With just a few pleasant minutes a day, you can give

 your son or daughter a priceless head start in life

by: David M. Schwarts


J IM TRELEASE HAS DEVOTED THE PAST 16 YEARS to promoting what he considers the best-kept secret in education today. “Most people don’t believe me when they first hear it,” he says. “They dismiss it for three reasons: One, it’s simple. Two, it’s free. Three, the child enjoys it. So how good can it be?”

His audience tonight, mostly young parents and teachers gathered in the St. Helena, California, elementary-school auditorium, giggles nervously. “I know what you’re thinking,” Trelease says. “There are only 24 hours in a day. It’s true. But who ever told you that parenting was going to be a time-saving activity?” Trelease continues to persuade them that no matter how busy they are, the foremost nurturing they can give a child, next to hugging him, is reading aloud to him.

He backs up his pitch with facts.

Numerous studies, including recent reports by The Center for the Study of Reading and the National Council of Teachers of English, confirm that reading to children builds vocabulary, stimulates imagination, stretches the attention span, nourishes emotional development, and introduces the textures and nuances of the English language. Reading aloud is, in essence, an advertisement for learning to read.

Trelease laments that elementary-school students are too often conditioned to associate reading with work. “We have concentrated so hard on teaching children how to read that we have forgotten to teach them to want to read,” he says. His audience is surprised to hear that only 22 percent of eighth-graders read for fun daily, while 65 percent watch three hours or more of television each day. Research also indicates that average reading proficiency drops when TV viewing reaches about three hours a day. Their parents’ habits are no better: a recent survey shows a decline in newspaper readership among U.S. adults.

Lest there be any doubt about the stakes involved, Trelease makes a bold claim. Reading, he says, is the single most important social factor in American life today. “The more you read, the smarter you grow. The smarter you grow, the longer you stay in school. The longer you stay in school, the more money you earn. The more you earn, the better your children will do in school. So if you hook a child with reading, you influence not only his future but also that of the next generation.”

Trelease found his calling not because it spoke to his intellect, but because it nurtured his emotions. When his two children, Elizabeth and Jamie, were young, Trelease and his wife, Susan, fed them as many books as meals. “I read to my kids because my father had read to me, he says. “I just wanted them to have the good feelings I had had.” When he was growing up in the 1940s in Union, N.J., the Depression was still a fresh memory. “We didn’t own a car until I was in fifth grade or a house until I was in seventh,” Trelease recalls. “But for as long as I can remember, we subscribed to several magazines and two daily newspapers.” He remembers scarcely a day of childhood when his father didn’t read to him.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Trelease went to work as a newspaper reporter in nearby Springfield. Then in 1967 a fourth-grade teacher invited him to talk to her class about his career. He had so much fun that he was soon making 40 unpaid local school visits a year. On his way out the door of one classroom, he spotted a novel he had just read to his daughter. “Who’s reading this?” he asked. Three girls sheepishly raised their hands. “Don’t you just love it?” he said. And for the next 45 minutes he and the kids talked about books. “From then on I always saved time to ask the class what they had read lately,” Trelease says. ‘And with time I began to see that the kids were reading less and less, except where the teachers read aloud to them. I wondered whether there was a connection between how much you read to children and how much they want to read them-selves.”

In professional reading journals Trelease found a wealth of research to support his hunch. Talking to neighbors, relatives and colleagues, he realized that to most people reading aloud was something you did when your child wouldn’t go to sleep. Perhaps that was because these parents were rarely read to as children. “It is the child’s listening vocabulary that feeds his reading vocabulary,” Trelease says. To illustrate, he reads the opening paragraph of Ronald Dahl ‘s The Enormous Crocodile. “‘Two crocodiles lay with their heads just above the water. One was enormous. The other was not so big.’ Now let’s suppose a child does not know the word enormous. Which is going to be more effective: hearing it in the context of a story, or seeing it isolated from meaning on a flash-card? Remember, if a child has never heard the word, he’ll never say it. And if he’s never heard it or said it, it’s going to be difficult when the time comes to read it.”

Trelease advocates reading aloud to children as soon as possible. “When did you start talking to your child? On the day she was born. If a child is old enough to talk to, the child is old enough to read to.” Case histories bear him out. Upon the birth of their daughter, Marcia and Mark Thomas received a copy of Trelease’s best-seller, The Read-Aloud Handbook. They had a special reason for wanting to promote Jennifer’s intellectual development: she was born with Down syndrome. “We figured it couldn’t hurt,” says Marcia, “so we put her on a diet of ten books a day.” When Jennifer required surgery as an infant, her parents left books on tape for the nurses to play. By age five Jennifer was reading on her own.

Now a ten-year-old in a regular fourth-grade class in Concord, Mass., Jennifer Thomas is a voracious reader with a vocabulary one of her teachers describes as “phenomenal.” Trelease is gratified that other people are also working to multiply his efforts. Mary Kay Bond of Charleston, W Va., first heard about the “read aloud guy” in the early 1980s. A new mother, she already had the habit of reading newsmagazines to her three-month-old, despite the mirth it provoked in her family.

Later Bond and nine other mothers from her son’s preschool decided to develop a program based on Trelease’s message. They organized volunteers to read in schools and to speak to expectant parents at prenatal classes. They found grant money for a book-distribution program so that every child born in Kanawha County would get at least one book as a “birth” gift. In 1992 the program, named “Read Aloud, West Virginia,” expanded throughout the state.

When Lynne Waihee, wife of Hawaii’s former governor, heard Jim Trelease speak, she was inspired. She soon persuaded Rotary Clubs, libraries, schools and several corporations in her state to develop the “Read to Me” campaign. Its goal: to see that every child in Hawaii is read to for at least ten minutes every day. “For years our literacy program had targeted the adult population,” Waihee says, “but we realized that if we could focus attention on raising a literate population instead of fixing up an illiterate one, our chance of success would be much greater.  “Read to Me” promotes its message through advertisements, including radio and TV spots. In addition, every elementary school and library in Hawaii has received a bibliography of recommended children’s books and a ten-minute videotape on the whys and hows of reading aloud. Hawaii’s enormously popular program has been adopted in Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska and Texas. Several other states are also planning to launch it. On the national level several trade organizations have recently begun a similar campaign called “The Most Important 20 Minutes of Your Day.”

Meanwhile, Trelease goes on planting the seeds of reading. He is walking about the auditorium in St. Helena now, gesturing to nobody in particular. “You, sir, had time to watch your favorite ball team yesterday. You, ma’am, had time to go to the mall. You had time to run to the corner store to play that lottery ticket, get cigarettes, rent a video. You had time to chase dust balls under the couch. But you didn’t have time to read to your child? I can tell you this unequivocally: 20 years from now the dust balls will still be under the couch, but your little boy or girl will no longer be your little boy or girl.” The message takes. Two hours after he began, a hundred people go home to sleeping children. And tomorrow, for reasons they will not understand, a lot of kids will hear their parents read to them, perhaps  for the first time in years.



The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

Pleasantville, N.Y. 10570

Copyright @ July, 1995. Vol. 147,

No. 879, (pgs. 163-168)

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