a brief excerpt from Chapter Two of
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
See also Handbook
When to begin (and end)
Can you recommend something that will teach my child to read before kindergarten?
We have instant pudding, instant photos, instant coffee— but there are no instant adults. Yet some parents are in a hurry to make their children old before their time. Finland, on the other hand, has the highest reading scores in the world despite the fact that its laws forbid the formal teaching of reading until the child is seven years of age. In fact, in Warwick Elley’s thirty-two-country study of more than two hundred thousand readers, three other countries in the top ten don’t begin formal reading instruction until age seven.
"But those kids went through a very tough time later on. They went through first grade successfully, but second grade they really bombed out on."
Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has noted that an interest in your child’s intellectual growth is important, but you can expect negative consequences if that interest takes the form of an obsession with teaching your child to read. “I’ve had children in my practice,” Brazelton explained to NPR, “who were reading from a dictionary at the age of three and one- half or four, and had learned to read and type successfully by age four. But those kids went through a very tough time later on. They went through first grade successfully, but second grade they really bombed out on. And I have a feeling that they’ve been pushed so hard from outside to learn to read early, that the cost of it didn’t show up until later.”
Experts like Brazelton and David Elkind aren’t saying that early reading is intrinsically bad; rather, they feel the early reader should arrive at the skill naturally, on his own, without a structured time each day when the mother or father sits down with him and teaches letters, sounds, and syllables. The “natural way” is the way Scout learned in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—by sitting on the lap of a parent and listening as the parent’s finger moves over the pages, until gradually, in the child’s own good time, a connection is made between the sound of a certain word and the appearance of certain letters on the page, all without stress.
HERE are, however, children who come to reading prematurely, who arrive at the kindergarten door already knowing how to read without having been formally taught. These children are called early fluent readers, and they’re more than worth our attention. During the past fifty years, intensive studies have been done of such children. The majority of them were never formally taught to read at home, nor did they use any commercial reading programs.
The research, as well as studies done of pupils who respond to initial classroom instruction without difficulty, indicates four factors are present in the home environment of nearly every early reader:
- The child is read to on a regular basis. This is the factor most often cited among early readers. In Dolores Durkin’s 1966 study, all of the early readers had been read to regularly. In addition, the parents were avid readers and led by example. The reading included not only books but package labels, street and truck signs, billboards, and so on. International research forty years later with fourth- graders and their families in thirty- five countries mirrored this with the highest- scoring students.
- A wide variety of printed material— books, magazines, newspapers, comics— is available in the home. Nearly thirty years after Durkin’s study, NAEP studies reported that the more printed materials found in a child’s home, the higher the student’s writing, reading, and math skills, and chapter 6 here is devoted largely to the influence of the print climate, both at home and in school.
- Paper and pencil are readily available for the child. Durkin explained: “Almost without exception, the starting point of curiosity about written language was an interest in scribbling and drawing. From this developed an interest in copying objects and letters of the alphabet.”
- The people in the child’s home stimulate the child’s interest in reading and writing by answering endless questions, praising the child’s efforts at reading and writing, taking the child to the library frequently, buying books, writing stories that the child dictates, and displaying his paperwork in a prominent place in the home. This also is supported by the aforementioned study of 150,000 fourth-graders and their families in thirty- five countries.
I want to emphasize that these four factors were present in the home of nearly every child who was an early reader. None of these factors was expensive or involved much more than interest on the part of the parent.
Is there something I could buy that would help my child to read better?
Since parents often think there are quick fixes they can buy, some kind of kit or phonics game to help a child do better at school, I began asking my associates years ago, “What did you have in your home as a child that helped you become a reader? Things your folks had to buy.” Besides the library card they all named, which is free, their responses form what I call the Three B’s, an inexpensive “reading kit” that nearly all parents can afford:
The first B is books: Ownership of a book is important, with the child’s name inscribed inside, a book that doesn’t have to be returned to the library or even shared with siblings. Chapter 6 here shows the clear connection between book ownership (or access) and reading achievement.
The second B is book basket (or magazine rack), placed where it can be used most often: There is probably more reading done in the bathrooms of America than in all the libraries and classrooms combined. Put a book basket in there, stocked with books, magazines, and newspapers.
Put another book basket on or near the kitchen table. Take a hint from all those newspaper coin boxes standing in front of fast- food restaurants; they’re not for decoration. If you sit in your car in the parking lot and watch who uses those coin boxes, invariably it’s the person who’s eating alone. I’m convinced most human beings want or need to read when they’re eating alone. And with more and more children eating at least one daily meal alone, the kitchen is a prime spot for recreational reading. If there’s a book on the table, they’ll read it— unless, of course, you’re foolish enough to have a television in your kitchen, as do more than 60 percent of parents in America. Morrow’s study of twenty-one classes of kindergartners showed that children with the most interest in reading came from homes where books and print were spread throughout the house, not just in one or two places.
The third B is bed lamp: Does your child have a bed lamp or reading light? If not, and you wish to raise a reader, the first order of business is to go out and buy one. Install it, and say to your child: “We think you’re old enough now to stay up later at night and read in bed like Mom and Dad. So we bought this little lamp and we’re going to leave it on an extra fifteen minutes [or longer, depending on the age of the child] if you want to read in bed. On the other hand, if you don’t want to read— that’s okay, too. We’ll just turn off the light at the same old time.” Most children will do anything in order to stay up later— even read.
Questions and issues covered in Chapter 2
of the print and e-book editions
of The Read-Aloud Handbook: