There is a Siberian proverb that states, "If you don't know the trees you will get lost in the forest, but if you don't know the stories you will get lost in life." Stories are life's compass. Reaching back into pre-history, stories were the vehicle for passing along knowledge, beliefs, wisdom, and values—and they were entertaining. As the human brain evolved, our thought processes and how we learned and retained information were all tied to storytelling.
Recent brain research confirms that optimum brain function and development is still dependent upon storytelling. In fact, it is the most effective stimulation for young developing brains. This is because brain development in children is dependent upon induced imagery. That is, in order for the brain to develop properly, it must be stimulated; instead of "use it or lose it," it's "use it or never get it." Induced imagery means creating pictures in the mind. Most children today are exposed to imposed imagery: television, movies, and even picture books are all examples of imposed imagery. The brain's function is reduced to taking in something that is already in front of the eye, rather than creating an image of something that is not apparent. Research has found that storytelling, or reading aloud a chapter book without pictures, is the number one best way to stimulate the brain's ability for induced imagery.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Roger G. Schank, former head of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Yale University, was examining the issue of how we think, and how our thinking processes influence our behavior. He was attempting to develop artificial intelligence programs for computers through this work. What he found was that the human brain is programmed to think in terms of stories. A human brain may receive thousands of pieces of information daily. Most of it we can't retrieve, even minutes later, while other information can stay with us for years, and we can easily recall it. Why? Because the information that we tend to remember is presented in the context of a story about the information, person, or event.
Schank wrote a book entitled Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory in which he states, "Stories give life to past experiences; stories make events in memory memorable to others and to ourselves."1 In other words, memories are really stories which can be recalled at a later time. Children who are exposed to information in the context of a story can better recall it later.
Stories also reach past the intellect and into the heart. The very best literature, the best stories, allow the reader to absorb powerful yet subtle messages about getting along with others, about sacrifice, sharing, courage, and a thousand other human experiences and emotions. The eminent child psychiatrist Robert Coles was asked by Harvard University to teach an ethics course at the school of business. His course syllabus consisted of nothing but literature—stories that allowed the students to explore the gradual moral decline that results from compromising one's principles and values.
But what is the place of stories in today's results-oriented SOL-driven educational climate? Most of us have read the widely quoted statement from Becoming a Nation of Readers. This document states that "the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children."2 By "single most important activity" the experts were saying, according to read aloud guru Jim Trelease, "that reading aloud was more important than worksheets, homework, assessments, book reports, and flash cards."3 The report goes on to say that reading aloud "is a practice that should continue throughout the grades."
Reading aloud gives children the gift of the English language, improving their listening skills, vocabulary, and language abilities. Reading aloud does this in a way that is time-tested, universal, effective, and simple. Jim Trelease writes that "there are 44 sounds in the English Language–Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Duckings, and Charlotte's Web contain all of them." In The Read Aloud Handbook, Trelease relates the story of Phillip, a four year old from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Phillip's favorite book was Steven Kellogg's edition of Paul Bunyan. Night after night his mother would read this book, with its final paragraph, "With the passing of the years, Paul has been seen less and less frequently. However, along with his unusual size and strength, he seems to possess an extraordinary longevity. Sometimes his great bursts of laughter can be heard rumbling like distant thunder across the wild Alaskan mountain ranges where he and Babe still roam." Well, one night Phillip's mother came to his room, dreading yet another reading of Paul Bunyan, but to her surprise Phillip declared that he would like to have a book about "extraordinary longevity." When Phillip started kindergarten, he had two words in his vocabulary that most five year olds would not know. He did not learn them from flash cards or a vocabulary list, but by hearing them over and over from an important person in his life, repeated in a meaningful way in the context of a story.
This is how language is learned, aurally, by hearing it. We know this is true and we expect that children will learn language by hearing it — yet many children spend 30 percent of their free time watching television. When Jim Trelease analyzed the script for a popular television show in the early eighties, "The Bill Cosby Show," he found it to be written at about a fourth grade level. If we can't speak a word we have never heard and we can't write a word if we don't know its meaning, where will children hear and learn the words that will expand their knowledge and command of the English language? There is a gap between a child's reading level and a child's listening level. Most five year olds are perfectly capable of listening to the book Charlotte's Web, even though it may be written for a fourth or fifth grade reader. And Charlotte's Web has several thousand words in it, versus a couple of hundred for The Cat in the Hat.
As a child listens to a story being read aloud, his or her attention span will improve also. The child begins to internalize the concept that a book can provide enjoyment. He or she can follow the story by creating pictures in the brain – induced imagery – which can spark imagination and creativity. The more a child is read to, the more he or she associates reading with pleasure. Reading aloud is not about teaching a child to read, it is about teaching a child to want to read. Most educators will tell us that motivation is the gateway to learning.
Probably the most important benefit of reading aloud is that when you read aloud to a child, you are going to pick a book that is worth your time. It is going to have some depth and some emotional impact to it – what Jim Trelease calls "the heavy stuff." Sharing the experiences of characters in a book bonds us to them, and to what they are going through as the story unfolds. The hopes, fears, and worries of our characters become our hopes, fears, and worries. This opportunity for bonding and emotional closeness extends to those who are sharing the experience: the reader and the listener take the same adventure together. Resiliency studies of at-risk children show that the difference between a child from a high risk family situation who makes it in life, and one who doesn't make it, is often a positive bond with a caring adult. Reading aloud is a generational standard of a warm adult/child interaction that can make a difference in the lives of children.
