Updated on 09.23.07

Review: The Read-Aloud Handbook

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

SimplicityI can imagine the question already: why on earth would he include a book about reading aloud to children on a list of personal productivity and development books? I have two big reasons.

First, and this is the big one, The Read-Aloud Handbook is the single most powerful book any caregiver or parent of a young child can read. I read piles of books on parenting, but the most powerful time I spend with my children is when they’re on my lap, I’m reading to them, and I’m engaging them. I connect deeply with my son in this way, and I’m already laying the groundwork for such connections with my daughter. The big reason for the deep connection is this book – I’ve read it several times.

Second, and this may be the surprising one, the techniques described in The Read-Aloud Handbook apply to any profession where you present information to others. This is a book about connecting with your audience, about breaking down ideas to simple and palatable nuggets, and about how to maintain attention when it may easily wander. That’s what good public speakers do. I didn’t realize this until very recently, when I watched a very effective presentation and I suddenly realized that the presenter was using the exact same techniques I use when reading to my children.

Add those two together and this book can be quite valuable to a lot of people. It has certainly provided great value to me over the last year of my life or so.

What’s inside those covers that makes this book so valuable? Let’s take a peek between the covers and find out.

Engaging The Read-Aloud Handbook

Before I start this review, I should mention that one of the primary bonding activities I do with my son is read to him. I read him somewhere between five and ten books on an average day. Not only do I believe this aids his intellectual growth, but it’s amazingly powerful bonding time – he sits on my lap, cuddles up, and carefully looks at the same pages I’m looking at. With that said, let’s dive in.

1. Why Read Aloud?
The Read-Aloud Handbook starts off with a compelling case in favor of reading aloud to children. The chapter makes an effort to stick to research, focusing on specific studies.

For example, there is a direct correlation between the number of words that a child hears spoken specifically to them in early life and their ability to succeed in school – the more words they hear, the better they do. When you read to your child, you’re participating in a conversation with your child. Obviously, the more practice a child gets in recognizing letters and associating them with sounds early in life, the stronger their reading skills will be throughout life. Also, reading aloud to a child early in life creates a stronger bond between parent and child that continues into adulthood.

The most interesting one? A strong vocabulary and a strong sense of how to construct and read a sentence is directly connected to a much lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease later in life, and by reading to a child in their first years, you are giving them this gift.

In a nutshell, sitting down for a regular read with your child helps them in grammar school with their studies, builds a bond that will last into adulthood with them, and causes them to have reduced chances of Alzheimer’s late in life. That’s a compelling story, and it’s backed up by studies.

2. When To Begin (And End) Read-Aloud
It’s never too early or too late to read aloud to your children.

For the newborn, it’s no different than speaking to the child (something all parents do), except it also acclimates the child to the concept of a book – “hey, look, there’s this rectangular thing that Mom holds up when she talks to me.” Even at this early age, you can establish a book as a normal part of life, which will encourage reading later on in life.

What about adolescents and teenagers? From experience, my mother still reads to me on occasion – she’ll read newspaper articles to me over the telephone and in person. And still, as an adult pushing thirty, the experience is valuable to me. The cadence of her voice is familiar and she’s usually talking about a topic that’s of interest to both of us. Thus, it’s never too old to read aloud to someone.

3. The Stages Of Read-Aloud
If your child is under a year, the best book to read is one that is rhythmic. Look for rhyming words and sentences that are of similar length. Also, don’t be worried if they don’t pay attention – the average attention span for a child at this age is three minutes.

If your child is a toddler (not an infant any more, but not school age), look for sturdy picture books with a simple narrative. I’ll mention some of these below because my toddler son is all about these kinds of books.

As your child approaches school age, you can start introducing chapter books, even at age four or so. It encourages an increase in attention span. Obviously, don’t start reading high literature to your four year old – look for novels by Louis Sachar and Beverly Cleary. This might seem early to some, but chapter books increase attention span, particularly if the book is very well written.

As they grow older, don’t stop reading aloud, ever. This seems like incredible advice, but reading aloud can easily become the thread that holds families together. My wife’s family, which consists of three adult children, was reading aloud together on car trips while my wife was in college – the three girls were the readers and would alternate reading aloud. It was very impressive, and unsurprisingly their family is very tightly knit.

I’m going to list a bunch of books for reading aloud at the end here, an intersection of Trelease’s recommendations and my own.

