On Reading Aloud

As children my sister and I were singularly blessed with parents who read to us, and read to us a lot.  I very much doubt that my parents were familiar with Mem Fox’s reading Decalogue: they simply knew that reading to children was, is and ever shall be crucial.

We were the more blessed with parents who read well and widely.  I know my mother won’t mind me saying that my father outshone her in one area: a lifetime’s love affair with the printed word and a background as an English and Literature teacher gave him a peerlessly fine, measured and sensitive intonation.  He was a joy to listen to.  He is still, if you can get him away from his garden, his beloved Wessex Saddleback pigs and his Aylesbury ducks.  In fact, I’d love you to get him away from the tomatoes, the ducks and the swine because now that he’s retired they’re all eating away at my inheritance at a truly alarming rate.

But my mother’s no slouch either: I remember trips home from school on which she translated Russian short stories on the fly as she read them to us.  She can still, if you can get her away from making fabulous quilts and taking a bewildering variety of courses on everything from esoteric nutrition to photo editing.  In fact, I’d love you to get her away from the quilts and the courses because now that she’s retired…


My sister and I sat listening, hour after hour, soaking up The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, the childrens’ books of Roald Dahl and countless others.  We caught the bug.  We’ve both still got it, and there isn’t a finer addiction you can have than a hard-core book habit.

But we caught something else too: the ability to read aloud well.  To read as if it mattered how you did it, to read aloud with something of the passion all readers hope goes into the writing of books.  Now I don’t, of course, want to blow the Adair trumpets too much here, so I’ll just say that they’re bloody good trumpets, and that when we’re on song we go off like a compilation album featuring Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis.

Now, weary years later, a large part of my working week consists of listening to my students read aloud to me.  All too often, that means being read to by people who were not themselves read to enough, and it always shows.

You can hear it right away: no grasp of intonation, no feel for the rhythm of the sentences or the lines: so often what you get is a regimented monotone – it’s like watching a doctor stare glumly at a defibrillator while the patient flat-lines.  But it’s not only a paucity of having been read to that contributes to an inability to read aloud well.

Primary school students are generally a bit better than their high school counterparts here: they don’t read accurately – anyone can read accurately – but they read with wonderful expression.  Where reading is concerned, sentiment is their forte.

They haven’t yet made that exciting adolescent discovery that repressing energy can look like studied nonchalance (in dim light.  To someone with advanced macular degeneration).  Clearly, it does need to be pointed out that primary school students are read to regularly by their teachers also, in a way that high school students aren’t.  Oh, but when puberty and high school start…

Now it’s obviously and unpardonably simplistic to generalise about the reasons why so many teenage students read like androids with their apathy circuits in overdrive.  But I’ve got a curmudgeonly suspicion that it is at least in part to do with a widespread feeling amongst them that reading with élan and enthusiasm is lame or (angels and ministers of grace defend us!) gay.

The ability to read aloud well is important.  And, to come back to the importance of reading to children, I’m certain that the reader raised tone-deaf is unlikely to recognise the music on the page if they’ve never heard it given voice.

And the skill of reading aloud well even has utility, although this is at best a secondary consideration for me: how many presentations or lectures have you seen given by a dull reader?  I’ll bet the answer is an emphatic ‘Loads’.  And how inspired were you by said lectures or presentations?  See?

You don’t have to be Nicol Williamson or Stephen Fry to captivate an audience when you read: the writer has done most of the work for you, after all: and it’s worth remembering that not even Fry could make J K Rowling into anything better than a hack on a roll.

If you ever feel a sneaking suspicion that after reading someone a really good love poem you wouldn’t get into their heart let alone their pants, then the probable reason is that you read it as though it was a shopping list.

And for that, you should probably blame your parents.


3 responses to “On Reading Aloud

  1. Another reason why drama should be a more celebrated and central part of the teaching curriculum.

  2. I agree, Bryce. I’ve enough of a theater background to incorporate drama techniques in my classroom — particularly when teaching Shakespeare — but it’s only nibbling round the edges. Ahh, if we only had enough time to do everything that needs to be done…

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