Anyone who knows me will know that I am a big fan of reading aloud as a means of developing understanding as well as promoting enjoyment in reading. It is commonly accepted that when children are read to on a regular basis by an adult, their chances of success in formal education increase dramatically; there are very few children who do not like listening to a story or a poem being read to them with great expression by an able reader. Some of the best teachers I know will read to their students daily, demonstrating to them the benefits and the joy of that shared experience.
However, there is another, arguably more significant role for reading aloud which is often overlooked, and that is its use by students themselves as a strategy to improve writing. Teachers seem more reluctant in the age of technology to encourage reading aloud as a strategy, particularly for older students, though ironically it is the ready availability of technology which makes recording and listening simpler than ever before. As this presentation from Peter Walsh at McMaster University in Canada neatly demonstrates, for those students who do not yet have a firm grasp of language and grammar, reading their work aloud, either to themselves or to someone else, allows them to hear their weaknesses, whereas simply re-reading with the eyes often has little or no effect when it comes to better writing. A further benefit to this technique is that when the developing writer is struggling to find the right expression, reading or speaking their thoughts aloud before committing them to paper can often make the difference between acceptable and accomplished.
There was a time when a great deal of time in school was spent on reading – and even singing – aloud, in turn, around the class. I remember well the feeling of dread as my turn drew nearer. Many a child was made to feel humiliated in front of his or her peers, and generally speaking, time marched very slowly. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spoken haltingly by embarrassed thirteen year-olds over the course of an entire school year is probably not how Shakespeare had envisaged it. Little wonder then that over the past three decades the practice has fallen out of fashion, and children are rarely asked to read aloud beyond the early years of primary school. Which is a great pity, because it is only by reading or speaking aloud that we can truly understand, or demonstrate an understanding, of the written word. I was reminded of this recently when re-reading one of my favourite writers, Hanif Kureishi, in an essay enitled Dreaming and Scheming – Reflections on Teaching and the Writing Life, where he describes one of his writers’ workshops:-
“In the hope of dissipating some of the self-consciousness, I play a few standing-up ‘name’ games, where people introduce themselves. Then we run about a bit, before sitting down to play some word games. Whatever you do at the beginning it will always take a few weeks for people to begin to feel at ease for them to be able to speak to each other about their writing or to read it aloud.”
Developing oral skills in young people takes time and patience, but it can also be fun. New technologies, such as MP3 players and – even better – simple hand-held video cameras and smartphones, make it so much easier for us to encourage children to read and playback the written word, to enjoy the pleasure of language and to reflect on their own performance, without the embarrassment of reading aloud in front of the whole class. Yet sadly, one of the unintended consequences of target-setting and data-crunching in schools is that teachers often feel obliged to move too quickly to writing, a full folio and and evidence of that which is often confused with learning – WORK!
For more on reading aloud see this previous post Reading Aloud – Not Only in New York