Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rereading and Reviewing The Read-Aloud Handbook - Chapter 2: When to Begin (and End) Read-Aloud

The short answers to the questions posed in the chapter title of chapter two of The Read-Aloud Handbook "When to Begin (and End) Read Aloud?" are (a) start reading aloud at birth, or maybe even as early as the third trimester of pregnancy, and (b) stop reading aloud when they graduate from high school, or maybe later. Of course, the real answers are longer than that, and the whys are important, but the gist of this chapter is that you should begin showering your child with words, rhymes, rhythms and book knowledge as early as possible and keep it up as long as possible.

Now, before I continue, I must lament that Trelease has said that the sixth edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook will be his last, because there's a recent news story that just screams to be included in this chapter: "Father and Daughter Bond by Years of Reading," New York Times, March 21, 2010, p ST2.

You can also watch the above CBS News clip about Jim and Kristen Brozina, but the gist of it is that this guy read to his younger daughter for 3,218 nights straight, until "Kristen's first day of college, and it was time. Her dorm room was so crowded with boxes, he read to her in a stairwell. The Streak ended as it began, with L. Frank Baum, the first chapter of his most famous 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.' 'It was hard,' Kristen said. 'Not only was I moving away, but we were ending this thousands-of-times tradition. There's nothing I’ve ever done with that consistency, not even brushing my teeth.' "

Sniffle. Now, OK, back to our text:

BEGINNING: Trelease points out that you start talking to your kid immediately upon their arrival in the world, exposing them to spoken English, there's no reason you can't start reading to them immediately as well, contingent upon your wakefulness in those early days and the kiddo's attention span. Yes, it's just another way to do togetherness in the early months, but practice makes perfect. Start early and it's easy to continue. He even points to researching showing that newborns appear to recognize passages read aloud by their mothers repeatedly during the third trimester of pregnancy. They will absorb patterns and sounds at this early stage, so get going on that Goodnight Moon!

LEARNING TO READ BY LISTENING: Early exposure to books can result in kids being what are called "early fluent readers." Trelease doesn't recommend any kind of seatwork or formal instruction, but rather "the way Scout learned [to read] in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird--by sitting on the lap of a parent and listening, 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 a page." He notes that "listening comprehension feeds reading comprehension," stating that children can hear/listen/understand at a far far higher level than they can read, and reading aloud from a higher-level books builds their vocabularies further still. And then he makes one of my favorite points in the whole book: "If you're still reading those Dr. Seuss controlled-vocabulary books to the child [at age six]--like The Cat in the Hat or Hop on Pop--you're insulting the child's brain cells nightly...With either book, you have a volume of 225 words and a six-year-old has a 6,000-word vocabulary...At age six you're a beginning reader...but you're not a beginning listener!"

ERIN HASSETT: Trelease encourages "reading from day one" throughout this chapter, at one point telling the story of a teacher friend of his who began teaching preschoolers after having long taught junior high kids. On her first day she was surprised and disappointed when she tried to read-aloud to the kids and within two minutes half of them had drifted off to other parts of the classroom. "Ellie later learned that one of the two children who had listened through the entire story was a child who had been read to from day one." The kids who had already been read-aloud to at home knew how to listen, wanted to listen and had the ability to listen. Trelease's other anecdote in favor of reading aloud to children from infancy through toddlerhood, preschool and beyond is this great kid named Erin Hassett. Her mother was an experienced teacher when she had Erin, and she put all her teacherly mojo into her daughter as she raised her, and most importantly for this book, took notes on the process. Erin Hassett's story, as told via her mom Linda's notes, is the number one reason I started reading to Jackson as soon as I brought him home from the hospital. I constantly refine my technique to be age appropriate, but I'm adamant about making sure there is at least one book and hopefully many books in Jackson's day, every day. ANYWAY, Erin's mom did stuff far above and beyond a mortal mom's capacity. Here's what she shared about her basic read-aloud agenda for Erin:

* 0-4 months: Soft chunky books, board books, and firmer-paged, lift-the-flap books
* 4-8 months: Poems, songs and pop-up books while Erin was in her jumper, plus the sturdy books and magazines
* 10-15 months: Mom starts doing storybook readalouds to Erin in her high-chair. "A note in my journal for Feb. 4, 1990, reads: '9 books after breakfast, 10 books and 4 poems after lunch, 7 books after dinner.'" That's 26 books in just one day, and per Trelease, "This was not an unusual day's reading."

And then, writes Erin's mom: "Shortly after our move to Pennsylvania, I was reading her The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle--as I had been doing for the last six months. This time, during the reading of the second sentence ("One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and--pop!--out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar"), while I was still forming my mouth to say "pop," Erin said the word "pop!" and with perfect inflection. She was 17 months old that day and it was the start of her inserting words into familiar stories. What an addition to an already pleasant experience."

It goes on like this, and it's a fabulous narrative. (Erin's mom needs a retroactive blog!) Suffice to say, Erin taught herself to read without really telling anyone (although she did reveal herself a bit by reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud to Head Start preschoolers when she was six), was a success her whole academic career and lived happily ever after. Erin's story is one of my favorite anecdotes in the book and entirely worthy of the four pages devoted to it. I'd be interested to hear other such anecdotes and/or know if there are any studies attempting to pinpoint which aspect of the "day one reading" might be most powerful. Is it just the enthusiastic parenting? How does the early exposure to books and words affect the developing brain? Or is this just a one-off coincidence? (I'm sure it's not, but I'd be interested to see these questions examined in a controlled setting.)

LEARNING TO BE A HUMAN BY LISTENING: Much of this chapter is dedicated to battling education-system apparatchiks and uptight parents worried about how "wasting time" reading aloud might have a negative effect on reading scores (which is their right, of course, but oh my god, shut up), but Trelease ends on this heroic note, defending the power of reading to make good people out of us all.

"So how do we educate the heart? There are really only two ways: life experience and stories about life experience, which is called literature." Preach, brother.

Up next: Chapter Three: The Stages of Read Aloud, wherein Trelease explores the finer points of reading aloud to children of various ages.

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