Whether it was a mother or father or grandparent or older sibling or teacher who read to us, we probably all have memories of a special book shared with someone who brought it to life. We grew up listening to stories without anyone quoting evidence about why it was valuable, our parents didn’t read the story to increase our vocabulary, and our teachers didn’t plan on making us better test takers.
Becoming a Nation of Readers, research that was published in 1985, stated, “Reading begins at home” and really began to explore what reading was and how to make children better at it. The number one recommendation at the conclusion of the report was the need for parents to read to preschool children and identified that reading aloud to children was the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.
Mem Fox, in her book, “Reading Magic” shared about her daughter’s first experience with school and the kindergarten teacher who was amazed at the youngster’s reading ability and questioned her method for teaching reading. When she replied that she read to her daughter often before she started school, she realized that “if reading aloud had had such a powerful impact on my child’s life and on her ability to learn to read, I felt I had no business keeping it a secret. I had to spread the word.”
While Fox shared the impact of early reading aloud experiences, Jim Trelease related the story regarding the long-term impact of reading aloud to children. He tells the story of a young man from a small town in Kentucky who received a perfect score on his ACT exam, one of only 58 students out of 400,000 who took the test in 2002. When asked what prep course he took to prepare, reporters were told that he had not taken any, but that his parents read to him, for 30 minutes a night, every day, every year, even after he was able to read by himself.
Even when children are old enough to read for themselves we should continue to share stories with them, encouraging them to read new titles or genres, helping to motivate them to continue to find books they can treasure. After I had shared this with a graduate student who doubted that she could develop this routine with her children, she came to class one night to share the story of what had happened. She had chosen a book to read with her 12-year-old and encouraged her to snuggle in bed with her. Soon, her 15-year-old came in and laid across the end of the bed to listen too and a short time later she glanced up and the 17-year-old was leaning in the doorway pretending not to be interested. I have seen this happen as well when I had the opportunity to read in a school library before the school day started and noticed that the 5th and 6th graders (who had made sure the younger children had come) were glancing over their shoulders at the book being read, while trying to appear uninterested.
Fox states that parents often assume that the simple task of reading aloud to children is too obvious to be very important, while Trelease tells the story of the junior high school principal who inherits a school with the lowest academic record in the Boston area. His previous experience as an English teacher taught him that he needed to sell the teachers on the importance of pleasure reading. He instituted sustained silent reading for nearly 400 pupils and faculty during the last 10 minutes of each day. Next he instituted 10 minutes of reading aloud at the beginning of each school day to insure the 6th-7th-8th graders all saw and heard an adult reading every day. At the end of the first year, test scores were up; at the end of the second year, enrollment was up; and three years later, the students at that junior high had the highest reading scores in the city. He hadn’t changed the students, or the faculty, or the curriculum, he simply added reading for pleasure. The addition of a simple, obvious task, made all the difference.
My children’s literature professor in college, Dr. Arne J. Nixon, often said “A book is nothing more than black marks on a page, until someone puts life into them.
Then it becomes a story, and stories stay with us for life. There is no greater gift you can give a child.” With the increasing availability of audio books, adults are also enjoying the read aloud, the simple act of someone else bringing the words to life.
Reading aloud to children, of all ages, can have a profound effect on their ability to be successful in school. Whether the reader is a parent, or caregiver, or older sibling, children who able to hear books being read develop the skills needed to become proficient learners throughout their school years. While reading to infants and toddlers may sometimes prove difficult, incorporating short reading times before naptime or bedtime, helps to establish a routine, and the amount of time, and number of books, can be gradually increased as the child grows. This is a great way to introduce new books, old classics, and family favorites, even after the child is able to read for himself. I encourage you to take the simple step of reading a book (or two) to your child (or children) today.
— Dr. Susan Neufeld is a Professor at California State University, Stanislaus and works with graduate students, especially in the area of reading. She is the director of the ABC Project, a pre-school literacy program, past-president of the Stanislaus Reading Council and believes you can never have too many books.