spacer The Read-Aloud Handbook
by Jim Trelease
• Introduction — page 1 •
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This is a brief excerpt from the Introduction to
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


• In decades of reform, the scores rose 1 point.

• One family's "special" tutoring in reading.


• How did a parent and not a professor come
    to write this book


"I"N the thirty years since the first edition of this book, much has changed in the world, as well as in American education. And so, too, the book has evolved.

Back in 1982, there was no Internet or email, no cell phones, DVD players, iTunes, iPods, iPads, Amazon, e-books, Wi-Fi, or Facebook. The closest thing to an "instant message" was a facial expression that exasperated mothers gave their children. "Texting" was something you did on a typewriter. The first CD player was just going on sale, Starbucks was just a coffee-bean shop in Seattle, and if you said "laptop" to people they'd have thought you were talking about some kind of TV-dinner tray.

And what did we get for the billions spent
on testing?

For all of those differences, there are some things that remain the same. In 1982, the U.S. economy was in its worst recession since the Great Depression and the nation's business leaders were looking for someone or something to blame for it. Sound familiar? Since S.A.T. scores had been in a twenty-year decline (because lots of average and below-average students, and not just the rich kids, were taking the tests for the first time in history), the corporate executives fingered education as one of the culprits for the recession and demanded reforms and accountability at all levels—a more business-like approach.1 ("If our schools were more like Japanese schools, our economy would be more theirs!"2) This would open the doors to nearly three decades of testing mania and school reforms.

At practically the same time, the cost of college began a 400 percent increase, outpacing the increases in medical care and median family income by 2008.3 By 2011, student loans would be larger than either the nation's credit card debt or the auto loan industry.4

Which brings us to the present time. With all the new technology now in place and billions of dollars in testing accomplished, we've made a one point improvement in reading scores since 1971 (see chart). Mmmm.

Chart showing one-point rise in scores since 1971

If you're even half sane, you have to be asking yourself, "What in the world is wrong here?" I hope this book can answer at least some of that query, as well as what we can do about it, because surely there's a better way than what we've been doing.

I should interject my thoughts here on the national testing mania and so-called school reforms. Since entire volumes have been done on the subject, I'll restrict my conclusions to just this single paragraph. The last three decades have been largely a huge money-grab by testing companies and their government pawns. If you need proof, look no further than the half-page summary of events done by New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip in 2011.5 All he did was take the statements of state education supervisors over the last decade, year by year, along with the results of state tests. Over and over, government (regardless of party affiliation) proved itself wrong, inaccurate, deceitful, duplicitous, contradictory, and unworthy of trust. And this from one of the more progressive locales—not Louisiana or District of Columbia—New York. God help the children with those public servants in charge.

Everyone wanted to know: What tutoring program got him a perfect score?

Given that amount of ineptitude, is anything going right? Yes! Consider again that reading chart and look for the sunshine. With the hundreds of distractions imposed on children in the last 30 years—200 cable channels; most children with TV's in their bedrooms (usually the lowest scoring students); single-parents raising one in four children, and a baby born every sixty seconds to a teen mother6—it's a wonder the scores actually rose by one point and didn't drop by 10 or 15. If that is the case, then something must be working and this book will examine what really works. In fact, let's look at one of those "somethings" now.

"W"E start with the family of Susan and Tad Williams and sons, Christopher and David. Of the four hundred thousand students taking the A.C.T. exam with Christopher back in 2002, only fifty-seven had perfect scores—he was the fifty-eighth. When word got out that this kid from Russell, Kentucky (population 3,645), had scored a perfect 36, the family was besieged with questions, the most common being "What prep course did he take? Kaplan? Princeton Review?" It turned out to be a course his parents enrolled him as an infant, a free program, unlike some of the private plans that now cost up to $250 an hour.

In responding to inquiries about Christopher's prep courses, the Williamses simply told people—including the New York Times7— that he hadn't taken any, that he did no prep work. That, of course, wasn't completely true. His mother and father had been giving him and his younger brother free prep classes all through their childhoods, from infancy into adolescence: they read to them for thirty minutes a night, year after year, even after they learned how to read for themselves.

"The best S.A.T. prep course is to read to your children when they're little."

