'The Read Aloud Handbook' inspires parents and teachers

Jim Trelease’s “The Read Aloud Handbook” lays out the evidence for reading aloud to children — at home and in the classroom — in a highly accessible book (2006, Sixth Edition, Penguin Books, 340 pages).

I have read and reread the “Handbook” for over a year since I first checked it out. It’s a fascinating book for any parent or teacher interested in reading development and achievement and children’s literature. Trelease’s web site ( is also terrific.

In the first half of his “Handbook,” Trelease summarizes the research on the effects of reading aloud and other topics that inform reading. He provides a lot of anecdotal evidence about the impact of reading aloud. He discusses the “stages” of reading aloud to children. One of his chapters is a “Do’s and Don’t of Read-Aloud.” He discusses libraries, lessons from Oprah’s book club and Harry Potter, the Internet and television. The second half of the book contains a “Treasury of Read-Alouds.”

Trelease explains how children gain both background knowledge and a richer vocabulary through read-alouds. He stresses that a child’s “listening level” is not the same as his or her reading level. His section on the benefits of recreational “lite” reading of series and comic books is also interesting.

Throughout the book, Trelease speaks of reading for enjoyment and how that enjoyment leads to better reading.

The most important activity

Trelease’s highlights two primary findings of a 1985 report, “Becoming a Nation of Readers,” by the Commission on Reading:

• “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”

• “It is a practice that should continue throughout the grades.”

Trelease notes that the commission found “conclusive evidence to support reading aloud not only in the home but also in the classroom.”

Trelease explains that the Commission on Reading was organized by the National Academy of Education and the National Institute of Education. “It consisted of nationally recognized experts on how children develop, how they learn language, and how they learn to read … This commission was markedly different from the National Reading Panel created in 2000, which established the Reading First reading curriculum under the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Trelease makes clear that reading aloud is more important than multiple choice standardized tests, work sheets, homework, DIBELS, book reports, sight words and phonics instruction.

Children learn to love reading from hearing an adult read aloud to them. This makes them want to read more. The more they read, the better readers they become.

“This is not a book about teaching a child how to read; it’s about teaching a child to want to read,” Trelease writes.

‘The professors across the breakfast table’

Trelease began a recent presentation to parents and teachers in the Chicagoland area by noting that children are in school for 900 hours a year.

“Now, any politician worth anything today would hop on that 900 hour figure and declare that an awful lot of learning and teaching better take place in those 900 hours and if it doesn’t take place we got to hold the doggone teachers and the damn teachers unions accountable,” Trelease said.

“I don’t have a problem with that, as long as we’re fair, and we hold the right teachers accountable for the right number of hours,” he continued. “You see, what the good folks in the State House and the White House can’t seem to get their heads around is that the same child in school 900 hours a year is outside school 7800 hours.”

He observed that we’ve heard nothing from elected officials about parent responsibility for student failure in school. When a child fails, according to the government, it is the school’s fault, Trelease said.

He reminded the audience of the reason for this blame: “Parents out-number teachers as registered voters 50 to one. You start beating up on parents, you lose the election right there!”

The most important teachers children are ever going to have are their parents, according to Trelease.

“Contrary to the doctrine that blames teachers for reading scores, research shows that the seeds of reading and school success are sown in the home, long before the child ever arrives at school,” Trelease writes in the “Handbook.”

A school’s objective should be to create lifetime readers

Trelease’s lectures, web site and book are aimed primarily at parents. However, his message is applicable to teachers and school districts.

“The one place where there is the most time to read is OUTside school 7800 hours a year (vs. 900 INside school),” Trelease wrote in an email message to Substance. “But if what happens with reading IN school is so painful and boring, there is little chance of the child picking up print outside school. Those who read the most, almost always read the best.”

Reading in schools should be fun.

Trelease states two reading facts of how we create lifetime readers. 1) People are pleasure-centered. 2) Reading is an accrued skill. The more we read the better we get at it.

“Every time we read to a child we’re sending a “pleasure” message to the child’s brain,” Trelease writes. “You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.”

Trelease notes that “students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much, cannot get better at it. And most Americans (children and adults) don’t read much, and therefore aren’t very good at it.”

Many children aren’t reading much because of reading fact number one, Trelease says.

Reading instruction in school can be “tedious or boring, threatening, and without meaning,” Trelease writes, “Endless hours of worksheets, hours of intensive phonics instruction and hours of unconnected test questions. If a child seldom experiences the pleasures of reading and meets only the ‘unpleasures’ then the natural reaction will be withdrawal.”

What students need

Trelease writes about the factors that produce higher reading achievement in students. These include the frequency of teachers reading aloud to students and the frequency of SSR (silent sustained reading) in school. Children who had daily SSR scored much higher than those who had it only once a week.

The “print climate” in the classroom, the school library (and the public libraries and in the home) are also factors. Students can’t read well if they’re short of books.

“No Child Left Behind ensures that children who are behind in reading are entitled to after-schooling tutoring and extra help with phonics. Nice.” Trelease writes. “But giving phonics lessons to kids who don’t have any print in their lives is like giving oars to people who don’t have a boat — you won’t get very far.”

“Government has us focusing almost exclusively on the ‘how to’ of reading and little or nothing on the ‘want to,’ Trelease said in an email to Substance. “Without the ‘want to’ there is little or no prospect for success.

“Which states have the least chances of producing rodeo stars? Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maine. Which states have the best chance? Arizona, Montana, Texas, Idaho, Oklahoma. Why? More horses — and cattle and ropes. Furthermore, the children in those states are given more opportunity to see successful rodeo riding. Simply put, someone spends time providing the ‘want to’ for rodeo.

“Which cities and states have the least chance of producing successful readers? The places were the are the fewest books in the home or classroom, where children will see and hear the fewest people reading, where there is the least opportunity to curl up and read for fun without the threat of failure hanging over their heads.”

While the “Real Men Read” program in Chicago (see page 17) is a nice work of corporate charity, one of the lessons Chicago can learn from Jim Trelease is that the read-alouds and book give-aways to students in a couple of classes in 39 elementary schools is not enough. All the children in Chicago deserve this and more. 


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