a brief excerpt from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
See also Handbook
Chapter 3: The stages of read-aloud
Which books are best for infants?
Your book selections for the first year should be ones that stimulate your child’s sight and hearing— colorful pictures and exciting sounds upon which the child can focus easily. One of the reasons for Mother Goose’s success is that she echoes the first sound a child falls in love with— the rhythmic, rhyming beat- beat- beat of a mother’s heart.
Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss not only rhyme in name and text; they also must have sensed what researchers would later prove. According to learning specialists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, the ability to find words that rhyme appears to be an important one in children. Indeed, kindergartners who struggle to find words that rhyme with cat are prime candidates for later reading problems. Moreover, considering the many rhyming chants found in children’s games (such as jump- rope rhymes) and popular children’s books like Seuss’s The Foot Book and Mem Fox’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, it’s obvious that children find pleasure in words that rhyme. But why? Researchers say it is for the same reason adults subconsciously enjoy looking at stripes and plaids or listening to musical harmony— they help to arrange a chaotic world.
The early months should build happy bridges to books. With that in mind, a prime recommendation is that parents frequently read aloud books and stories that rhyme. You can find a list of such titles on page 187 of the print and e-book editions of this book.
The impact of rhyme can be traced as early as the womb. For one study, women in the last trimester of pregnancy repeatedly read aloud Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat; then, fifty- two hours after birth, monitored infants were able to distinguish Seuss’s rhyming verse from a book without rhymes.
We don’t turn to Mother Goose for the plot. We turn to her because she takes all those sounds, syllables, endings, and blendings and mixes them in with the rhythm and rhyme of language for us to feed to a child who already takes delight in rocking back and forth in his crib, repeating a single syllable over and over: “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba . . .”
There are many collections of Mother Goose, but my two present favorites are The Neighborhood Mother Goose by Nina Crews and Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose. If you’re musically inclined, Crews has a marvelous collection of favorite childhood singsongs (like “Wheels on the Bus”) from the classroom, bedroom, and playground in The Neighborhood Sing-Along, including colorful photos of children playing. Fitting right in with these books is the aforementioned Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, also available as a board book.
Why do they want the same book over and over? And what's with all the questions?
Just as you didn’t learn the names of everyone in your neighborhood or parish overnight, children also need repeated readings in order to learn.
Thus, although reading a different book every day may keep the adult from being bored, it prevents the child from getting the reinforcement he needs for learning. Prior to age two, repeated readings of fewer books are better than a huge collection read infrequently. Those of us who have seen a movie more than once fully realize how many subtleties escaped us the first time. This is even more the case with children and books. Because they’re learning a complex language at the adult’s speaking pace, there often are misunderstandings that can be sorted out only through repeated readings.
I fondly recall the New York City teacher who told me that as a child he called The Night Before Christmas “the book about the man who got sick.” Why? Until his grandmother finally explained it to him, he had misunderstood the phrase “Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.”
Parents sometimes are irritated by a child’s incessant questions: “My child interrupts the book so often for questions, it ruins the story.” First, you need to define the kinds of questions. Are they silly? Are they the result of curiosity or extraneous to the story? Is the child sincerely trying to learn something or just postponing bedtime? You can solve the latter problem if you make a regular habit of talking about the story when you finish instead of simply closing the book, kissing the child good night, and turning off the light.
In the case of intelligent questions, try to respond immediately if the child’s question involves background knowledge (“Why did Mr. MacGregor put Peter’s father in a pie, Mom? Why couldn’t he just hop out?”), and thus help the child better understand the story. Extraneous questions can be handled by saying, “Good question! Let’s come back to that when we’re done.” And be sure to live up to that promise. Ultimately, one must acknowledge that questions are a child’s primary learning tool. Don’t destroy natural curiosity by ignoring it.
As boring as repeated readings may be for the adult, they can accomplish very important things within a child. To begin with, he will learn language by hearing it over and over— this is called immersion. Hearing the same story over and over is definitely a part of that immersion process.
For as long as possible, your read- aloud efforts should be balanced by outside experiences. Barring cases of bedridden children, it is not enough simply to read to the child. The background knowledge I noted earlier applies to life experience as well. The words in the book are just the beginning.
What you as a parent or teacher do after the reading can turn a mini- lesson into a sizable learning experience. For example, Corduroy by Don Freeman is a much- loved children’s book about a little girl and a department store teddy bear. The story alone is heartwarming, but the name Corduroy could also be used as a springboard to a discussion and comparison of other common fabrics like denim, wool, cotton, canvas, and felt. And it works in reverse as well: When you find a caterpillar outside, read Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar inside the house or classroom.