In my last post, oh so long ago, I tried to be encouraging about that reluctant reader, giving you some tips on how to motivate real reading (not rushing to get a reward or being forced to slog through something, anything, but real reading that is enjoyable for its own sake). And the readers’ comments are pure gold!
Perhaps some readers, even if wishing to instill a love of reading in their children, have some trouble reading out loud, which could be just awkwardness or lack of confidence of how to do it. Even professionals have trouble getting it right — have you ever started an audio book only to find that you just can’t take it?
So I will give you a little tutorial; I will tell you all I know.
My first moment of awakened listening to a book read out loud — having left behind the childhood comforts and made my way almost through high school to read on my own, silently, like all the mature folks — came in my senior year AP Lit class. Mrs. Stecchini was the teacher. Far enough into middle age to have solidified her methods, and utterly passionate about each and every book we read, from Chaucer to James, Mrs. Stecchini used her considerable powers of narration to draw us in. For even in this elective class, there were some who weren’t excited — and even those who were needed, she knew, to be shown how to read.
It was in this class that I shed my “devour it quickly” approach to books. I think those of my fellow students who suffered from real reluctance also learned something. Mrs. S. simply carried all along by sheer force of will. At least half of each (double period) class was taken up, simply, with her reading aloud, in a highly idiosyncratic manner, whatever work we were studying. Whole chapters of the densest prose were bestowed on our initially unbelieving ears. She was going to read to us? Like that?
And I had never, ever, heard anyone read the way she did. It took me weeks just to get used to it! But eventually, what I considered her slow pace and over-exaggerated emphasis on parts of sentences I would have just skimmed past, became the norm for me — and the artistry of the author we were examining was able to bloom fully in my intellect. (This was most true of Henry James, not my favorite writer, mind, but one whose polished prose is lost on most high school students who don’t have a Mrs. S. to guide them.)
Her class made me realize that I needed voices in my head as I read, that a good writer chooses every word carefully — so every word must be given its due, which means not more than its due, but also not less; that savoring good writing is its own reward; in short, that the reader is part of the art of writing: the writer depends on his reader to meet him halfway.
So — reading out loud to children, some thoughts:
Choose (and make) a good place. So many living areas aren’t conducive to comfortable conversation or listening — it pains Auntie Leila! David Clayton and I actually go over this to some extent in our book, The Little Oratory, just because family life in general is related to family life in prayer, of course. (Some reviewers called what we said “holy decorating” or decorating for a purpose other than a. to put things in a room or b. to make an impression.)
Mainly, consider pulling the furniture, at least some of it, away from the walls and into proximity with each other, so that some could sit on chairs nearby and still hear.
Maybe you have a ceiling light fixture, maybe not; but regardless, you need at least three lamps in any given room. Please, I will not tire of begging you, get incandescent light bulbs, if only for these living areas where a warm glow, not a harsh glare, is so very necessary for flourishing. You can always have an extra soup night to pay for them.
Of course, you might read in the hammock or by the campfire or in the tent or under the stars or in your big bed or by the fire, and that’s all good too.
Timing: it’s never going to work to try to read aloud when everyone is bursting with climbing, swimming, jumping, or running energy. Rest time is excellent (although dangerous for the overtired parent; in my later years with Bridget I would sometimes just say “Mama’s going to put her head juuust back here for ten minutes…”); after supper and the Rosary; before bedtime when baby is finally asleep. Everything has its time and place… but a really wonderful book will tempt you to “read one more chapter!” — which is such a joy, isn’t it?
Excellent reading happens when you know the book and know what’s coming. Even if you can’t read it first, you can read ahead in the text as you go, even a little, to make a big difference in how you sound. Read ahead by phrase, scan the page as you go. Your brain retains the words and you can speak them while your eyes move ahead; this skill is the very heart of successful reading out loud — once you get good at it you can help your children much better to figure it out for themselves, and then they become excellent readers out loud.
