a brief excerpt from Chapter One of
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
See also Handbook
CHAPTER ONE: Why read aloud?
What are the skills a child needs for kindergarten?
Let me make an analogy here. Inside a child’s brain there is a huge reservoir called the Listening Vocabulary. You could say it’s the child’s very own Lake Pontchartrain, the famous estuary outside New Orleans that overflowed because of all the water brought by Hurricane Katrina. That extra water breached the levees and tragically flooded New Orleans. We want the same thing to happen but not in a tragic way— this time the levees will be breached inside the child’s brain.
The first levee would be the Speaking Vocabulary. You pour enough words into the child’s Listening Vocabulary and it will overflow and fill the Speaking Vocabulary pool— thus the child starts speaking the words he’s heard. It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever say a word if you’ve never heard the word. More than a billion people speak Chinese— so why not the rest of us? Because we haven’t heard enough Chinese words, especially in our childhoods.
The next levee is the Reading Vocabulary. It’s nearly impossible to understand a word in print if you’ve never said the word.
And finally there’s the Writing Vocabulary. If you’ve never said the word or read the word, how in the world will you be able to write it? All the language arts flow from the Listening Vocabulary— and that has to be filled by someone besides the child. Simple.
As you read to a child, you’re pouring into the child’s ears (and brain) all the sounds, syllables, endings, and blendings that will make up the words she will someday be asked to read and understand. And through stories you are filling in the background knowledge necessary to understand things that aren’t in her neighborhood—like war or whales or locomotives.
The one prekindergarten skill that matters above all others, because it is the prime predictor of school success or failure, is the child’s vocabulary upon entering school. Yes, the child goes to school to learn new words, but the words he already knows determine how much of what the teacher says will be understood. And since most instruction for the first four years of school is oral, the child who has the largest vocabulary will understand the most, while the child with the smallest vocabulary will grasp the least.
Once reading begins, personal vocabulary feeds (or frustrates) comprehension, since school grows increasingly complicated with each grade. That’s why school-entry vocabulary tests predict so accurately.
How is it that some kids get a head start on vocabulary?
Conversation is the prime garden in which vocabulary grows, but conversations vary greatly from home to home. The eye-opening findings of Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas, from their research on children’s early lives, demonstrate the impact of this fact.
Published as Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, the research began in response to what Hart and Risley saw among the four-year-olds in the university lab school. With many children, the lines were already drawn: Some were far advanced and some far behind. When the children in the study were tested at age three and then again at nine, the differences held. What caused the differences so early?
The researchers began by identifying forty-two normal families representing three socioeconomic groups: welfare, working class, and professional. Beginning when the children were seven months old, researchers visited the homes for one hour a month and continued their visits for two and a half years. During each visit, the researcher tape-recorded and transcribed by hand any conversations and actions taking place in front of the child.
Through 1,300 hours of visits, they accumulated 23 million bytes of information for the project database, categorizing every word (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) uttered in front of the child. The project held some surprises: Regardless of socioeconomic level, all forty-two families said and did the same things with their children. In other words, the basic instincts of good parenting are there for most people, rich or poor.
Then the researchers received the data printout and saw the “meaningful differences” among the forty-two families. When the daily number of words for each group of children is projected across four years, the four-year-old child from the professional family will have heard 45 million words, the working-class child 26 million, and the welfare child only 13 million. All three children will show up for kindergarten on the same day, but one will have heard 32 million fewer words. If legislators expect the teacher to get this child caught up, she’ll have to speak ten words a second for nine hundred hours to reach the 32 million mark by year’s end. I hope they have life support ready for her.
Those forty-two children would perform differently in class because their word totals created different brains. By the time the study group reached age three, the professionals’ children had 1,100-word vocabularies to the welfare children’s 525. Similarly, their IQs were 117 versus 79 by the time the study finished.
Brain differences have nothing to do with how much parents love their children. They all love their children and want the best for them, but some parents have a better idea of what needs to be said and done to reach that “best.” They know the child needs to hear words repeatedly in meaningful sentences and questions, and they know that plunking a two-year-old down in front of a television set for three hours at a time is more harmful than meaningful.
Sociologists George Farkas and Kurt Beron studied the research on 6,800 children from ages three to twelve, and found that children from the lower SES were far more likely to arrive at school with smaller vocabularies (twelve to fourteen months behind), and they seldom made up the loss as they grew older.
The message in this kind of research is unambiguous: It’s not the toys in the house that make the difference in children’s lives; it’s the words in their heads. The least expensive thing we can give a child outside of a hug turns out to be the most valuable: words. You don’t need a job, a checking account, or even a high school diploma to talk with a child. If I could select any piece of research that all parents would be exposed to, Meaningful Differences would be the one. And that’s feasible. The authors took their 268-page book and condensed it into a six-page article for American Educator, the journal of the American Federation of Teachers, which may be freely reproduced by schools.
Questions and issues covered in Chapter 1
of the print and e-book editions
of The Read-Aloud Handbook: