A Good Read: Recorded Books and Reading Aloud with Children
by Alexander Spencer .
Once upon a time, my father, already fifty or more, crouched by my darkened bed, his head level with my pillow and read. That my father was English and what he read, the tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox by Joel Chandler Harris, were quintessentially American, Southern, and black, were not matters of much importance then, nor are the now. What matters instead, now that I am almost his age, is that he was there, that he was reading, and that we were in two places together at once. Those who have been read to and read to well, like me, will never forget that experience; those who have not, have been deprived of more than just an intimate moment with an adult, or, for that matter, an author. They have missed out on an essential step towards whole learning. The benefits of parents, teachers, or other adults reading to children have been well rehearsed in recent years in books, articles, and seminars, yet too many children and young adults for manifold reasons are still deprived on this essential first step towards fluent reading and an ongoing source of enrichment. The mechanics simply stated are these. We learn our own language in large part by imitation — by listening and repeating. The better the aural model, the better our “copy.” Our initial exposure to reading, it is argued is best performed in the same way. A reader reads aloud wile we follow in the text. This exercise informs us of emotion in language, proper pronunciation, rhythm and phrasing, use of dialect, expanded vocabulary through context, and a sense of narrative. In a way, we also learn to write when we learn to read. Other methods exist, of course, but none deliver the direct positive reinforcement and the powerful emotional charge that being read to does. Says Margo Rood, Resident Remedial Reading Teacher at the Kingsbury Center in Washington, D.C.: “Dialogue written to reflect non-standard English — dialects for example — can be unintelligible to the reader who has not heard how it sounds. Clues to the plot are often buried in a tone of voice which can be missed by the reader without the benefit of hearing the story aloud.” It comes as a shock then to learn that the average high-school graduate in the U.S. has achieved only an eighth- or ninth-grade reading level. Is there a detectable reason? Or course, there are the usual suspects. A teacher in Vermont attributed the fact that over fifty percent of her seventh-grade intake were below grade reading level to the three different reading methods that the students had been subjected to in as many years. Other teachers are more blunt in pointing to a single culprit: television. In the U.S., a child entering kindergarten will already have watched 200,000 commercials. A survey conducted at a junior high in Massachusetts revealed that students devoted 15 minutes a week to reading outside the classroom and four and one-half hours a day to watching television. This audiovisual immersion, most will agree, is passive. No active participation is required on the part of the viewer. Inner picture making and cognitive skills are not being challenged, and all other skills connected with reading or being read to remain undeveloped. Expectations of viewers, young and old, are tuned to short bursts of attention, cutaways from one subject to another, and dazzling visual effects substituting for more gratifying flights of the viewer’s own imagination. But, there is another less obvious and therefore more dangerous development threatening the future of reading and the beneficial effects of literature on our society. In many families, both parents now work full or part time, leaving less opportunity for the nightly ritual of parent reading to child. In schools, too, the opportunities are declining. Reports of classes of 37, 39, even 45 students in a class where a minority of less than twenty-five percent speak English and the majority don’t even speak the same foreign language are surfacing from places other than the embattled classrooms of California. Texas alone receives 100,000 non-English speaking immigrants into its school system each year, allocating $8 to each of those to every $1 spent on English-speaking residents. Budget cuts in education too often mean staff cuts. Compounded with the laudable movement to include students of all abilities, levels, languages, and physical challenges in the classroom, the shrinking number of teachers and the widening ratio of teacher to students (this writer has seen published reports of 1:46) precludes a teacher from fulfilling one of the most important functions in the learning process: reading aloud to the students. Is there a direct correlation? Yes, according to teachers in the front lines. Students who are not read to, don’t read as well. It follows that students who are not read to will not consider it essential to read to their own children, and a generation of readers, even books themselves, may be at risk. The remedies? There are some that are traditional and challenged, others that are conventional and waiting to be tried. In the first group, advocates like Jim Trelease encourage parents and teachers to find more time and opportunities to read aloud to their children and students. Librarians are constantly being challenged to find new and exciting ways to attract reluctant readers to the books their libraries contain. Among the second group, there is a growing and enthusiastic support for alternative means, prominent among them books on cassette. Far from being substitutes for reading these single-voice performances of more or less well-known titles come in a variety of formats. Most preferable among these are the unabridged versions in which a single skilled reader, often a professional actor, will narrate a contemporary or classic fiction or non-fiction word for word. The essence of these performances, for such at best they are, is that they deliver the text in its entirety with an emotional punch that will grab the attention of even the most jaded couch potato. Titles range from recent Newbery Medal — M. C. Higgins, The Great — to old favorites — Old Yeller. For older reluctant readers, the hardest category of all to please, there are mysteries, adventure, even ancient classics like Homer’s The Odyssey. Do they work? Results of a program published in the Wisconsin Library showed that: “In Wisconsin, a program was instituted in the public schools for nonreaders and unwilling readers. These secondary-school students were isolated in the school library with a book, a tape player, and a copy of the book on tape. They were encouraged to read along as they listened. Forty-three of the forty-five students improved their reading skills. Many were soon able to read books at an appropriate level without assistance. Apparently, the impersonal and non-judgmental help of the machine, plus the absence of distractions, made reading possible for these students.” Dr. Meredith Powers, who teaches English at Joseph Case Senior High School in Swansea, Massachusetts, experienced similar success: “As a teacher, I was convinced that making unabridged tapes available to middle- and high-school students would enhance their skills. Suddenly, classics are accessible to students who were previously discouraged by the overwhelming vocabulary, the unfamiliar style, and the daunting lengths of novels like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now I find them in the library listening attentively to a reading of Hester’s story, sometimes with their own copies in their laps, sometimes without. The student listener’s ability to understand dialogue and fathom irony is enormously improved.” Another English teacher in California, Ames Countryman, confirms Dr. PowerÂ’s assessment: “Once they get hooked on the emotional joys of reading, it has a way of inspiring them. They have so many other options. But when they get into the recordings, they really cook.” It is an irony of another kind that at a time when one long-established practice — reading — is under attack, another — the art of story-telling — is being revived in electronic form. It should come as no surprise that such an essential part of every culture has found a way to evolve and survive in spite of every effort to abandon it.
For catalogues of unabridged and abridged books on cassette, call or write: Recorded Books, Inc., 270 Skipjack Road, Prince Frederick, MD 20678. 800-638-1304; Bantam Audio, Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Inc., 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10103; Windham Hill Records 800-888-8544. Alexander Spencer is the Publisher of Recorded Books.
Last Updated (Wednesday, 30 June 2010 09:35)