Make a Commitment to Read Aloud to Children

By Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook

James Patterson
As principals and teachers, we are constantly on the look-out for new ways to help book-averse students improve their reading skills, while gently, but firmly, nudging them into that lifelong adventure called "reading."

In recent decades, no one has been more successful in turning kids onto books than Jim Trelease, author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook.” Since its publication in 1982, the all-time best-selling guide to children’s literature for parents and teachers has sold nearly 2 million copies and is used as the text for future teachers at more than 60 colleges and universities worldwide. Indisputably the pivotal force behind the read-aloud movement, Trelease has been one of the United States’ most sought-after education speakers, addressing parents, teachers and librarians on the subjects of children, literature and television. He has presented in all 50 states and has been a frequent keynote speaker for national education conferences.

We recently caught up with Trelease, who, despite recuperating from a nasty bout with the flu, was kind enough to cough and sniffle his way through a phone interview from his home in Springfield, Mass.

Q: How do you get kids who shy away from reading to want to read?

Trelease: When you see a good movie, what do we do immediately afterward? We want to talk to somebody about it. The same thing happens when you read a good book. Your conversation about the book turns out to be an ad, a commercial. It whets people’s appetites. A similar thing happens when principals or teachers ask students, “Are you reading anything good?” Other kids are going to listen and model on that. After all, if “so and so” is reading a certain book, it must be good.

Q: So, in effect, you’re creating an ad for the book?

Trelease: Well, yes. Granted, most of the kids that you’re reading to already know how to read. However they don’t necessarily want to read. When you run a commercial on television for cars, most of the people watching already have a car. Why are you advertising a car to viewers who already have a car? You want to show them that there are better cars out there than what they have. They might decide the car you are advertising has more advantages.

Q: Why is reading out-loud to students so important?

Trelease: When you read out-loud to a class, you are giving a commercial for the book, the kind of book that they would otherwise never think of reading – a book that might be above and beyond what they are required to read.

Teachers should make an effort to read aloud every day to their class. Whether it’s about math, whether it’s about science. Whether it’s a column, newspaper or the back of Time magazine. Every kid should have exposure everyday to somebody reading aloud.

What you want the kids to do is taste the pleasure of reading. And listening to a book on CD or hearing a parent or teacher read it out loud is less work for them. They can kick back and relax and enjoy the book in a way that the author hoped that they would. You are planting seeds of desire.

Many teachers have told me they’ll be reading a book in class when some kid in the room, (and many times it’s the kid they least expect), loves the book so much that he or she will check the book out from the library and finish it before the teacher has completed it in class.

Q: How important is it for teachers, principals and other school officials to set an example through reading?

Trelease: We have to have leaders and educators who are themselves in love with reading. You could catch a cold from me today because I have a cold. But if I didn’t have the flu, it would be impossible for me to pass it on to you. Similarly, if the school administrator, principal, superintendent or teacher doesn’t have a love of reading, kids can’t catch it from them. That’s one of the first things we have to acknowledge. A passion for reading must start at the top and should be on display for all students to see.

Q: How can schools encourage a life-long passion for reading among students?

Trelease: Awareness has to come before desire. Kids can’t be expected to want to finish an entire book unless they have first tasted it. By reading to kids – by letting them devour an entire book – they become aware of how good books can taste and they want more. Once we’ve created that desire, we’ve got a better chance of getting them to pick up a book than the kids who have never been read to. If you have a desire to read, you’re going to find a way to read.

By the way, a school’s ultimate goal should be to create passionate readers, not necessarily high scorers. Why? Because students with a love for reading continue to educate themselves after graduation. A high achiever who doesn’t enjoy reading will stop reading on the day he graduates.

Q: How can schools create an environment that is conducive to reading?

Trelease: We do know that many children have very little time in their home life to curl up with a book and read it in some kind of quiet environment. The television set is blaring, there’s conflict and there’s fragmentation. And there’s also a dearth of reading materials. Many lower-income families don’t have a daily newspaper subscription. They don’t get magazines, and they often move so many times they don’t get catalogs.

So it’s up to schools to provide curl-up time in class with Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), which is free voluntary reading that is ungraded and just for pleasure. [After its initial introduction in Japan, SSR became an overnight success and is now a regular part of the academic day for more than 3,000 elementary and secondary schools.]

With SSR, we’re talking about only 10 minutes a day of free reading time. That 10 minutes should be uninterrupted, with no tests, and students should be allowed to read whatever they want within reason. Some kids have an interest in fantasy while another child wants something that’s dramatic. You have to appeal to all the different appetites of all the different kids that are in a classroom of say 25 kids. So you need a wide range of books that cater to a wide range of reading levels in that same room. One size does not fit all.

Jim's Tips for Principals:
1. Nurturing lifelong readers starts at the top, so lead by example. Do you know books, do you talk about books, and are you seen in the school library?
2. Encourage reading aloud to students.
3. Help create an environment that’s conducive to reading.
4. Give them daily doses of reading time.
5. Make sure they have a wide selection of reading materials to choose from.

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