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)
How old must a child be before you start reading
That is the question I am
most often asked by parents. The next is: “When is the child too old to be read to?”
In answer to the first question, I ask one of my
own. “When did you
start talking to the child? Did you wait until he was six months old?”
“We started talking to him the day he was born,” parents respond.
“And what language did your child speak the day he was born? English? Japanese?
Italian?” They’re about to say English when it dawns on them the child didn’t
speak any language yet.
“Wonderful!” I say. “There you were holding that newborn infant in your arms,
whispering, ‘We love you, Tess. Daddy and I think you are the most beautiful
baby in the world.’ You were speaking multisyllable words and complex sentences
in a foreign language to a child who didn’t understand
one word you were saying! And you never thought twice
about doing it.
But most people can’t imagine reading
to that same child. And that’s sad. If a child is old enough to talk to, she’s
old enough to read to. It’s the same language.”
Obviously, from birth to six months
of age we are concerned less with “understanding” than
with “conditioning” the child to your
voice and the sight of books. Dr.
T. Berry Brazelton,
when he was chief of the child development unit of
Boston Children’s Hospital Medical
Center, observed that new parents’ most critical task
during these early stages is learning how to calm the
child, how to bring it under control, so he or she can
begin to look around and listen when you pass on information. Much
the same task confronts the classroom teacher as she
faces a new class each September—gaining control.
Is “In Utero Learning” a Myth?
We’ve long known the human voice is one of the most powerful tools a parent has for calming a child. And what many previously suspected is now firmly established in research indicating that the voice’s influence starts even earlier than birth. University of North Carolina psychologist Anthony DeCasper and colleagues explored the effects of reading to children in utero, thinking that infants might be able to recognize something they had heard prenatally.
DeCasper asked thirty-three pregnant women to recite a specific paragraph of a children’s story three times a day for the last six weeks of pregnancy. Three different paragraphs were used among the thirty- three women, but each woman used just one passage for the entire recitation period. Fifty-two hours after birth, the newborns were given an artificial nipple and earphones through which they could hear a woman (not the mother) reciting all three paragraphs. By measuring each child’s sucking rate, researchers concluded the infants preferred the passages their mothers had recited during the third trimester.
“The babies’ reactions to the stories had been influenced by earlier exposure,” DeCasper concluded. “That constitutes learning in a very general way.” In a similar experiment involving reading to fetuses during the two and a half months before birth, DeCasper found the child’s heartbeat increased with a new story and decreased with a familiar one.
Researchers recently examined a thousand recorded cries from thirty French newborns and thirty German newborns. French and German languages have very distinct patterns of intonation, quite different from each other. And what did all the cries demonstrate? The babies cried in the melodic “accents” of their parents, mimicking the patterns they had been listening to during the last trimester in the womb.
All of these experiments establish that a child becomes familiar with certain sounds while in utero and associates them with comfort and security. The baby is being conditioned—his first class in learning. Not only should this encourage us to read to the fetus during that last trimester, but imagine how much more can be accomplished when a newborn can see and touch the book, understand the words, and feel the reader.