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Too busy to share a book? Think again. There’s a lot at stake when the kids say . . . : Read Me a Story

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Soviet Union was a shambles, the hostage crisis was still simmering, and back in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee was about to consider the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. But there, on the front pages of newspapers across the country, was an avuncular-looking President Bush, calmly reading aloud to a group of schoolchildren in Lewiston, Me.

It was a cozy photo opportunity, certainly. But it was also evidence of a practice some experts say is in jeopardy, as more and more parents rely on electronic substitutes for the written word.

Audio- and videotapes, including versions of books, have by no means supplanted reading aloud. But increasingly, many children’s reading specialists contend that the proliferation of taped material seems to be eroding a habit that not only fosters family closeness, but has measurable educational benefits.

“Television, videos, audios--all of that is definitely affecting children’s reading habits,"says Patricia Koppman, a former San Diego elementary school teacher and principal who is past president of the International Reading Assn., a nonprofit organization that promotes reading. “I don’t think they spend nearly the time reading nor being read to as in the past.”

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Koppman is not the only one sounding an alarm. Marilyn Carpenter, a former teacher and national reading consultant, says a group of kindergarten teachers in 10 Mission Viejo classrooms recently took an informal survey to find out how many parents were reading aloud to their children, and how often.

“In these $400,000 to $500,000 homes, they found only two parents who read aloud regularly--more than once a week--to their children,” says Carpenter, who is based in Arcadia. By contrast, she says, many parents resort to “popping the video in the machine and putting the kid in front of the tube.

“It’s very scary.”

In her workshops for parents and teachers around the country, Carpenter says, “my observation is that there are not very many parents who are reading to their children.”

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Tom Cottle, a Boston father, author and psychologist at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, called reading aloud a “physical and psychological ritual of unparalleled closeness, one of the most psychological and cognitive intimacies that I know of.”

But in “today’s post-literate culture,” Cottle said, “you now have a society where the mommy or daddy who reads to a child is not entirely an anomaly but those people are bucking the major current of our culture, which is visual and audio, as opposed to literary.”

As a result, children may be losing out on “the sense of continuity and constancy, the cognitive connectedness” that comes from the simple family practice of reading a book aloud.

In two-career families, the practice of reading aloud to children can become a casualty of maddeningly tight schedules.

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“People just have such frenetic lifestyles today,” Carpenter says. “Children are getting short-shrifted.”

But Jim Trelease, author of what many regard as the bible on this subject, “The Read Aloud Handbook,” disputes the nobody-has-time-anymore excuse.

“If there is so little time in the lives of parents today, why do we have more shopping malls open more hours than ever before? Why do the number of video stores now outnumber public libraries, five-to-one? If they don’t have time to read to their children, why do they have time to go shopping or to rent videos?”

Some specialists in children’s reading tend to make a distinction between audiotaped books and videos. “The use of audio books doesn’t upset me at all,” says Amy Kellman, who runs a children’s reading program at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

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Audio books are often packaged along with printed versions, and children can follow the text as they listen to the story. Like their adult literary counterparts, audio books for children are often read by the authors themselves.

“We find that the audios are primarily used in the car, and not as a baby-sitter,” says Betty Takeushi, a former president of the Children’s Booksellers Assn. and owner of the San Marino Children’s Bookstore.

For many educators and children’s book authorities, videos represent a more direct threat. Since videotapes are screened on a television set, many experts lump them all together as a kind of television programming. The passive quality is what most alarms many of those who study children and their reading habits.

“I have a personal experience with this, because I have two grandsons,” now 16 months and 4 years old, says Patricia Koppman. “Needless to say, I have booked them to death.”

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Koppman says that with the older boy, “when we tell him to go find something to do, he doesn’t go to a book. He says, ‘Can I watch a video?’ ”

Koppman says her grandson is by no means alone in his electronic predilection. By the time children reach kindergarten age, the effects of so much video and television--at the expense of reading aloud--are identifiable. Many kindergartners are deficient in the basic language skills that come from hearing words read aloud to them. Further, she says, “We know that children don’t have the knowledge of nursery rhymes that they used to, when their parents read them out loud. They can’t quote them anymore.”

A recent nationwide survey of school-age children showed that “90% of them think television is more fun than reading, and 82% prefer video games to reading,” says Ruth Graves, the president of Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit children’s literary organization based in Washington.

