them the child didn’t
speak any language yet.
". . . during these early stages the
parent is learning how to calm the child . . . so he
or she can begin to look around and listen when you pass
“Wonderful!” I say. “There you were holding that newborn infant in your arms,
whispering, ‘We love you, Tess. Daddy and I think you are the most beautiful
baby in the world.’ You were speaking multisyllable words and complex sentences
in a foreign language to a child who didn’t understand
one word you were saying! And you never thought twice
about doing it.
But most people can’t imagine reading
to that same child. And that’s sad. If a child is old enough to talk to, she’s
old enough to read to. It’s the same language.”
Obviously, from birth to six months
of age we are concerned less with “understanding” than
with “conditioning” the child to your
voice and the sight of books. Dr.
T. Berry Brazelton,
when he was chief of the child development unit of
Boston Children’s Hospital Medical
Center, observed that new parents’ most critical task
during these early stages is learning how to calm the
child, how to bring it under control, so he or she can
begin to look around and listen when you pass on information.1Much
the same task confronts the classroom teacher as she
faces a new class each September.
What about reading
aloud to children with 'special needs'?
In Cushla and
Her Books, author Dorothy
Butler described how Cushla
Yeoman’s parents began reading aloud to her
when she was four months of age.2 By nine months the
child was able to respond to the sight of certain books
and convey to her parents that these were her favorites.
By age five she had taught herself to read.
Cushla’s story so dramatic is that she was born with
chromosome damage that caused deformities of the spleen,
kidney, and mouth cavity. It also produced muscle spasms—which
prevented her from sleeping for more than two hours a
night or holding anything in her hand until she was three
years old—and hazy vision beyond her fingertips.
Until she was three, the doctors diagnosed
Cushla as “mentally
and physically retarded” and recommended that she be
institutionalized. Her parents, after seeing her early
responses to books, refused; instead, they put her on
a dose of fourteen read-aloud books a day. By age five,
Cushla was found by psychologists to be well above average
in intelligence and a socially well-adjusted child.
The story of Cushla and her family
has appeared in each edition of The
Read-Aloud Handbook and each time it was my hope it would inspire an unknown
reader someplace. One day I received a letter from
Marcia Thomas, then of Memphis, Tennessee:
Dear Jim Trelease:
Our daughter Jennifer was born
in September 1984. One of the first gifts we received
was a copy of The Read-Aloud Handbook. We read
the introductory chapters and were very impressed
by the story of Cushla and her family.
to put our daughter on a “diet” of at least ten books a day.
She had to stay in the hospital for seven weeks as a result of a heart defect and corrective surgery. However, we began reading to her while she was still in intensive care; and when we couldn’t
be there, we left story tapes and asked the nurses
to play them for her.
For the past seven years we have read to Jennifer
at every opportunity. She is now in the first grade
and is one of the best readers in her class. She
consistently makes 100 on reading tests and has
a very impressive vocabulary. She can usually be
found in the reading loft at school during free
time, and at home she loves to sit with my husband
or me and read a book.
What makes our story so remarkable is that Jennifer
was born with Down Syndrome. At two months of age,
we were told Jennifer most likely was blind, deaf,
and severely retarded. When she was tested at age
four, her IQ was 111.
— Marcia Thomas
Thomas graduated from her Concord (Massachusetts) high
school, passing her MCAS test, and was a member of the
National Honor Society. I was honored to have been an
invited guest at her graduation party (see photo right).
A talented artist, Jennifer competed in the juried VSA
competition in 2003 for artists between the ages of 16-25
who live in the U.S. and have a disability. Her piece
was one of the 15 chosen to tour the U.S. In September
2005, Jennifer began undergraduate classes at Lesley
University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If the Yeomans
and the Thomases can accomplish all they did with their
children, imagine how much can be realized by the average
family if they begin reading to a child early and in
One of the most common yet painful
learning challenges for children and their families today
is dyslexia, a subject too complex to
address here. What I can say is that children who suffer
from this disability have an even greater need to hear
someone reading aloud: 1.) Because tasting the printed
word auditorily may help to whet the appetite enough
to inspire greater determination on their own part; and
2.) Since their reading abilities may never blossom enough
to produce significant amounts of reading, hearing words
will be their main source of vocabulary and print offers
a richer vocabulary than conversation. Worth noting,
on May 13, 2002 Fortune magazine
offered an excellent cover story ("Overcoming
by Betsy Morris) on famous American business men and
women who have succeeded in spite of their dyslexia,
thanks to both their own perseverance and their families
patience. The article can be found online at: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2002/05/13/322876/index.htm
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