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Reading Matters

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In the last Newsletter, I suggested that ability to read is basic to survival in modern society.  Reading enables learning.  Children who read also learn better, learn faster, learn more.  Those who fail to read, and those who fail to read efficiently, suffer.

Research in reading has isolated four factors which increase the likelihood of a child becoming a lifelong reader.  If a child is deprived of any of these elements, reading and learning become harder.  The child could be disadvantaged.  In the coming months, I'll be looking at each of these four elements in turn.  This month, I look at the importance of hearing stories and other pieces read aloud, from infancy through to and beyond school.

Jim Trelease certainly believes in the research.  "A large part of the educational research and practice of the last twenty years confirms conclusively that the best way to raise a reader is to read to that child - in the home and in the classroom.  This simple, uncomplicated  fifteen-minute-a-day exercise is not only one of the greatest intellectual (and emotional) gifts you can give a child, it is also the cheapest way to ensure the longevity of a culture."

Bernice Cullinan points to the two extremes in a British long-term case study.  There was Rosie, who was never read to before school, and there was Jonathan, who had more than 5000 stories read to him before ever starting school.  Rosie never rose from the bottom of her grade level, Jonathan was always top.   "Six years of schooling could not erase the differences shaped during those early formative years."

There is clear evidence that children who start school with a concept of books and of reading have a head-start over those who don't.  It is still possible for the others to catch up - but they do have further to go.  Kupetz says, "Children don't just come to first grade and suddenly learn to read.  There is a great deal of activity that must occur prior to formal schooling in order for children to become good readers."

Launching a Babies into Books project, aimed at under-fours, Vivienne Creevey declared: "It's dangerous to leave exposure to books too late.  Research shows that by the age of four, 50 per cent of a person's final intelligence has developed, and that young children acquire a vocabulary at breakneck speed."  Creevey warned,  "Children deprived of contact with quality books are at a disadvantage when starting school...  The physical closeness of reading to a child is beneficial, and early exposure to books helps build up sound patterns" (Hofkins).

Such considerations are confirmed, yet again, in two more recent studies.  In an American study (cited by Barlow), the Herbs found a relationship between how much children have been read to and how well they will read;  and yes, they also found that active reading with the child, talking about the story and the pictures, really does influence future literacy development.

Meanwhile, children in the ongoing Bookstart study in Birmingham have now started primary school.  The latest findings show that children in the reading group are speaking and listening and reading and writing better than the children in the non-reading control group, are already surging ahead in maths and other school subjects (Ghouri).

You can't start too early.  Elaine Moss began reading to her daughter two days after she was born.  Cullinan describes her granddaughter as being "bathed in books".  What a delightful, evocative image.  You can see the infant surrounded by books, read to at bathtime and bedtime.  Books are forever associated with warmth and security and love.

Cullinan again (but a different child):  "Recently, Aunt Maura invited Lucy over to spend the night.  When her mother said it was all right, Lucy ran to her room to pack her suitcase. When her mother checked the suitcase, she found seven books in it, nothing else.  She said to Lucy, 'Where are your clothes?'  Lucy replied, 'Oh, I forgot.'"  Here's a child with her priorities right, a lifelong reader in the making.

Note though that parents are advised NOT to try themselves to teach their children to read.  Children exposed to books and reading will begin to learn about pages and words, letters and sounds.  But trying to teach your child to read before s/he is ready, or when you don't know what you're doing, can be harmful.  The over-anxious parent can send the wrong signals.  Leave it to the teachers and the reading specialists.

When should reading aloud stop?  The quick answer is, it shouldn't!  Until a generation ago, we were a listening society.  Many cultures retain this trait.  We used to entertain friends and family, read stories aloud, read the Bible aloud, listen to poets and storytellers, listen to the radio.  To an extent, we have let television kill the read-aloud tradition.  It would be to our advantage to restore it.

Gatheral notes studies in which children who were read to six times a day made significant jumps in vocabulary and reading comprehension over children who were read to less often.  Suggesting that read-alouds include stories, poems, newspaper and magazine articles, song lyrics, famous quotations, evocative passages and even whole books, she recommends that all children, grades 1 to 12, should be read to at least four times a day, and preferably 6 to 8 times a day.  "Read-aloud time might last only a few seconds, or it might fill an hour.  The point is, reading aloud should be done, and done often."  And even at the college level, students read more and read better books when they are read to.

If you are looking for more reasons for reading aloud, try these:

And this last aspect will provide a neat link to my next article, Lifelong Reading Element #2: Reading Alone.

The views expressed here are my own.
They are not neccessarily the views of the school, nor of individual teachers within the school.

Sources include:

Barlow, Cara.  Ooooh baby, what a brain!  School Library Journal, July 1997, 20-23.

Becoming a nation of readers : the report of the commission on reading.  Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education, 1985.

Cullinan, Bernice E.  Read to me: raising kids who want to read.  New York.  Scholastic, 1992.

Gatheral, Maryann.  Reading aloud to kids in all grades is a must. Learning, November 1981.  34-37.

Ghouri, Nadene.  Books help babies to read - and count.  The Times Educational Supplement, 21 November 1997, 1.

Hofkins, Diane.  Books drive for under-4s.  The Times Educational Supplement, 22 April 1994, 11.

Krashen, Stephen.  The power of reading : insights from the research.  Englewood, Colorado.  Libraries Unlimited, 1993.

Kupetz, Barbara N.  A shared responsibility : nurturing literacy in the very young.  School Library Journal, July 1993, 28-31.

Office of Educational Research and Improvement.  Beginning to read: thinking and learning about print - a summary.

Puskas, Rebecca.  Parents who read help their children succeed. The School Librarians' Workshop, June 1992, p.9.

Spink, John.  Children as readers : a study.  London. Bingley/ Library Association, 1989.

Trelease, Jim.  The read-aloud handbook.  Harmondsworth.  Penguin, 1984.

Written and copyright John Royce 1995.
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John Royce, BA, MLib, ALA
Library Director, Robert College
Arnavutköy, TR-80820 Istanbul, Turkey.

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It was last revised on 5 January 2001.