“When you’re reading aloud, you’re developing pictures in the child’s mind, and you’re developing language skills,” says Graves. “You’re also building a bond around the experience of reading. That definitely does not happen when you plop a child in front of a video.”

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Reading aloud to a child is “absolutely crucial--the single most important factor” in determining whether that child will become a reader, says Byron Preiss. The former elementary school teacher runs Byron Preiss Visual Productions in New York, a company that packages and publishes books as well as audio and videotapes aimed largely at a young audience.

Preiss says his 2-year-old daughter Karah loves to sing along with music videos made for small children, but that he and his wife also make a habit of reading to her every day. “I don’t think there’s any question that she would feel a lot less interested in books if all we did was show her videos,” Preiss said.

“I’m not saying that there aren’t good things about videos,” he continues. “I don’t buy into the idea that they are always bad. The one thing I will buy into is that television or video does detract from parents reading to a child, and that is bad.”

Deborah Weisgall, a novelist in Lincoln, Mass., who is the mother of a 2 1/2 year-old daughter, said she reads to her daughter for at least a half hour each morning, and then again for an hour in the evening. It is not that she is averse to videos for her child, Weisgall said, “it’s just that I don’t even think about it. It doesn’t even enter my mind to rent or buy a video for Charlotte.”

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But Weisgall said she has no objection to children’s videos, “not if they’re good,” and referred to her brother and his family as a case where books and videos were happily coexisting. “They read like crazy in his house, and they use tapes, too,” Weisgall said. She described the videos not as some electronic pacifier, but as a kind of diversionary supplement in a household where reading aloud is very much alive and well. “It doesn’t detract at all,” she said.

Some specialists believe that in households where reading aloud is alive and well, audio and video books can act as supplements rather than distractions.

“I think it makes children more interested in the book, not less interested,” says Jeannette Brod, vice president of the Children’s Book Council in New York.

Linda Griffin, a mother of two, says audio-visual media “bring children back into the book, and help foster a love of reading in children.” Griffin is director of operations at Weston Woods Studio in Weston, Conn., a company that began adapting children’s picture books into audio and visual forms about 40 years ago.

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“It has to be done correctly,” Griffin stresses, with original texts unchanged and “every single word” of the audio or video adaptation “exactly as it appears in the book.” Under these circumstances, Griffin says, the audio or video format becomes “just another dimension in which to enjoy the book. What happens is that the children want to read it, as well as see it or hear it.”

Although there are no statistics, there is anecdotal evidence that many parents remain interested in buying books to read to their children.

Frances Alexander, a library technician at the Children’s Literature Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, says “Books for Children,” a publication that costs $1, is probably the library’s best-selling brochure each year.

“We have a steady stream of people writing and calling, asking for things to read aloud to their children,” Alexander says.

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These ongoing inquiries make Margaret Coughlan, a Children’s Literature Center reference specialist, think that “families that were raised with reading aloud are going to carry it on, to the great delight of their own children. I think there are families where reading aloud is still a ritual. I think there are families who still love to read aloud, and still have that desire to share a book with their children.”

Jim Trelease’s “Read-Aloud Handbook” has sold more 1.5 million copies since it was published nine years ago, Kellman points out, and another book, “For Reading Out Loud,” written by Margaret Kimmel and Elizabeth Segel, is now in its third edition.

“It just seems to me that the evidence and the publications tell me that reading aloud is certainly not dying,” Kellman said.

Emily Smythe doesn’t think that books on cassette tapes are detrimental to a child’s reading development. But she does prefer to read to her daughters, Katie Wincor, 6, and Meghan Wincor, 10, students at Sequoyah Elementary School in Pasadena.

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“When they were infants I’d read my magazines out loud, so I’ve always read to them,” says Smythe.

Every night, including weekends, Smythe and her daughters cuddle up with a good book. She has set a 30-minute reading limit, “but often we go to one hour.”

“My life is so hectic that I look forward to reading to the girls every evening. It’s our private time together. We don’t answer the phone. We just read. We’re very relaxed. Sometimes I’ll be reading and something I’ve just read will lead to a conversation about school or a situation the girls want to talk about,” Smythe says. “We believe that the more you read to a child the more they will develop the love of reading.”


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