Reading Aloud's Road to Literacy

Jim Trelease crusades for a practice he says builds vocabulary, imagination, and families

`WHAT have you read lately?" When Jim Trelease sprang this question on fourth-graders 20 years ago, their responses made him shudder.

Blank stares and a meager showing of hands appeared in classroom after classroom. Some blurted out the titles of their textbooks. Others rattled off listings from TV Guide. In only one out of every dozen classes were there enthusiastic shouts of titles like "The Secret Garden" or "Lassie Come Home."

Studying these pattern-breaking classrooms, Mr. Trelease, a newspaper cartoonist who visited schools to speak about journalism, discovered a common denominator: The teachers in those classrooms read aloud to their students.

This observation proved pivotal to Trelease's career, for eventually he left the drawing board - first to uncover and then to advocate the virtues of reading aloud. Today he's often called the "read-aloud apostle."

"You read to [children] for all the same reasons you talk to them," said Trelease in a recent Monitor interview, "to guide them, educate them, inspire them, entertain them, listen to them, bond with them, but also to serve as a kind of commercial for the pleasures of reading."

Trelease, who had been read to as a child, began seizing a portion of his time in classrooms to read aloud.

Though teachers couldn't quibble with his enthusiasm, they sought more than a story session. "They wanted the facts," Trelease says. "A principal might walk in and say, `What are you doing? You're reading to these kids? These are fourth-graders - they already know how to read. Get them going on workbooks.' "

Workbooks. The word made Trelease cringe. At first he didn't have the facts to support his argument for literature over lessons, but he soon discovered that educators, librarians, and others were armed with the facts he needed. Their studies had found that reading aloud builds vocabulary, stimulates imagination, and develops listening skills. These findings, coupled with his own desire to shatter the "reading is work" mentality that he had witnessed in the schools, impelled Trelease to take on what was f ast becoming a crusade: waking up parents and educators to the importance of reading aloud - beyond the classroom.

In 1979, he self-published a 30-page pamphlet on reading aloud. It sold so well that Penguin Books's editor and publisher, Kathryn Court, took notice. Trelease wrote "The Read-Aloud Handbook" in 1982, an equally simple yet vastly more comprehensive guide that walks parents and educators through the process of teaching a child to want to read (as opposed to how to read), and summarizes more than 300 recommended books to read aloud. Trelease has revised the book twice (Penguin Books, 1989, $9.95), and rece ntly published "Hey! Listen to This" (Penguin Books, $11), an anthology of stories for kindergartners through fourth-graders.

Ms. Court credits the books' success to Trelease's point of view as a layman. "He's not coming to the idea through formal channels but literally from his own experience with his children," she says. "He's not trained as an educator, so the books appeal to people on a basic level." Trelease also reaches parents and teachers through classroom and video lectures. And he still makes time to practice what he preaches: reading to kids.

During a recent visit to a for-profit daycare center and kindergarten here, Trelease sat cross-legged on the floor reading animatedly from "The Gunniwolf" to a wide-eyed group of kindergartners. After the group's last chant of "kum-kwa, khi-wa" and "pit-pat, pitty pat," Trelease moved off the floor and into the interview seat. Expounding on his ideas about reading aloud, he repeatedly stressed its "commercial" aspect - how engaging a child in a story is a kind of plug for the pleasures of reading.

"Before a child can have an interest in reading, he must first have an awareness of it," he said. "The child who is unaware of the riches of literature certainly can have no desire for them. It is no more than common sense to create that desire by reading to children, regularly, every day."

Trelease's philosophy rings of common sense. Why does anyone need convincing? "There are two drawbacks to people believing in the idea of reading aloud," he says. "For teachers, it smacks of fun. For parents, it's cheap; all you need is a free public library. So, the feeling is, how effective can it be if they're giving it away? I have to convince them that learning is fun."

It's not entirely up to teachers to make or break a reader, Trelease says. "The child usually wants to join the club of the parents ... how much reading are the parents doing?" He is disappointed with young parents who lean toward "hothousing" their children (pushing them to "get into preschools that are really intellectual bootcamps," for instance) or tune into television more often than cuddling up with a good book - what he would call "watching their kids grow up instead of raising them."

Since writing his handbook, Trelease has softened his stance on TV. In his first book he devotes an entire chapter to television, in which he calls it a "serious impediment to children's personal growth." Now, he says, "The problem is not television, the problem is abusing television." What constitutes abuse? More than 10 hours a week, he says.

"We all need some entertainment in our lives, " he explains. "In second grade, the average child gets 15 minutes a day for playtime.... You get more coffee breaks if you're working over at John Hancock."

Few people find fault with Trelease's views. Stacy Tyler, director of Bright Horizons Children's Center in Cambridge, Mass., always turns inquiring parents to Trelease's books.

Another Trelease fan, Sheila Williams at the Lincoln (Mass.) Public Library, attests to his handbook's popularity. "We have parents who come back and ask for it again and again," she says. "He's very accessible for people who haven't had much experience with children's books ... he takes a step-by-step approach to reading aloud."

But children's book writer Alison Herzig would call it the wrong approach. "Reading is an intensely private activity," says Ms. Herzig, who taught herself to read at age four. "Nobody read aloud to me; books were my personal, private, wonderful world," she explains. Instead of reading aloud, she suggests parents "Leave children alone ... encourage them to read by your example, and build a private book collection with them."

But that approach, Trelease would respond, neglects nurturing the emotional bond that forms between reader and child. Children who identify with characters and events in a story may open up more to parents. "When they share their deepest hopes and fears, then it's bonding time," Trelease says. "This is when that special chemistry occurs that pulls the family together."

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