Child Development

It Starts with Reading Aloud

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I read The Read-Aloud Handbook (Seventh Edition) by Jim Trelease, in preparation for a children’s picture book reading we are planning to do at the art gallery I work with. Many points in the book and website resonated with me and validated my viewpoints on reading and reading aloud to children.

Being at home with my children during this Movement Control Order period made me glad that I read aloud to my children when they were really young. Now, my son can sit still for a couple of hours each day buried in a book. Even my daughter, a child with Down syndrome, is starting to read some simple books independently (studies have shown how they benefit from being read to from an early age).

Making reading part of our daily routine

I started reading a selection of simple board books to my now 7-year old twins just before they turned 1. Even though much of their daily routine has changed since they now go to big school, our bedtime reading session remains a mainstay of our day and something we always look forward to.

Like Trelease, I started reading to my children for one reason: “because my parents had read to me and it made me feel so good I never forgot it and wanted my children to taste it too.” I have fond memories of going with my dad to the leading bookstore in Johor Bahru town (the Central Store). I would pick out a book reward for working hard. I would also make weekly visits with my mum to the state library to borrow three books.

School time reader vs lifetime reader

Being a big reader myself, I am not a parent who needs a lot of proof points on the benefits of reading. However, Trelease has put together a really persuasive case for those parents that do need convincing. He points out, “We must take care that children’s early encounters with reading are painless enough so they will cheerfully return to the experience now and forever. But if it’s repeatedly painful, we will end up creating a school-time reader instead of a lifetime reader.”

“Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain. You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure,” Trelease adds. This is especially critical today when competition is rife for a child’s attention. Between television, the Internet and electronic gadgets as well as a host of enrichment classes, the pleasures of sitting down with a book are often overlooked.

It is not just the schools’ job

If you think “this reading stuff is the school’s job,” consider some simple arithmetic based on U.S. studies that are also applicable to our own Malaysian experience: “The child spends 900 hours a year in school and 7,800 outside school. Who has a bigger influence? Where is more time available for change?” Much research shows that the seeds of reading and school success (or failure) are sown in the home, long before the child even starts school.

Trelease emphasises, “Students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much cannot get better at it.” According to the landmark Becoming a Nation of Readers report funded by the U.S. Department of Education, “Reading aloud is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”

Words are the primary structure for learning

How can something as simple as reading to a child be so effective? As lumber is the primary support for building a house, words are the primary structure for learning. Trelease says that “there are only two efficient ways to get words into a person’s brain: either by seeing them or hearing them. Since it will be years before an infant uses his or her eyes for actual reading, the best source for vocabulary and brain building becomes the ear. What we send into the ear becomes the foundation for the child’s “brain house.” Those meaningful sounds in the ear now will help the child make sense of the words coming in through the eye later when learning to read.”

The handbook uses an analogy to explain the child’s vocabulary progression. Inside a child’s brain there is a large reservoir called the Listening Vocabulary. If you pour enough words into the child’s Listening Vocabulary, it will overflow into the Speaking Vocabulary pool – the child will then start speaking words he has heard. Then there is the Reading Vocabulary pool – the child will understand a word in print if they have said it before. Finally, there is the Writing Vocabulary pool – the child will only be able to write the word if he has said or read it before. All language therefore flows from the Listening Vocabulary – and this “reservoir” has to be filled by someone besides the child.

Expanding your child’s vocabulary

As you read aloud to a child, you are “pouring into the child’s ears (and brain) all the sounds, syllables, endings, and blendings that will make up the words she will someday be asked to read and understand. And through stories you are filling in the background knowledge necessary to understand things that are not in her neighbourhood or immediate world – like war or whales or trains. “A child’s vocabulary is the most important prekindergarten skill as it is the prime predictor of school success or failure.” Even though the child goes to school to learn new words, the words he already knows will determine how much of what the teacher says will be understood.

Vocabulary also grows through conversation. However, reading aloud still trumps conversation. Most conversation consists of five thousand words we use all the time called the Basic Lexicon, and another five thousand words we use less often. Together, these ten thousand words are called the Common Lexicon. Beyond this ten thousand mark are the “rare words.” Our vocabulary’s strength is determined not by the ten thousand common words but by how many rare words we understand. Printed text has the most rare words. Furthermore, reading aloud helps children with grammar as “grammar is more caught than taught.” You catch it the same way you catch the flu: you are exposed to it. By hearing language spoken correctly, you begin to imitate the pattern – both in what you say and what you write.

It doesn’t hurt the wallet

Reading and reading aloud to children doesn’t need to be expensive and energy-sapping. Trelease shares many reading success stories relating to real life working class families. All you need is a book – free, if you have a public library card or obtainable at a small cost, if you purchase from BookExcess or MeBooksAsia, bookstores that have both physical and online shopfronts. There are also online pre-loved bookshops like Yazminz Preloved Children’s Books and My Children’s Bookshop. You need to spend as little as 10 to 15 minutes of quality time daily with your child. It is not necessary to send your kids for reading enrichment programmes. Try tutoring them yourself. Simply spend those few minutes a day listening, reading and simply being enthusiastic about the stories your kids tell you. The sacrifices to read aloud are small, but the benefits are many.

Trelease offers some excellent tips, the ones I especially like are:

  • Begin reading to children as soon as possible. The younger you start, the easier and better it is.
  • Use Mother Goose rhymes and songs to stimulate an infant’s language and listening. Begin with simple black-and-white illustrations, and then boldly coloured picture books to arouse children’s curiosity and visual sense.
  • With infants through toddlers, it is critically important to include in your readings those books that contain repetitions; as they mature, add predictable and rhyming books.
  • During repeat readings of a predictable book, occasionally stop at one of the keywords or phrases and allow the listener to provide the word.
  • Read as often as you and the child have time for.
  • Set aside at least one consistent time each day for a story.
  • Start with picture books with only a few sentences on the page. Gradually move to books with more and more text and fewer pictures, and build to chapter books and novels.
  • To encourage involvement, invite the child to turn pages for you when it is time.
  • The first time you read a book, discuss the illustration on the cover. Ask, “What do you think this is going to be about?”
  • As you read, keep listeners involved by occasionally asking, “What do you think is going to happen next?”
  • Allow time for discussion after reading a story. A book arouses thoughts, hopes, fears, and discoveries. Allow them to surface.
The author with her twins

Though I am heartened by community projects like Buku Jalanan Chow Kit that promote reading to children with less access to books and exposure to reading role models, I am also frustrated at why something so simple yet significant is not championed on a national level, especially since the Education Ministry has declared 2020 to 2030 as the National Reading Decade, and Kuala Lumpur was named the UNESCO World Book Capital for the year 2020.

Maybe, like what Trelease recommends, we need a real “in-your-face” national reading awareness campaign. One that is more like a fierce crusade, not with polite little promotional posters. A big fat campaign similar to those that wage war against smoking that informs, frightens and shames people into changing their habits.

Li-Hsian left a career in corporate communications to become a full-time mum to twins. She is learning new things daily as she tries to balance the romance of motherhood with the messy realities of her latest role. She is also currently the co-facilitator of the Art Discovery Tours for Kids and coordinator of children's programmes at the ILHAM Gallery in KL.