is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of The Read-Aloud
Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2006, 6th edition). For a list of all topics covered
here and in the
print edition see Chapter Eight
CHAPTER 8: Lessons from Oprah,
and the Internet
days when I honestly think I'm living in a parallel universe
where during the last ten years Oprah Winfrey has had millions
of people of every race and income level gladly reading
books they'd normally never choose for themselves and the Harry
Potter books have inspired millions of children to
read 700-page books, while in the other universe, the education
bureaucrats were trying to improve children's reading by
testing them more than any nation on earth.1
Oprah never gives a test yet her "students" rushed out
and bought almost 900,000 copies of Anna Karenina when
she selected it for her club. The first six Potter books
contained a total of 3,365 words (more pages than Dickens'
four longest novels) and not one page contained a quiz
question. Since Oprah and Harry have been so successful,
wouldn't you think the school folks would borrow a page
or two from their methods and procedures? Instead, they
do the complete opposite and expect to get the same results.
You couldn't make up stuff like this!
So while we're waiting for the bureaucrats to drop by
our universe, let's see what can be learned by looking
at Ms. Oprah's lesson plans (we'll look at Harry next
and then the Internet).
Two Lessons from Oprah
did Oprah make TV into a “pro-reading” experience?
Television has long had a parasitic relationship with
print, stealing many of its early reporters and analysts
from newspapers and magazines. Local and network news departments
still swipe a large amount of their material from daily
newspapers, put a new tread on it, and peddle it a few
hours or days later as their own. For decades, authors
and writers have been mainstays on television as guests
on the "Today Show," "Good Morning, America," "Larry
King Live," and the daily talk shows. Television almost
never gave to print what print offered to TV
You can't give someone a cold
if you don't have one yourself.
Then along came Oprah Winfrey. In 1996, after ten years
of sleaze and self-help as a show menu, her staff tentatively
suggested that she do a “book club.” Oprah herself was
a big reader, and had been since age five. Reading three
books in a weekend (her normal diet) would give her an
enormous advantage over nearly everyone in the television
industry, as well as most teachers who don’t read that
many books in two months.2
It has been Oprah’s reading appetite that drives the curriculum
of her book club. There is no supervisor or syllabus telling
her what she should like or not like. This formula will
only work in schools if the teacher is a devoted reader,
like Oprah—the Queen of Read.
Lesson No. 1: Oprah’s
Book Club could never have succeeded if she herself hadn’t
been an avid reader. You can’t give someone a cold if
you don’t have one, and you can’t give a child the love
of reading if you yourself don’t have it.
does Oprah motivate her club members so successfully?
First, look at who is watching television at ten in the
morning or two in the afternoon, when Oprah’s show
is aired in a lot of places: not the valedictorians, or
honor graduates, or the former gifted and talented students.
They’re all working. Oprah’s “class” often
consists of the laid-off, the laid-back, and the lying-down
crowd, many people who hadn't read a book in twenty years,
people who quit reading because they got tired of reading
dead poets they couldn’t understand back in high
So having selected a book, Oprah simply walks out to her
audience of 22 million in 119 countries and talks about
the book she’s selected. She talks about the book, animatedly,
passionately, and sincerely. No writing, no tests, no dumb
dioramas to make, just good, old-fashioned enthusiasm for
something she’s read.
Humans are first
an oral species, not a testing species.
Above everything else, this is the key to Oprah's book
success—she recognized what too many educators have forgotten: we're
an oral species. We define ourselves first and foremost
orally. When we see a good movie, a good ball game, a great
concert—the first thing we want to do afterward is talk
about it. When my wife and I see a good movie, do you think
we rush out to the car, pull some napkins out of the glove
compartment and write down the main idea? "Honey, what
do you think was the theme?"
What can we apply from this to our work with children?
Well, let’s eliminate not all but much of the writing they’re
required to do whenever they read. (“The more we read,
the more we gotta write, so let’s read less and we can
work less, right?”) We adults don’t labor when we read,
so why are we forcing children to? It hasn’t created a
nation of writers or readers.
On the other hand, look what Oprah's created: when she
began her book club there were 250,000 discussion groups
nationally. Today there are more than 500,000 such groups,3 including
a nationwide series called "One City, One Book," initiated
by Nancy Pearl and Chris Higashi at the Washington Center
for the Book, and certainly helped by the climate Oprah
Lesson No. 2: More
talk, less writing; more open discussion without right
or wrong answers.
Oprah 'Lessons' in the
Web or print editions of The Read-Aloud