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by Jim Trelease
• Chapter 8 excerpts — page 1 •
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This is a brief excerpt from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition)

Now available as both a paperback and e-book.

See also Handbook FAQs.

Handbook cover 2013 edition




TV and Audio: Hurting or Helping Literacy?

"W"ITH electronic media now the dominant force in a child’s life outside of family (and for some, even larger than the family), it must be included in any book or discussion about literacy. While digital issues are addressed in the previous chapter, what about television? Most people thought the arrival of computers would dull TV’s presence in the family, but so far that hasn’t happened. So is its presence positive, negative, or null and void?

Do you remember the positive impact of Oprah’s Book Club on book reading? A plus for TV there. Recall the positive role TV played in raising public awareness during the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, the aftermath of both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina? Big pluses there, too.

child watching tvFurthermore, in full disclosure, I own a television set and watch the nightly news, Jeopardy, 60 Minutes, Yankees games, and movies via Apple TV. As a form of entertainment and information, even diversion, television is harmless— in the right dosages. Media is like the medications in your medicine cabinet. Helpful as they might be, with children, they need oversight and controls. Can that be done when the average home now contains 3.8 television sets? It’s a serious challenge.

I also fully understand and sympathize with the complexities of modern family living: two working parents, often under considerable stress and time constraints, trying to raise and cope with the young— a family portrait that doesn’t look the slightest bit like either the Cleavers or the Brady Bunch. For some parents, the TV may be the only crowd-control device they have— and they have my sympathies. But just because a family needs the device in order to survive, that doesn’t mean its consequences are benign. They are not, for any family.

I will make a point twice in this chapter because of its importance: It is not so much what children are doing while they watch multiple hours of TV; it is the experiences they are not having that make the viewing so dangerous. With that in mind, let me share the story I offered to every parent audience for nearly twenty-five years.

It begins with a woman named Sonya Carson trying to raise two sons in inner-city Detroit as a single parent. One of twenty-four children, Mrs. Carson had only a third-grade education. A hardworking, driven woman, she toiled as a domestic and children’s caregiver for wealthy families— sometimes working two or three jobs at a time to support her sons. Sometimes she worked so hard that she had to “get away to her relatives for a rest.” Only years later did her sons discover that she was checking herself into a mental facility for professional help for depression.

“From now on, you can only watch three television programs
a week!”

Her sons, on the other hand, were not working themselves into any kind of frenzy. Both were on a slow boat to nowhere in the classroom. Bennie, the younger one, was the worst student in his fifth-grade class. As if raising two sons in one of the most dangerous cities in America was not enough, Mrs. Carson now faced the challenge of the boys’ grades. She met it head-on.

“Bennie— you’re smarter than this report card,” she declared, pointing to his math score. “First thing, you’re going to learn your times tables— every one of them!”

“Mom, do you know how many there are? It would take me a whole year!” he replied.

“I only went through the third grade and I know them all the way through my twelves,” his mother answered. “And furthermore, you are not to go outside tomorrow until you learn them.”

Her son pointed to the columns in his math book and cried, “Look at these things! How can anyone learn them?”

His mother simply tightened her jaw, looked him calmly in the eye, and declared, “You can’t go out until you learn your times tables.”

Bennie learned his times tables— and his math scores began to climb.

Only years later did the boys discover their mother couldn’t read well enough to understand
their reports.

His mother’s next goal was to get the rest of his grades up. Her intuition pointed to the television that never seemed to be off when the boys were home. “From now on, you can only watch three television programs a week!” A week! (What Sonya Carson lacked in book sense she made up for with common sense that would be vindicated nearly thirty years later when major research studies showed a powerful connection between “over- viewing” and underachievement.)

She next looked for a way to fill the free time created by the television vacuum. She said, “You boys are going to the library and checking out two books. At the end of each week you’ll write me a report on what you’ve read.” (Only years later did the boys discover she couldn’t read well enough to understand any of the reports.)

image of dr. ben carson

Ben Carson's story is
one of the more inspirational
of our times.

They didn’t like it, of course, but they didn’t dare refuse. And in reading two books a week, then talking about them with his mother, Bennie raised his reading scores. And because the entire curriculum was tied to reading, the rest of his report card began to improve. (It’s worth noting that before his mother thought about changing schools, she changed her home. Politicians who pose vouchers or magnet schools as a solution ignore the pivotal role of the home.) Each semester, each year, Bennie’s scores rose. And by the time he was a senior in high school he was third in his class, scoring in the ninetieth percentile of the nation.

With colleges like West Point, Yale, and Stanford waving scholarships in his face, but with only ten dollars in his pocket for application fees, Bennie let his choice fall to whichever school won the College Bowl television quiz that year (Yale). He spent four years there majoring in psychology, then went on to the medical schools at the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins. Today, at age sixty-two, Dr. Ben Carson is one of the world’s premier pediatric brain surgeons. When Johns Hopkins named him head of pediatric neurosurgery, he was, at age thirty-three, the youngest in the nation.

Ask Dr. Carson to explain how you get from a fatherless inner-city home and a mother with a third-grade education, along with being the worst student in your fifth-grade class, to being a world-famous brain surgeon with a brother who is an engineer. Again and again, he points to two things: his mother’s religion (Seventh-Day Adventist) and the pivotal moment when she limited their television viewing and ordered him to start reading. I had people in my audiences with three times the education of young Mrs. Carson and ten times her income— but not half her common sense and courage when it came to raising children. They’re not “raising” children— they’re “watching them grow up,” and most of the watching occurs from the couch in front of a television set.

There are two important things to remember about the Carson family’s story: (1) Mrs. Carson didn’t trash the set— she controlled it, and (2) with high expectations of her children, she demanded appropriate behavior from them. In controlling the dosage of TV, Mrs. Carson averted disaster. Dosage determines the impact of anything— from hurricanes and aspirin to reading and television.

The story of the Carson family is now available in every format, each adding a dimension to the inspiration: in book format, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story by Ben Carson; also as an e-book and audiobook; and finally as an excellent Turner film starring Cuba Gooding Jr., available from Amazon. In addition, the Academy of Achievement offers an excellent online interview (audio and video) with Dr. Carson at

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The inclusion of Dr. Carson and his family’s story in this edition is in no way to be interpreted as a political endorsement. Dr. Carson began to dabble in national politics just before this edition was published.

Chapter Eight — p.1   p.2   Footnotes

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Jim Trelease has created a free downloadable brochure for parents that includes the information from this page, along with the story of Leonard Pitts Jr. and his mother. Despite the ravages of American poverty, Mrs. Pitts did enough of the right things to raise a son who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, making him one of the nation's top daily newspaper columnists. In this brochure, highlights the efforts of these two parents and what other parents can learn from them. For more information, go to TRELEASE BROCHURES.

Also available as a free download is a brochure on the connection between TV over-viewing and school scores. These brochures are free to non-profit organizations. Click TV-BROCHURE.


TNT brought the Ben Carson story to television in 2009 with Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding taking the role of Dr. Carson in a riveting performance. The film covers his life from his family's struggling years in Detroit up to the present time, including his most famous surgery. DVD copies ("Gifted Hands") can be obtained online at Amazon for as low as $10.

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