How Can Something as Simple as Reading to a Child Be So Effective?

We read to children for all the same reasons we talk with children: to reassure, to entertain, to bond; to inform or explain, to arouse curiosity, to inspire. But in reading aloud, we also condition the child's brain to associate reading with pleasure, create background knowledge, build vocabulary, and provide a reading role model.

Let's look at how we create lifetime readers. There are two basic reading "facts of life" that are ignored in many education circles, yet without these two principles working in tandem, little else will work in education reform.

Reading Fact No. 1: Human beings are pleasure-centered

Human beings will voluntarily do over and over that which brings them pleasure. That is, we go to the restaurants we like, and visit the in-laws we like. Conversely, we avoid the foods, and music, and in-laws we dislike. Far from being a theory, this is a physiological fact. When our senses send electrical and chemical messages to the "pleasure" or "unpleasure centers" of the brain, we respond positively or negatively.

An eminent animal psychologist at the American Museum of Natural History built a case for reducing all behavior to two simple responses: approach and withdrawal. We approach what causes pleasure, and we withdraw from what causes unpleasure or pain.

Pleasure could be called the glue that holds our attention – but it only holds us to what we like. As long as we're enjoying a movie, we're connected. When we cease to enjoy it, we disconnect. It applies to nearly everything we do willingly. Every time we read to a child, we're sending a "pleasure" message (glue) to the child's brain. You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure. There are, however, "unpleasures" associated with reading and school. The learning experience can be tedious or boring, threatening, and without meaning – endless hours of worksheets, hours of intensive phonics instruction, and hours of unconnected-test questions. If a child seldom experiences the "pleasures" of reading and meets only the "unpleasures," then the natural reaction will be withdrawal.

Reading Fact No. 2: Reading is an accrued skill

Reading is like riding a bicycle, driving a car, or sewing: in order to get better at it you must do it. And the more you read, the better you get at it.

The last twenty-five years of reading research confirms this simple formula – regardless of sex, race, nationality, or socioeconomic background. 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. And most Americans (children and adults) don't read much, and therefore aren't very good at it.

Why don't they read much? Because of Reading Fact No. 1: the large number of "unpleasure" messages they received throughout their school years, coupled with the lack of "pleasure" messages in the home, nullify any attraction from the book. They avoid books and print the same way a cat avoids a hot stove burner.

Excerpted from The Read-Aloud Handbook (2001). Jim Trelease.


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"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan