Thursday, October 02, 2008

Book on Books

I've been enthralled with the The Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease. It was recommended to me for the list of great books to read to your children or your class. I was looking for some slightly longer, more complex books to read to Zack; he still loves picture books and we wouldn't want to give them up, but he loves more complicated and ongoing storylines too. He is constantly asking for another installment in the adventures of three pigs I made up and remembers their actions and interactions from one story to the next, so I wanted to plant the seed of the longer, richer options available in chapter books.

The Read-Aloud Handbook does have a list of recommended books but it is so much more than that. The first 200 pages are an explanation of what hearing books read aloud does for kids and for families. The benefits are so fundamental that they had slipped by me, partly as obvious, partly as undefined. It was extremely interesting to learn the research and statistics that show that it is the best thing you can do for your kids' education. Hearing out-loud reading is far better for overall educational success that learning to read early (though early reading may happen too). Here is the basic logic:
  • The most accurate predictor of educational success is starting vocabulary (p. 13) - since early instruction is oral, children who can understand the words will be able to understand the instruction, follow directions and comprehend their world. Since decoding (or figuring out a written word - sounding it out) depends on knowing if what you have read is the intended word or if you need to keep trying, kids who don't have a word in their vocabulary won't know if they have sounded it out correctly. Vocabulary goes hand in hand with "background knowledge" (p. 11), or the understanding of what is out there in the wide world. The author tells a story of a group of poverty children living near an airport who didn't understand that there were people on the planes that flew overhead until their Head Start program took them to visit the airport. If you don't know what basic situations in life are about, how can you understand when someone talks about them or when you read about them?
  • The best way to build vocabulary is reading aloud to children. Print media are richer in vocabulary than conversation (p. 17). Even Children's books contain broader, more advanced vocabulary than adult to adult conversation or the evening news, and the vocabulary in other print media increases from there. Reading aloud also builds background knowledge (as do museum and zoo visits, travel and trying new activities) and attention span.
  • Reading is pivotal throughout education. Advanced disciplines and careers are taught at least partially through print media. And here's an interjection from me regarding the current financial crisis - if you can't read well, how can you learn about responsible financial decisions and protect yourself from irresponsibility or fraud?
  • People must find reading pleasurable to do it for a lifetime. No one does what they hate, and too many people grow up to hate reading.
  • The way to introduce a love reading is to experience the advantages and avoid the unnecessary pain. Hearing a book read aloud you get the thrill of the plot twist, the joy of connecting with a character, the intrigue, the moral dilemma, the catharsis. Research shows that the giant pile of worksheets weighing down our students has no advantage and discourages love of learning.
  • Sustained Silent Reading by the student can cement the connection to a love of reading. Without this step, the end goal is not reached. Students need to be given time to read to themselves. Even in a classroom setting, this is a good use of time, not a giveaway. It also gives the parent or teacher a chance to model an adult reading for pleasure (aha! an excuse to read books I want to read! It's for role model purposes, reeeally).
  • More reading time produces a better reader (p.102). The reading can be newspapers, magazines, comic books, series books (sometimes looked down upon in comparison to the classics), even product labels. Because of this, the "print climate" in the home, or how much and what variety of printed materials are available, correlates to reading success and also to writing and math skills. The number of minutes spent reading per day correlates directly and decisively with reading scores.
  • It's a cycle - in both directions. The more you read, the better reader you become, and the more you love it. The less you read, the poorer reader you are, and the more you hate it. Structured reading time can build the positive version of the cycle.
The book discusses the deeper benefits of reading, both together and individually - the bonding between parent and child, the ability to make sense of a difficult world, and the search for meaning in life. The author wonders at the lack of assistance churches give in encouraging parents to read to their children, given the strengthening it offers the family and the opportunities for deeper study of faith it offers the individual.

I found the description of how the gap between the haves and have-nots widens without aloud reading to be gripping and heartbreaking. Poverty children will hear less than a third the number of spoken words by five years old than the children of professional families. The print climate in poverty homes tends to be a desert. Poverty level parents are much less likely to understand that television viewing should be limited. Some of this is an effect of long work hours and less money for print media, but much could be remedied with education. However, since education depends on reading, the gap continues to widen. Trelease offers many poignant stories of children and parents breaking through this gap and connecting with reading; in this fifth edition he follows up with families and reports on the rewards they have reaped for their efforts.

Overall, this book was fascinating. I have always loved to read novels aloud - even to adults (think car trips), but having learned the mechanics of the fundamental benefits will inform my parenting both now and in my kids' school days. The stories were compelling and memorable. It addresses some concerns that are often discussed in social and educational situations (comic books, "trash" books, Oprah's book club, television, Internet) in a helpful and sensible way. Trelease is frank about the state of our educational system without being a doomsayer. I recommend it for parents (though it is fairly dense with statistics and took some concentration to get through) and for teachers - but overall for anyone interested in education, how learning occurs and the state of the nation.

Oh, and I found some good books to read!


  1. I love reading and reading aloud to the kids, so this post was so interesting/helpful to me. Thanks for sharing your insight! We love the Magic Treehouse series. They are really fun chapter books for the younger crowd. The kids are addicted! Happy reading!

  2. Thanks! I wrote down the first book of that series as a good one to try!

  3. Thanks for all the great info! I should request book reports from you more often!!!