4. The Dos And Don’ts Of Read-Aloud
This chapter is a very long list of things to do while reading aloud, followed by a very long list of things not to do while reading aloud. These tips are very good: read slowly, read the name of the book along with the author and illustrator each time, allow the person you’re reading to to interject their own story and narrative and commentary, and avoid books with heavy dialogue unless you’re a master at making a lot of voices. There are about a hundred tips here, all of them interesting and useful.

If you’re looking at this book from a presenter’s standpoint, this is perhaps the msot valuable chapter to read – pick up this book at the library and just read these tips. Many of them apply very well to public speaking and presentation.

5. Sustained Silent Reading: Reading Aloud’s Natural Partner
Many people have asked me how I can be so busy, yet read so many books. Here’s the big reason: I often read in front of my children as they play. Why? I’m setting a role model for them as a reader – they’re both too young to really see the connection, but they think it’s a completely healthy and natural thing to see their parents reading. My son is starting to realize that we’re reading books, and thus he sometimes gets out his own books and flips through them when we’re doing this.

If you have a child, reading a book for your own enrichment takes on another value – you’re setting a compelling example for the child that reading and learning is something enjoyable that people actively choose to do.

The book suggests setting aside time for silent reading when your children are older. My family used to do this often in the evenings – all of us would sit there reading a book. This is something I strongly plan on doing when they’re old enough.

6. In Their Own Words
This chapter is a collection of anecdotes from successful people who reflect on the value of being read to as a child. Some of these stories are strongly inspirational for a parent as they show the benefits of reading to a child in a very tangible way – the education and eloquence of children who attribute their success to their parents’ commitment to reading aloud.

7. The Print Climate In The Home, School, And Library
There is a direct connection between the amount of printed material available at home and in a school and the comfort level a child has with reading.

At home, this is a call for you to fill your home with books. We do this with aplomb – our house has books all over the place, from the novel my wife’s reading to some biography I’m engrossed in to a stack of picture books in the corner for my son to tear through. Books are seen as something you have at home.

Similarly, a school should have lots of books as well. My son’s daycare has a large number of books available in my son’s room and they have multiple read-aloud story times during the day, something that was basically a requirement for me when I chose a daycare.

You should also take your child to the library, as an environment filled with books can be very exciting and interesting. I’ve even taken my child to reading times at the local library, where a short picture book is read in a room with a lot of children close to his age. That can be fun itself; I’ve sat there with him on my lap, watching another person read to us.

8. Lessons From Oprah, Harry, And The Internet
I truly respect Oprah’s Book Club – any woman who can get tens of thousands of people to read Steinbeck is all right in my book. Why did it work? She read the books herself, came on her show, and talked about books with great enthusiasm – and that enthusiasm gets many, many people to read challenging literature. How can you apply that? Be enthusiastic about what you read. Tell your spouse about the last great book you read in front of your children, and get your spouse to tell you the same in return, then involve your child in the conversation. Talk about books that mean a lot to you, or books you fondly remember from childhood.

Harry Potter is much the same, except it’s with children and there’s a peer-based element to it. Children who read the same thing and talk about it are often going to deeply enjoy the experience and read other things. The key thing is to encourage children to read a diversity of stuff – if they’re just gobbling down repetitive books from a never ending series, suggest that they read something else.

The internet is obviously a great resource for reading… right? However, it’s not a replacement for a book, so don’t believe that books can stop when the laptop opens.

9. T.V., Audio, And Technology: Hurting Or Helping Literacy?
This final chapter is a research-backed condemnation of television in the home with children, and it’s a condemnation I strongly agree with. Basically, children raised in an environment with no television on weeknights do substantially better in school and in later life than children in houses with “normal” television watching.

Audio tools are fine – listening to music and audiobooks, if anything, have a positive effect.

A Treasury Of Read-Alouds
The final third of the book is a catalogue of great books to read aloud to your children. I selected a few from each group that I will personally vouch for as great books – I’ve read them to my children or to nieces and nephews, or had them read to me when I was younger.

