Reading aloud to children

''A parent gets a great deal of satisfaction from passing on a priceless gift , especially if he has known the love of reading and has basked in the glory of it,'' says James Trelease, author of ''The Read-Aloud Handbook'' (New York, Penguin Books, $5.95). ''When the parent sees the same love growing in his child , he can't help being happy about it.''

For Mr. Trelease, artist and feature writer for the Springfield (Mass.) Daily News, reading aloud to his children has been one of the strongest bonds he has established with them over the years.

But the benefits do not stop with a warm parent-child tie. As Mr. Trelease explains in his new book, reading aloud to children as little as 10 minutes a day stimulates their emotional development, imagination, attention span, and language skills. By a gentle, natural process, sharing books with children promotes the desire and ability to read themselves.

The value of nurturing a love of books at an early age cannot be underestimated. The facts are sobering:

* A Gallup Poll taken during the 1970s showed that 82 percent of the elementary-grade children polled had not read a book in the preceding month, although each one averaged more than 100 hours of television during the same period.

* The Department of Education reports 1 million teen-agers between the ages of 12 and 17 cannot read at even a fourth-grade level.

* An estimated 60 million Americans are either illiterate or functionally illiterate. Since the 1950s the United States has dropped from the 18th most literate member of the United Nations to 49th of the 158-member nations.

These figures, coupled with the pervasive influence of television in children's lives, present a large challenge to parents and educators.

With warmhearted zeal, Jim Trelease urges parents and teachers to learn to ''sell'' reading as a pleasurable product rather than a necessary evil. He believes the main reason Johnny can't read is that he doesn't want to read.

Mr. Trelease says parents can begin to instill a love of reading in their children as early as the first few days after a child is born. Although a newborn may not understand the words or comprehend the pictures, the baby will become conditioned to the sound of the reading voice and associate it with comfort and security.

At the preschool stage, reading should be purely for pleasure, he says. Falling into the ''achievement syndrome'' and trying to push a child to learn to read before he is ready can be detrimental in later years and dampen the desire to read.

Mr. Trelease says that when they are regularly read to, many children will pick up the ability to read naturally.

He emphasizes that it is important not to stop reading aloud to a child when a youngster enters school. That is the time when he or she begins to experience negative reactions to books and to associate reading with labor, mimeographed sheets, and test scores.

He believes that by reading aloud to their children, parents can provide a counterbalance to the ''reading-is-work mentality'' and convince their children ''that every ounce of sweat is worth a pound of pleasure.''

Equally important, books provide a child with models of organized thought for building vocabulary and language skills. Whereas verbal conversation is fleeting and often fragmented, a book's text offers complete sentences; precise, colorful language; and sometimes rhyme and meter.

According to Mr. Trelease, this type of language model is vital during the ages between 2 and 6, when children experience a phenomenal growth in their vocabulary - from about 300 words at age 2 to 2,100 by age 5. (Adults normally use 1,800 words in the course of daily conversation.)

Considering that children are estimated to have watched 5,000 to 8,000 hours of television before they enter kindergarten, many preschoolers tend to pick up much of their vocabulary from TV heroes like Fonzie or Starsky and Hutch. Since children learn by imitating, it is up to parents to decide what models their children will learn from, Mr. Trelease says.

Reading aloud to children also stimulates their imagination. Even with a picture book, for example, action takes place between the first and second page. The child must compare the two in his mind and fill in the gap to link them together. There are also many things referred to in a story which are not illustrated, and the child must build a mental picture himself.

''The imagination can make the biggest monster or the biggest hero in the world. TV reduces the biggest monster and the biggest hero to 18 inches, but there is no limit to the size of the mind's eye,'' Mr. Trelease says.

Parents who both work may say the idea of reading aloud to their children sounds great, but who has the time? Mr. Trelease can sympathize, because he and his wife are in the same position. Curtailing television viewing frees up evenings, he has found, but when there doesn't seem to be any time to spare, he asks himself, ''Which is more precious, my time or my child? Which can I afford to waste?''

''If you care enough you'll find the time,'' he says.

Mr. Trelease says one encouraging sign is the growing number of young fathers coming to his lectures on reading aloud to children. He thinks this is particularly important for their sons, since boys make up the majority of remedial classes. Mr. Trelease believes this is a result of values absorbed from their fathers.

''Boys learn early on from their fathers that the important things in life are the things you throw [balls] and the things you watch on TV on Saturday afternoons. If more fathers would involve themselves as much intellectually as they do athletically in their children's lives, by junior high they [the children] would value books almost as much as they value their hockey sticks.''

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