Reading Aloud is Awesome

Who doesn’t like being read to? Really. It’s a grand tradition that we humans hold dearly. Initially we did it orally, passing down stories to another generation of eager listeners, then we started recording stories. We are read to as toddlers and children, but it seems that at some point in our lives, it’s not acceptable anymore. It’s like we think it’s childish to be read to. Well, I think that is wrong.

When in university doing my Arts degree, I took an English course about the legends of King Arthur. The main text we studied was Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”.  Well, it was written in Middle English, essentially a foreign language, and it was like learning to read again. Luckily we (the class) had an amazing professor to teach us how to read it.

First, the prof modelled for us the proper accent and annunciation, and provided us with commentary to give us a knowledge of the vocabulary and historical background.  When the class had to read, there was a sort of competition between classmates as to who could read best, added pressure to enunciate the words properly, and special attention being paid to the syntax in order to read more fluently.  Great lessons were learned in that classroom because classmates got to learn from one another, we did not have to strictly depend on our own understanding. I know for a fact that I got better at comprehending Middle English from just two classes of reading aloud than I would have just reading it on my own. Yes, there were times I was uncomfortable reading it out loud, but hard lessons aren’t easy. This is something I remembered when I did read alouds with my classes.

With my grade eight classes I recently did a novel study of “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien . It is a classic fantasy book that was written in the early 30’s, and it is a challenging read because of the vocabulary, syntax, and complex punctuation. Since there was only one class set of novels, my two classes had to share the books and could not take the books home to do assigned readings. This worked fine because the book was challenging, so I decided to start reading it to them.

I was surprised by how the students were totally engaged. All following along, paying attention to how I paused at commas, changing the intonation of my voice for things that were said in brackets, stopping to talk about things that intrigued me, and changing my voice to match the character’s mood, and so on.  Then some students (the stronger readers) would volunteer to read as well. As the unit went, I gradually made it a requirement for every student to read aloud at least one paragraph per reading session. At first, there were some nerves evident, but I just encouraged and told them how well they did, constantly reassuring them that this was a very hard text and that I also made mistake reading out loud. They had to learn to feel safe with reading out loud regardless of their performance.

As we progressed through the book, I literally got to hear the students improve in their oral reading skills. They were figuring out tough words, using the punctuation to help their fluency, learning about pacing and posture, and best of all, they became confident. One student, who at first stuttered as he read because he were so nervous, eventually was able to read smoothly and effectively. Credit to him for the mental toughness. He wasn’t forced, he wanted to do it.

I love reading aloud. I think a fair number of teachers still do it with their classes. If you don’t or haven’t, I highly suggest you do. I had read alouds with previous classes I taught, but this time was different. I think because I threw the students into the fire; I made them read out loud in class. Yup, some students were uncomfortable and didn’t do too well, but they got better and more confident. One might say they learned something. I think that’s what education is about…

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