For toddlers, books both found in The Read-Aloud Handbook and recommended by me include:
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle (my son’s favorite book at just over a year)
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (my son’s current favorite, just shy of two years old)
We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (based on his reactions, this will be his favorite in a few months)

For children approaching school age and in early grade school, try any of the above (they have staying power) and add:
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber

For kids in later grade school, try:
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

The last two there were the first two books to leave an indelible mark on me – both were read aloud to me by people I cared for and who cared about me.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

If you have a child under the age of, say, seven, buy this book. This is the single best book I’ve ever read as a parent. Reading with my son is not only teaching him countless things – word recognition, colors, letters, numbers – but it is also teaching him patience. Best of all, reading aloud to him gives us a chance to bond.

Even more, if you do any speaking or presenting publicly, at least skim through this book. Time and time again, I see parallels between reading to my child and presenting a topic to a group. In both cases, it’s all about pacing, pleasing your audience, hammering home key points, tone of voice, and expression. You might think to yourself that you’d never present to a group in the way you read to a two year old, but in fact almost all of the skills you use in one place you use in the other.

Over the last year or so, this book has exerted some serious influence over my life. It’s taught me a lot about how to speak to others and helped me incredibly in bonding with and educating my son. If there was an eleventh entrant on my list of ten books that changed my life, this is it – it has deeply enriched my recent life and provided the tools I needed to grow in new directions.

If you take nothing else from this book and there’s a child in your life, go read that child a book. It will grow both the child and you in countless ways.

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  1. John says:

    I’m curious about the Alzheimer’s study. Do they go into the nitty-griity of the experiment or do they just say “this study showed this…” How can they conclusively say that it was sentence structure and vocabulary alone that led to decreased disease rates when there would be so many other variables in a person’s life that could contribute?
    (Then again, I can just get the book and see for myself)

  2. Lauren says:

    I am going to wholly agree with number 7. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by books my entire life. Not only at home, but from going to work with my mom, at a large privately owned bookstore, starting at a very young age. Nothing will ever feel better or more safe to me than to be surrounded by books and knowledge like that.

  3. Amanda says:

    I would like to chip in with my two favorite books from childhood:

    Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. It’s a story about a young boy during the American Revolution

    The Phantom Tolbooth by Norton Juster. It’s also about a young boy who is always bored and unhappy, and his adventures in a strange land.

    I first read both of these in 5th grade, and they’re wonderful books.

    For girls, don’t forget books like Little Women and Jane Eyre. I still read the latter once a year, and adore it.

  4. Soni says:

    The role-modeling thing with reading in front of your kids is so key. I recently spent a year working with at-risk kids and because A)their parents don’t read, or don’t read much in the way of books anyway, so they never get to see it being done as a preferred pastime, and B)schools assign reading as part of homework, the kids all view reading as a PUNISHMENT, rather than a pleasant activity.

    Any attempt to get them to read outside of the bare minimum they have to get a passing grade is met by just about the same resistance you’d expect by asking them to do math problems, handwriting drills or spelling words for fun.

    As a kid who was read to a lot, and who consequently grew up preferring books to almost any other pastime, this response came as a total shock to the system. To see kids viewing reading as punishment just makes me die a little inside every time I see it.

    Please, folks, make sure your kids associate books and reading with joy and adventure *before* they get to school, because once reading becomes homework, and they have no other frame of reference for it, that battle is lost for good.

  5. Soni says:

    Just adding to the above, so you can see how deeply they felt about it, if you asked these kids to read a book outside of their assigned reading, they would get a puzzled and hurt look on their face and ask, “Why? What did I do?” as if you were putting them in the corner unjustly.


  6. Deena says:

    I am an English teacher, and this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. All of the English teachers at our school read aloud to the 7th and 8th graders, and they still love it. I’ve done Watership Down and The Hobbit, and those were definite hits.

    My own children (3 and 5) also enjoy the read aloud time. We always read just before bed. If for some strange reason I suggest skipping it, they moan and complain. I think reading aloud is one of the most important things a parent can do to influence their children’s literacy.

  7. Lisa says:

    Recalling, finding, and sharing with my daughter the books I enjoyed as a kid has been one of the VERY best things about having a child.

    A couple great read-aloud books I would add to the list(for toddlers & preschoolers):
    Zoe’s Snowy Day, Go Dog Go (& anything else by P.D. Eastman), Caps for Sale, Ping, Tikki Tikki Tembo , Blueberries For Sal, etc. We strive for a variety of illustration styles.

    Obvious ways to save money on books: your local library, garage sales (most in like new condition for 25 cents), and book exchange parties.

