It starts with reading aloud to kids

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I READ a really interesting book recently, 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 some of my own viewpoints on reading and reading to children.

I started reading a selection of simple board books to my now three-year-old twins just before they turned one. Even though much of their daily routine has now changed, our bedtime reading session remains a mainstay of our day and something we always look forward to. It makes me really happy when my tots start to fill in words or copy character voices that I usually use, as I turn the pages of familiar books.

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 main bookstore in Johor Baru town (the Central Store) to pick out a book reward for working hard, and the weekly visits I made with my mum to the state library to borrow three books.

As someone who really enjoys reading, 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 parents who 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 after-school activities and enrichment classes, the pleasures of sitting down with a book are often overlooked.

If you think “this reading stuff is the school’s job”, consider some simple arithmetic based on US studies that is also applicable to our own Malaysian experience: “The child spends 900 hours a year in school and 7,800 outside school. Who has 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 US Department of Education, “Reading aloud is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”

How can something so simple as reading to a child be so effective? As lumber is the primary support for building a house, words are said to be 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 by 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.

As you read aloud to a child, you are “pouring into the child’s ears (and brain) all the sounds, syllable, 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 pre-kindergarten 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 5,000 words we use all the time called the Basic Lexicon, and another 5,000 words we use less often. Together, these 10,000 words are called the Common Lexicon. Beyond this 10,000 mark are the “rare words”. The strength of our vocabulary is determined not by the 10,000 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: through exposure. By hearing language spoken correctly, you begin to imitate the pattern – both in what you say and what you write.

Reading aloud to children doesn’t need to be expensive and energy sapping. Trelease shares many reading success stories related 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 are a member of pre-loved books communities like Preloved Books Malaysia or Mama Preloved Books – and the willingness to spend as little as 10 to 15 minutes of quality time daily with your child. You don’t need to send your kids for reading enrichment programmes. You can “tutor” them yourself by simply spending 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 really good 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 bold-coloured picture books to arouse children’s curiosity and visual sense.
  • With infants and toddlers, it is important to include in your readings, 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 child to provide the word.
  • Read as often as you and your child have time for.
  • Set aside at least one consistent time each day for a story.
  • Start with picture books that have only a few sentences on the page, then gradually move to books with more and more text and fewer pictures, and build to chapter books and novels.
  • To encourage involvement, invite your 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 children involved by occasionally asking, “What do you think is going to happen next?”
  • Allow time for discussion after reading a story. Thoughts, hopes, fears, and discoveries are aroused by a book. Allow them to surface.


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 that something so simple yet significant is not championed at national level. Maybe, as Trelease recommends, we need a real “in-your-face” national reading awareness campaign that is more like a fierce crusade rather than one with polite promotional posters.

Li-Hsian Choo left a career in corporate communications to become a freelance writer and full-time mum to her twins. She also works on projects to curate creative experiences for children. She has co-written three children’s picture books and currently co-leads the Art Discovery Tours for Tots and Kids at the Ilham Art Gallery in KL. Her column, Mummy Moments, is about her journey as a mother.