A Love of Reading

By Jim Trelease
Illustrations by Richard Sparks

Every time someone reads aloud to a child, it's an advertisement for the joys of reading, the pleasures of the printed word.

"Hearing books that are more exciting and interesting than those he can read on his own will whet a child's appetite to want to read those books himself someday."

As a 6-year-old, I would patiently wait for the sports news to finish on the radio each night, signaling the arrival of my favorite time with my father.

As soon as the show was over, my father would pull me into his lap, pick up the evening newspaper, and read the "funnies" to me. As he read, he'd sometimes explain the expressions or humor in "Blondie" or "Li'l Abner" that I might not understand.

But more than the language and meaning of words, his nightly readings were teaching me what "reading" was all about. It wasn't about those letter and sounds drills I was doing in first grade; rather, it was what I saw and heard my father do, that warm feeling I had as the two of us anxiously waited to see how "The Phantom" would escape from yet another quicksand trap.

The classroom of my father's lap was more important than any college class I ever attended. Surely it's no accident that, after all those "night classes" with a newspaper, I earned my living for 20 years at a newspaper and eventually wrote a book on the importance of reading aloud to children that spent 17 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

As our culture rushes to enroll the child in a nonstop litany of activities and families careen between malls and fast-food outlets, too many adult laps are empty and too many children grow up without a love of reading.

How do we plant this love or desire?

It has been said that children today can learn how to read but don't actually like to read.

The Harry Potter books have proved that wrong, by a landslide—ranging from 309 pages for volume one to a hefty 766 pages for the fifth installment.

Whether or not you're a Harry Potter fan, there's no denying that J. K. Rowling's books show that children will read, and, despite cultural distractions, they'll read complicated books— if they are interested.

Getting them interested in enjoying reading appears to have gotten lost in the rush to teach them how to read. There is a difference. My father taught me the want; my teachers taught me the how.

Students' reading improvement balances on two basic facts: (1) To get better at reading, students must read, and (2) the more they read, the better they get at it.

However, they will only willingly read if they like what they have to read (because humans naturally avoid what they dislike).

The challenge, therefore, rests in getting them to first like reading.

In 1985, the U.S. Department of Education's Commission on Reading examined more than 10,000 research projects on the subject. "The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading," the commission concluded, "is reading aloud to children," a practice which, the commission noted, "should continue throughout the grades."

But how does reading aloud help a student get better at reading if the adult— parent, teacher, or Scout leader—is doing the reading?

Start with vocabulary, the cornerstone of learning. Listening comprehension comes before reading comprehension. If a child has never heard a word, he's unlikely to ever say the word, thus making it even harder to read or write it.

Next, awareness comes before desire. Just as the child who has never tasted a marshmallow will never hunger for one, the child who has never tasted anything but textbooks or workbooks will have no desire to pick up any other kind of book. Every time someone reads aloud to a child, it's an advertisement for the joys of reading, the pleasures of the printed word.

A child listening to an adult read hears language in a manner that is distinctly different from television or music. A reading role model is provided, an admired adult who models the way stories should sound (as opposed to a child sitting in the beginners' reading group listening to other beginners lurch and stumble through the day's readings).

To keep reading sessions short during a Cub Scout den meeting, do five minutes at the start and then five minutes at the middle or end. Select readings connected to the pack's monthly theme.

When my children were young, the bedside read-aloud was as integral a part of their childhood as my father's lap was for me.

My nightly readings continued right into their adolescence. Wouldn't older children feel insulted by an adult reading to them? If you choose interesting material, the "insult" idea quickly fades.

When my son and daughter were older and their social, athletic, and academic calendars grew more crowded, I switched from the traditional bedtime read-aloud to a less conventional one: I'd sit at the kitchen table and read to them each night as they washed the dishes.

The readings ran the gamut from newspaper columns, chapters from books I was read- (continued on page 43) ing myself (the grosser or scarier the circumstances, the more they loved it), to print collections of Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story." More often than not, their dish washing would conclude before I'd finished, and they'd plop down at the table for the ending.

Just as we don't have to restrict the family read-aloud to bedtime, we needn't limit the long family car trip to listening to music on the radio.

Why not books on tape? Listening to a book together allows the family to discuss what will happen next, or the meaning of words or expressions.

Recently, as my 6-year-old grandson and I listened to a Hardy Boys adventure on a three-hour drive, the term "armored car" surfaced. I stopped the tape, determined that he didn't understand the term, and then explained the meaning and purpose of such cars. Needless to say, when an armored car appeared on the street a few days later, it was the perfect learning opportunity.

And just as a book on tape can be split into separate pieces as we listen, Scout leaders can split their readings into parts: a section at the start of the meeting, and another at the end.

Nor does the reading time need to be in large doses. In 1984, then-principal Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. took over the worst-performing school among Boston's more than 20 middle schools, with a student body drawing from some of the poorest of homes. Among the changes he instituted: All teachers and administrators would read aloud to students at the start of the school day for 10 minutes.

Coupled with an increase in the number of books and free reading time each day in classes, within four years the Lewenberg Middle School had the highest reading scores among Boston's middle schools.

It's not until about eighth grade that listening and reading levels converge for the average student. Until that time, children listen on a higher level than they read on, as evidenced by a popular TV sitcom like "The Cosby Show."

The show's script was on a Grade 3.7 reading level but heard and understood by first-graders. Now apply that concept to books: My second-grade grandson could hear and understand Gary Paulsen's frontier series about Francis Tucket that is written on a fifth-grade reading level.

Hearing books that are more exciting and interesting than those he can read on his own will whet a child's appetite to want to read those books himself someday.

There is a built-in magnet between most children and "junk." They easily can find junk music, clothing, haircuts, and reading. Our role as adults is to expose them to better stuff.

So make sure to choose read-aloud material that's on a level above their reading level. For example, reading the popular "Goosebumps" books to a second-grade class is actually wasting an opportunity. (They average only eight words per sentence, and second graders already know them—they are the rage of the playground and neighborhood.)

The teacher's job is to get the students ready for the "magic moment," when a child finishes the 10th book in a series and admits that "it's like reading the same book over and over."

At that moment, the child is ready to move up to a higher level of book. But if he doesn't know a higher level exists, he's stuck in a reading rut. They read the junk; we read aloud the better stuff.

Of course, it helps if the adult is an avid reader. It's difficult for children to catch the love of reading from adults who don't have it themselves.

Jim Trelease, an award-winning artist and journalist before turning his career toward education in 1979, is the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, published by Penguin.

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