    The American Library Association (ala.org) has suggested reading lists in pdf. Their book (1992) called “Best of the Best for Children” has been a great resource.

    Thanks, Trent, for sharing this topic. And you don’t need to be a parent to read to a child. Aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, etc. can all do it.

  8. Andrew Stevens says:

    John, the study they are referring to is probably at http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=381045. There’s always a danger in reading too much into studies like this. Humans have an enormous number of confounding factors and it’s unethical to do controlled experiments on them. They did, of course, control for educational attainment, social class, and all the usual culprits, but there are always far more confounding factors than the scientists are able to think of and control for. The numbers don’t appear to me to be so compelling that I’d put a lot of stock in it. Having said that, a positive correlation is certainly evidence in favor of the position, but it’s a very long way short of proof.

  9. When it comes to reading loudly, I think of the biography of Abe Lincoln. He stated that when he read loudly he saw, read, heard and that was how he prepared his speeches that are even real now, the best of the best.

  10. Kate says:

    Great post, Trent. You reviewed one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. The TV issue brings to my mind this letter that was in the August issue of School Library Journal:

    Balls, Blocks, Board Books

    In the Letters section of your May issue (p. 15), Bonnie Briceno defends parking her children in front of the Baby Einstein videos when she is too busy to interact with them. She opines, “Although I still don’t like the idea of a toddler in front of the TV, I know that it is at times a necessity.” Oh? It may come as a surprise to her, but there are a goodly number of us still drawing breath who were babies and toddlers before there was TV who somehow managed to grow up more or less intact, even though our parents were not able to constantly give us their full attention; the sainted Einstein himself never had the benefit of TV as his amazing young brain was forming.

    The world is full of safe things to play with and learn from that provide small ones the opportunity for actual interaction, coordination development, etc.—they are called balls, blocks, crayons, stuffed animals, crib toys, board books, etc. Will your child be better off (a) watching TV, even “educational” TV, in the other room or (b) playing with alphabet blocks in the playpen or magnetic letters on the refrigerator while you sing to her or teach her nursery rhymes while you fry the pork chops? I submit to you that the answer to this question is clear.

    On occasion, TV can nicely augment the other tools in our box of helpful child-raising aids, but we do ourselves and our progeny a great disservice if we forget that there’s a whole delightful world for little ones, explorable with minimal assistance from us, which does not happen in front of the screen.

    Chuck Schacht, librarian
    Romeo District Library, Romeo, MI

  11. Mrs. Micah says:

    I loved being read to as a kid. It made the whole thing come alive.

    That said, I’m slightly dyslexic which makes it hard for me to read aloud. I tend to switch word or read them as different words. This is very embarrassing, since I’m bright, graduated summa, all those things…but I can’t perfectly read a children’s book (aloud).

  12. Jim says:

    A worthy post, but I’m not sure what is has to do with the “mission” of this blog. I’m a fairly recent reader, and really like what I’ve seen so far as it relates to money, career, etc.
    I just don’t get why this is in here.

  13. vh says:

    Hey! It’s OK to not read the kid’s book perfectly…the kid doesn’t know any different. When she gets big enough to read, which she will very quickly if you get her interested in books, then you can have her “help” Mom read the book. :-)

    We read _Lord of the Rings_ and _Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Universe_ to our son when he was pre-school age. He loved them. At the age of 6, he could read the front page of the _Wall Street Journal_ to me.

    Look for real literature in addition to kiddie books, since few picture books come up to the level of Maurice Sendak.

  14. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “A worthy post, but I’m not sure what is has to do with the “mission” of this blog. I’m a fairly recent reader, and really like what I’ve seen so far as it relates to money, career, etc.
    I just don’t get why this is in here.”

    Wait until this Friday. I had been largely against reviewing this book on here until another personal finance book made a great case for this one.

  15. Heather says:

    I stand by reading aloud to and with your children 100%.
    When I was growing up my Mother and I were having trouble getting along so a counselor suggested that we do this and it drastically changed our relationship. Not only did we get to spend good quality time together while reading new and interesting books, but it was affordable for my single Mother. After all, the public library is free. And the trips to the library were always a great experience together. We would go and hunt for another book that we could dig into. So for the frugal minded, not only do you get free entertainment to share and enjoy with your family, you also get to enjoy the library as well.
    I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday with my kids that would not cost a dime.