Theirs was a home brimming with books but no TV Guide, GameCube, or Hooked on Phonics. Even though Susan Williams was a fourth-generation teacher, she offered no home instruction in reading before the boys reached school age. She and Tad just read to them—sowed (and sewed) the sounds and syllables and endings and blendings of language into the love of books. Each boy easily learned to read, loved it, gobbled it up voraciously. Besides being a family bonding agent, reading aloud was used not as test prep as much as an "ensurance" policy—it ensured the boys would be ready for whatever came their way in school. That, combined with church and Scouting, would ensure they were ready for whatever life threw at them.

By 2011, David was a University of Louisville graduate working as an engineer and Christopher was pursuing his PhD in biochemistry at Duke. Sometimes Christopher's early reading experiences surface even in the biochemistry department, like the day after a Duke basketball loss and he remarked to his lunch mates, "I guess 'there's no joy in Mudville' today." None of the other grad students grasped the reference to Ernest Thayer's classic sports poem.8

The Williams family experience didn't surprise me at all because I was already familiar with reading aloud as a prep course. Tom Parker recommends it all the time. He's the former admissions director for Williams College who is now at Amherst College, two of the most prestigious colleges in America. Parker tells anxious parents who ask about improving their child's S.A.T. scores, "The best S.A.T. preparation course in the world is to read to your children in bed when they're little. Eventually, if that's a wonderful experience for them, they'll start to read themselves."9 Parker told me he's never met a student with high verbal S.A.T. scores who wasn't a passionate reader, and nearly always they recall being read to. An A.C.T. or S.A.T. prep course can't package that passion, but parents like Susan and Tad Williams have done it and so can you.

Are you suggesting this reading stuff is the job of the parent?
        I thought it was the school's job.

ekindergartner pretend cooking and pretend talking on phoneekindergartner pretend cooking and pretend talking on phoneekindergartner pretend cooking and pretend talking on phonespacer

This brings us to the "sponge factor," exemplified by a young lady named Bianca Cotton (photo right), whom I met in 2002 on the morning my grandson Tyler began kindergarten. Families were invited in for the first hour to help break the ice, and I was snapping some pictures of Tyler and a new friend when I became aware of an extended conversation going on behind me in the little housekeeping section of the kindergarten.

Turning around, I found Bianca cooking up a make-believe meal on a make-believe stove while carrying on a make-believe conversation on a make-believe cordless phone. And, as you can see in the photo I snapped, she had all the body language down for talking on the phone and cooking at the same time.

Every child, kindergartner or otherwise, is a little "sponge," soaking up the behavior of the people around them. If Bianca had never seen an adult talking on the phone while cooking, she'd never think to grab a phone while "cooking" her first kindergarten meal.

Since the cost of lengthening the school day is prohibitive, the best option is tapping the 7,800 hours
at home.

If Bianca isn't proof enough for you, consider this: Since 1956, one select group above all others—newspapers networks, or news agencies—has the best record for predicting the outcomes in presidential elections. (If there were a blogger out there with those credentials, the networks would beating a path to his or her door.) Every four years for a half century, a quarter million children vote in the Weekly Reader presidential poll and in thirteen of the fourteen campaigns they've been absolutely correct.10 Like little sponges, they sat in their parents' living rooms, kitchens, and cars, soaking up parental values, and then squeezed them onto a Weekly Reader ballot.

It comes down to simple arithmetic: the child spends 900 hours a year in school and 7,800 hours outside school. Which teacher has the bigger influence? Where is more time available for change? The sponge factor and those two numbers — 900 and 7,800 — will appear over and over in this book.

Jay Mathews, the Washington Post's long-time education writer, looked back on all the student achievement stories he'd done in twenty-two years and observed: "I cannot think of a single instance in which the improvement in achievement was not tied, at least in part, to an increase in the amount of time students had to learn."11 I've been saying the same thing for as many years. You either extend the school day (as have the successful KIPP Academy charters) 3 or you tap into the 7,800 hours at home. Since the cost of lengthening the school day would be prohibitive in the neediest places, the most realistic option is tapping the 7,800 hours at home.

Introduction — p.1   p.2   Footnotes

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