Review: The Read-Aloud Handbook

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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