Jim Trelease Talk: Quick Highlights
The 10th Carnival of Children's Literature

Jim Trelease Talk: My Notes

As I mentioned on Wednesday, Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, spoke Tuesday night at the Santa Clara City Library. I had the opportunity to help host the event (on behalf of the Foundation and Friends of the Library, with thanks to National Semiconductor for their sponsorship), and to talk with the speaker before the presentation.

Here are my detailed notes from the presentation. You can doubtless find most of this in The Read-Aloud Handbook, but it was nice to hear it as a talk, and learn what the author thinks are the most important highlights (at least for a suburban parent and teacher audience). Of course these notes are further filtered by what I thought was important, and what I wrote down, and what I write here cannot be taken as Jim's official opinions.

  • Literacy score charts by family income level show that kids from lower income families start out at a disadvantage. However, the low income kids who read a lot are able to do some catching up with the more privileged kids over time. The kids who end up doing best in school, in both math and English, are the kids who read the most. This is because of Trelease Fact #1: Reading is an accrued skill, and the more you do, the better you get at it. This is why, as a parent, you want your kids to be readers.
  • Trelease Fact #2: People will only do things over and over again that they enjoy. Jim talked of "building pleasure bridges" between your child and reading, and showed a quote from a 1985 study by literacy experts that concluded that reading aloud is the "single most important activity" that parents can undertake. He also said that if a child has never seen anyone read for fun, the chance of that child reading for fun is "slim to none." By reading aloud to your kids, you give them the pleasure of your attention, and you model for them every day that you think reading is enjoyable and important.
  • Jim talked quite a bit about a study called Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. There is a 300 page report that was published in 1995, but you can also find a nice (free) synopsis here, written by the authors, published in American Educator. The authors (quotes are from the article) spent "2 1/2 years of observing 42 families for an hour each month to learn about what typically went on in homes with 1- and 2-year-old children learning to talk." They extrapolated from the resulting data, and estimated that "in four years ... an average child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family would have accumulated experience with 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated experience with 13 million words." The challenge that the school systems have is in catching up the lower income children on this vast 30 million word deficit.
  • Jim expressed his opinion that it's a much bigger problem than the school systems can or should have to handle, especially given the size of the deficit in words once the kids start school. He also discussed globalization, and the fact that American kids are going to have to compete not just with other American kids but with kids from all over the world. He suggested that we need some sort of national campaign to inform people all over the country of the importance of exposing their kids to more words every day, and encouraging them to enjoy reading. He gave an analogy to the campaign that was used to successfully cut the incidence of smoking in this country by 50% over 40 years, a combination of informing people, scaring people, and insulting people, and thinks that we need to try something similar in American homes re: reading.
  • He acknowledged the fact that it's hard for parents who themselves don't have those words to pass them along to their kids, especially if they can't afford books, or can't read. He made a big plug for visiting your local library, and also suggested books on tape for parents who have trouble reading themselves. But he's not letting these parents off the hook. He stressed that books are a value system, and that you tell kids that reading is important by doing it, no matter who you are. He was very blunt about the fact that we can't spare parents' feelings in this area, because what we really should be worrying about is the success of the children, not the feelings of the parents.
  • He emphasized giving kids books purely for pleasure, especially as kids get older and have more homework. Because kids have to study a lot of books, it's very important to give them "fun stuff" to balance that out.
  • Jim also strongly emphasized the need to keep reading aloud to kids, even after they are already able to read on their own. This continues to tell kids that you think that reading, and the kids themselves, are important. More important to you than watching your favorite TV shows, for example. He recommended reading aloud to pre-teens and teens while they do chores, like the dishes, because it can be difficult to find other read-aloud time with them. He had a picture of himself doing this with his son many years ago, to prove that he speaks from experience.
  • In reading aloud to six and seven year olds, he cautioned parents not to insult their children by reading aloud from simple picture books that the kids could read themselves. Kids have a much higher listening vocabulary than listening vocabulary, and so parents should read them more advanced books. You might have to work up to the more advanced books gradually, as the child's attention level increases, but he thought that four and five year olds could handle, in small doses, chapter books like Stuart Little, The Cricket in Times Square, and Mr. Popper's Penguins. He said that by reading good books aloud to your kids you can "stretch their attention spans without danger of stress fractures."
  • While he strongly supports libraries, Jim recommended buying books for kids, too. He pointed out that books are inexpensive when compared to the cable bill, dinner out, etc. He also pointed out that used books, funnily enough, have the same words in them that the new books do. He said that if you can only afford to buy one book for your child, you should get Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends. (I would agree with this, based on my niece's reaction to this book.)
  • He advocated getting kids the three B's: books, book baskets, and a bed lamp. Book baskets are collections of books that you put in places where the child spends time, like the bathroom, near the kitchen table, and in the car. Bed lamps are so that the child can read in bed comfortably, thus again associating books with comfort and pleasure.
  • Jim's final point was about television. He attributes much of the relative decline of boys' school performance since the 1970s on the prevalence of televised sports (ESPN, etc.). While he acknowledged that there are some positive shows on television, overall he thinks that TV "eats time voraciously." If you want your kids to read, you have to control the amount of television that they watch. He showed results from a study that found that kids who don't have TVs in their bedrooms have higher reading and math scores than kids who do. And in a final, interesting suggestion, he said that if you are going to let your kids watch TV, you should turn on the closed captioning. Finnish television for kids is mostly closed captioned (because the shows are imported), and despite not learning to read until the age of seven, Finnish kids have very high reading scores. By turning on the closed captioning, you end up with the equivalent of with much more printed material in the home.
  • Jim concluded with a few book recommendations: Nina Crews' Mother Goose books, which feature children of different races; Pio Peeps, nursery rhymes in Spanish; The Day the Babies Crawled Away, about naughty children; Uncle John's Bathroom Reader for Kids Only, to entertain any 12-year-old boy; My Father's Dragon; the Junie B. Jones books (in spite of people's complaints about her grammar); James and the Giant Peach; and Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest series (perfect for kids who like fantasy, and aren't quite ready for Harry Potter).

I hope that you find some of this to be food for thought. But really, these are just the highlights. If you're interested in this information (and you must be, if you've read this far), I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy of The Read-Aloud Handbook. The sixth edition was just published in July of 2006. And if you ever have a chance to see Jim Trelease in person, seize it. 2007 will be his last year of lecturing full-time before scaling back for retirement. As I said on Wednesday, he is a great speaker: dynamic, passionate about his topic, and witty. And I believe that what he has to say is truly important.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.