  16. Jodi says:

    My mom had a theory that if books where available around the house that we would read them. She was constantly buying books second hand at garage sales and our basement walls were covered in book shelves overflowing with books. It worked for me. I’ve read almost every single book that she bought.

  17. Lori says:

    As a librarian and a mom, I really appreciate your review of this book. I received a copy when my son was born and was astounded to think that I had never contemplated purchasing it myself when I had used it so much in my work environment. I have gone to it countless times since.

    I think this post fits within your general theme because the best way to increase your child’s earning power is through education, not to mention the general money saved (on medical and other such expenses) when you bring up a happy, well-adjusted, well-loved child (all of which can result from spending time with them, reading aloud).

  18. Bjorn says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I am going to get this book!
    Another similar book that we have used that recommends great books for you to get your children: “Honey for a Child’s Heart” by Gladys Hunt.

  19. We have read aloud to our daughter every night since she was a baby. Now she is 6.5 and we read chapter books. It’s a wonderful bonding time, and she has a terrific vocabulary because of it — not to mention how much easier it made her learning process once she began reading herself.

    Our whole family loved the Little House series (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) — even Dad. They are fascinating historical books and are wonderful for engendering appreciation for our luxurious life today! And she is totally crazy about Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, as are many of the upper elementary kids my husband teaches.

    When my daughter was very little she loved a 1950s Golden Book about Gene Autry (she was into cowboys), the classic Goodnight, Moon, and a book called Tumble Bumble by Felicia Bond, which we read so many times I could probably still recite most of it four years later.

  20. Alison says:

    Thanks for reminding me of a wonderful book I was introduced to during my college days.

  21. Pilar Manzone says:

    Thank you so much for your inspiring article. I also agree with what you say about television. However, what changes would you recommend to a single mother with a toddler and a full time job in order to see less television and more reading. The only time I have managed to engage her is just before going to bed. Thanks again!

  22. vh says:

    Unplug the television. Carry it out to the car. Drive it to Goodwill, and donate it for a tax deduction.

  23. Great review of one of my favorite books! With more and more children favoring TV over books, this is important.

    We buy lots of used books at the library…on a trip yesterday the cashier noted that the books looked hardly used…unusual for anything within a child’s reach. her sad comment- “guess they are watching TV instead”. When I mentioned we don’t, she was shocked…a sad commentary of our times.

    Reading beats TV anyday…And…as you mention, reading aloud improves the parents skills as a presenter!

  24. Sebastian says:

    When my oldest son was about 2 my husband recorded Put Me in the Zoo by Robert Lopshire onto a tape. This was so that he would have a story from dad before going to bed, even when his dad was away on a trip. The story was recorded with my son in his dad’s lap. Within a month this two year old had memorized the entire book (including the “by Robert Lopshire” tag at the beginning).
    My brother- and sister-in-law made recordings of some fabulous readings that my kids still play, years later.
    There are also great books on tape and cd that a toddler would love to listen to while they go to sleep. Once these stories are familiar, they could be a great replacement for tv.

  25. Jennifer says:

    My parents were both teachers and read to me very frequently as a child. We always had books around our home, and as a result I was considered to be ‘gifted’ in elementary school – I had to go to a different classroom with a few students who were at the same level to do our reading in school, since we were reading more quickly and at a much higher level than a majority of our peers.

    Some books I would recommend for elementary-school aged children are anything by Roald Dahl. Trent previously mentioned ‘Danny, Champion of the World,’ but some other favorites of mine by him include ‘The BFG’, ‘The Witches’, and ‘Matilda’. He is such a classic, humerous author of children’s books, and I loved his work as a child.

  26. Heather says:

    Great review!!! I just stumbled across your website and happen to have this book sitting in my lap right now. I’ve been searching online for a printable list of these books that I can pull out as a reference when I’m in a hurry or on my way to the library. Do you know if there is a list available somewhere? I thought about making one, but it would save SO much time if there is already a list out there.

    Any help is appreciated. Thanks for the great review and for so strongly advocating spending quality time with children.

  27. tentaculistic says:

    Not a parent but grew up in an avid reading family with books everywhere, and was always put in the gifted classes for the humanities.

    I loved Elizabeth George Speare’s books (especially but not exclusively for Christians – The Bronze Bow, Witch of Blackbird Pond, Calico Captive). Very positive messages but also deeply exciting.

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