Reading ahead helps you see the words in phrases and plan ahead how you will use your voice to convey whatever emotion, tension, relaxation, drama, or other mode fits best. When you scan ahead, you can usually catch the occasional “he said in a low whisper” direction that’s unhelpfully thrown in after the actual dialogue, which you might otherwise read loudly or what have you. You can sort out who is saying what in untagged exchanges. You can foresee where a dramatic pause would work best. Et cetera.
Phrasing enables you to present a thought in a unified way. Because most of us rarely read aloud, and because journalism, not fiction, rules our day, contemporary sentences often just plop the subject at the start of the sentences.
Older fiction is more subtle, uses more dependent clauses, runs on with more freedom; hence, the ability to see where the phrase is going in relation to the whole of the sentence and even paragraph has a salutary effect on how we read.
Vary the speed of your words. One of my pet peeves with even professional narrators is equating slowness and even pace with effective reading aloud. Yes, fast is not great, but even Mrs. Stecchini wasn’t always slow — it’s just that when she did want to go slow, she really took her time! Some words are getting you to where you need to be; you can’t leave them out, but they point to something beyond. Some are tricky to process or have more importance, or have an unusual meaning that takes a moment to understand; these are the ones you linger on. The best books are written with a certain amount of irony and a sort of detachment from the narrator and characters; you’ll have to vary your pace to catch all that.
Silences and pauses are reading too!
Try voices. This can seem daunting and silly, but here’s the secret: begin with your own natural voice, making it the voice for the narrator. Another criticism I have of audio books I’ve listened to is when the default voice — the voice you are going to listen to the most — is strained and either too loud or too soft, and often overly self-conscious and dramatic. Relax your voice and use its best placement. (Rosie said: Be sure you tell them to have a relaxed default voice! I said: I am telling them!)
How to find this default voice, that is, your own voice? Think of the sound that comes out of your mouth as a soft ping-pong ball. The ball should be just behind your teeth, in the middle of your mouth, not in your throat or in your nose or caught in your palate or laying on your tongue! Relax your throat while you are talking normally to people and make some space there in your mouth for that ball! Soon you’ll feel how it should be.
Give the protagonist a slightly higher — slightly — or slightly lower pitch than your natural voice, depending on its sex. If the main character is a girl, pitch your voice slightly higher; if a boy, slightly lower (if you are a man, make a boy’s voice higher than yours but not as high as the voice you will give to the main girl in the story). Otherwise, keep the manner of speaking the same as yours, for this character. This is what I think of as the “default” voice, and the narrator as my own voice that I revert to.
Whenever you come upon another character, give it a slightly different sound — whether accent or pace or intonation, just like in real life. In fact, I sometimes make certain characters sound like people I know who remind me of them! Breathless like the checkout lady I always see, or nasal like the reader at Church, etc. Here’s where you play around with moving that ping-pong ball I was talking about.
And accents are fun; you can channel all your BBC favorites, giving each character a different regional accent. A drawl, a lisp, a thickening… just a little of this goes a long way, so don’t think you have to be super accurate or very consistent — it’s more just a flavor to keep each member of the cast separate.
NB: When you are reading Scripture — especially if you are a reader at Mass — keep all these ideas to the minimum. Sacred Scripture, though often very dramatic, must be read with gravitas (dignity) and austerity.
Gently emphasize difficult words. Many readers think that clarity demands landing on all the consonants… which too often means that it’s all Tees and Esses. Keep those light and give a little more oomph to the Dees (especially those at the end of words) and others. Names especially need just a little more daylight around them (that is, don’t run them into other words) so that they can be made out.
Listen to good readers and imitate them. We will try to get you a good list of our favorite narrators soon! If you search for “read aloud” here on the blog, you will find many of our recommendations for which books make the best read alouds — and you know what? They are the best written books. Sometimes we have trouble reading aloud because the book just isn’t that great. It’s a good test, actually!
Thanks to Rosie for all the reading aloud pictures, including the fun phone ones! (Although this last one is mine :)