Dr. Kevin Dwyer, President of the National Academy of School Psychologists, took this statement one step farther when he visited Richmond last fall during Read Aloud to a Child Week. Dr. Dwyer stated emphatically that "reading aloud is a violence prevention program." His message coincided with a similar statement from the Department of Education's publication Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, which states that our "common goal must be to reconnect with every child and particularly with those young people who are isolated and troubled."4
Read Aloud Virginia (RAV) was started in early 1999 by Gary Anderson, a school psychologist in Hanover County. He recognized the value of reading aloud in his work with at-risk students at his school. RAV-affiliated groups include the State Board of Education, the Virginia Parent Teacher Association, the Virginia Educational Media Association, The Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians, the Virginia State Reading Association, and the Virginia Academy of School Psychologists. The Virginia Library Association has officially endorsed RAV and has appointed a representative to serve on the RAV board. The first project undertaken by RAV was to bring Jim Trelease to Richmond in October of 1999 to speak to 1500 educators and librarians from around the state. In the coming year RAV will be working to create a network of committed and knowledgeable professionals who can assist parents and caregivers in reading aloud to children.
Public libraries have an important role to play in implementing read aloud projects in their communities. Therefore, RAV encourages all public libraries to adopt the mission, philosophy, and goals of Read Aloud Virginia as an ongoing element of their youth services program, and to participate in this multi-year, statewide reading initiative. By doing so, libraries can become part of a highly visible program, reap the benefits of an ongoing public awareness campaign, and take advantage of funding opportunities. More importantly, libraries can play a crucial role in creating a future population of devoted readers and library supporters.
RAV also creates opportunities for collaborating with the educational community. Read Aloud Virginia is now working to spread the Read Aloud message to public and school libraries throughout the state, and to key community partners. Governor James Gilmore has proclaimed the week of 22-28 October 2000 as Read Aloud to a Child Week in Virginia. RAV will be promoting reading aloud through both print and broadcast media during that week. School and public libraries are being encouraged to offer read aloud programs and activities for families, and to educate staff about the importance of reading aloud.
Public youth services librarians and school media specialists are now being recruited to become members of regional planning and implementation teams throughout the state. Instructional specialists at the Governor's Best Practices Centers will also be on the teams, as will school media specialists. Each region will present a read aloud workshop for a target audience of fifty professional colleagues, teachers, literacy volunteers, child care providers, and others who are interested in learning how to become community organizers for reading aloud. It is our hope that these workshops will provide the impetus whereby reading aloud to children will be recognized and implemented as an effective tool in reading and learning success, and in healthy family development. A training curriculum, including slides, transparencies, and workshop packets, are now being developed to support this project. If you are interested in being considered for one of the implementation teams, please contact Pat Muller, Project Manager for Read Aloud Virginia, at the Library of Virginia, 804-692-3765, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As another means of promoting reading aloud, the Library of Virginia is offering a grant program for FY 2001. Up to $75,000 in federal LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) monies is being earmarked for collaborative read aloud projects between school and public libraries. Public libraries are the grantees for the projects. The grants will be awarded in increments of up to $2500. Grant information, including the three page EZ grant application form, is available on the Library of Virginia web site at http://www.lva.lib.va.us. Although public libraries are the primary contacts, schools are encouraged to collaborate as full partners in designing and implementing projects within a community. Other groups that serve families, such as social services agencies, churches, Head Start programs, and alternative schools, can also be partners.
Another exciting project is the RAV partnership with Theatre IV. Theatre IV is known throughout the state for their high quality dramatic presentations in schools. Reading aloud will be part of the message that Theatre IV will be bringing to schools who book their "Rumpelstiltskin" program for the 2000-2001 school year, which will be seen by approximately 50,000 students. Attendees will receive printed materials about reading aloud to take home. A very exciting new production is in development for the 2001-2002 school year. This production, based on the book The Princess Bride, will incorporate a strong read-aloud message into the script, based on author William Goldman's description of his own life-changing experience when his father read the book to him as a child.5 This play is targeted at older elementary and middle school students.
RAV is also in the process of developing promotional materials such as posters, bookmarks, and a revised edition of the popular brochure "You Want To Be the Best Parent" which lists some favorite read-aloud titles for families. The Read Aloud Virginia web site at http://www.readaloudva.org also promotes our message and keeps people informed about our activities.
Read Aloud Virginia is dedicated to promoting healthy successful children through reading aloud. We want all children to have access to life's compass–the stories and bonding with a caring adult that will help them to Ganavigate their way through life successfully and reach their full potential.
- Roger C. Schank, Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory (New York: Scribner, 1990), p. 10.
- Richard C. Anderson, Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report on the Commission on Reading (Washington, DC: National Institute of Education, 1985), p. 23.
- Jim Trelease, The Read Aloud Handbook, 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1995), p. 3.
- Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1998), p. i.
- William Goldman, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure: The Good Parts Version, Abridged, 25th Anniversary ed. (New York: Ballantine, 2000). The original book had many long passages explaining medieval poetry and manners and is not the one to read aloud.