Children who were in my class many years ago are now making decisions on college acceptances. They stay in touch, and I feel the worry and joy right along with them. And guess what happens? They are accepted into the school(s) of their choice. And, I know why. I do.
It’s not me. Really. It comes down to reading. Hang onto your hat for these statistics, and one of the best stories about a kid from Russell, Kentucky.
Jim Trelease was spot on when he said “Reading is the heart of education. The knowledge of almost every subject in school flows from reading. One must be able to read the word problem in math to understand it. If you cannot read the science or social studies chapter, how do you answer the questions at the end of the chapter?”
Parents tell me all the time about their child’s struggles in school, and it boils down to reading, whether it’s reading the homework assignment or a chapter in assigned reading. When the parent has to step in to help with homework, it often is because of struggles with reading. I think of how much more difficult the work must be in the classroom with the expectations of independent work. I wish those children had been in my classroom when they were younger; I could have helped them and their parents.
Now, let’s back up from reading to reading aloud. In order to read, and more importantly to want to read, it all starts with parents and family reading aloud to children, every day.
The statistics on reading aloud and its link to academic success in all areas is profound. If reading is a pleasurable experience, then school work is by far easier. Every child begins school wanting to learn to read. In other words, we’ve got 100 percent of enthusiastic kindergarteners when they start school. The National Report Card found that among fourth-graders, only 54 percent read for pleasure. Among eighth graders, only 30 percent read for pleasure. By twelfth grade, only 19 percent read anything for pleasure daily. Yikes! What happened? The better question might be, what did not happen?
The seeds of not only learning to read but loving to read were not planted early. Reading aloud to children for 30 minutes every day, starting at birth and continuing after they have learned to read, is the single best thing a parent can do to build a reader. I know this. When I read aloud in my classroom, it’s the time that children are totally absorbed. Totally. A good story, read aloud, is the best learning and pleasure experience I give to children. It opens the door to questions and discovery. Here is a great story from The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease that illustrates the power of reading aloud:
We start with the family of Susan and Tad Williams and their two sons, Christopher and David. Of the four hundred thousand students taking the ACT exam with Christopher back in 2002, only fifty-seven had perfect scores– he was the fifty-eighth. When word got out that this kid from Russell, Kentucky (population 3,645) had scored a perfect 36, the family was besieged with questions, the most common being “What prep course did he take? Kaplan? Princeton Review?” It turned out to be a course his parents enrolled him in as an infant, a free program, unlike some of the private plans that now cost up to $250 an hour.
In responding to inquiries about Christopher’s prep courses, the Williamses simply told people–including the New York Times–that he hadn’t taken any, that he did no prep work. That, of course, wasn’t completely true. His mother and father had been giving him and his younger brother free prep classes all through their childhood, from infancy into adolescence: They read to them for thirty minutes a night, year after year, even after they learned how to read for themselves.
Theirs was a home brimming with books but no TV Guide, Game Cube, or Hooked on Phonics. Even though Susan Williams was a fourth generation teacher, she offered no home instruction in reading before the boys reached school age. She and Tad just read to them—sowed the sounds and syllables and endings and blendings of language into the love of books. Each boy easily learned to read–and loved reading, gobbling books up voraciously. Besides being a family bonding agent, reading aloud was used not as test prep as much as an “ensurance” policy–it ensured the boys would be ready for whatever came their way in school.
By 2011, David was a University of Louisville graduate working as an engineer and Christopher was pursuing his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Duke. Sometimes Christopher’s early reading experiences surface even in the biochemistry department, like when he remarked to his lunch mates the day after a Duke basketball loss, “I guess there’s no joy in Mudville today.” None of the other grad students grasped the reference to Ernest Thayer’s classic sports poem.
If that story doesn’t inspire parents and teachers to read, I don’t know what will!
Jim Trelease opens his book with this wonderful quote:
“We must take care that the children’s early encounters with reading are painless enough so they will cheerfully return to the experience now and forever. But if it’s repeatedly painful, we will end up creating a school-time reader instead of a lifetime reader.”
Beautifully said, and it hits the nail right on the head.
My classroom is brimming with books. They aren’t stuffed into a basket, they’re on a front-facing shelf. I read aloud to children twice a day and chapter read for thirty minutes every day. Children choose to get books from our bookshelf. They take great pleasure in looking at the pictures, turning the pages, and pointing to the words. Looking at a book is also my classroom transitional activity. Children leave my class with a genuine love of books and reading. They often return to visit, and when I ask what they remember? Reading, of course!
Used by permission of the author, Jim Trelease, 2013, The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin).