To read aloud effectively requires skills that need to be mastered. One need only listen to Steven Fry reading ‘Harry Potter’ or Claire Higgins reading ‘Orlando’ to hear how much texture is added to the text by skilled reading. Fortunately we, as parents, teachers and tutors do not expect such greatness from our children. We do, however expect them to read aloud, particularly in the primary grades. It is how we gauge the level of a child’s ability to read. Unfortunately reading aloud in higher grades is often limited to paragraphs from text books, which contain little scope for expression or imagination. Furthermore the teacher will correct pronunciation of technical words, making the luckless student feel frustrated. This kind of reading is rarely enjoyed by the readers, and no more by the listeners. It is hardly surprising that students often refuse to read out loud or do so reluctantly. It seems that the art of reading aloud is being eroded. So whether you are teaching your child to read or reading to your child, here are some tips that you might find useful.
Effective reading aloud requires fluency, tempo and expression. So how are these achieved?
Fluency is of course is the obvious skill, but what is it that makes one fluent? Familiarity both with the subject matter and the vocabulary are instrumental. Familiarity with the subject matter allows the reader to anticipate what is coming next. For younger readers knowing that there are three pigs, that they are little and that they will build houses of different materials helps them, the readers, to build a network of possible words that may come up in the text. This allows them to correctly guess words which are not part of their list of sight words to learn, or in their spelling lists.
Familiarity with the vocabulary allows the reader to sight read words rather than having to decipher them. Knowing the initial sounds will help the young reader anticipate the rest of the word. They will often guess correctly, in which case you can ask “did you know that word?” and whether the answer is yes or no, the child should be praised, either for knowing the word or making an educated guess and getting the word right because he or she understood the context.
The second skill is tempo. This is not reading fast, but modifying the speed in keeping with the content of the text. Very often the words themselves will give an indication as to the speed. Try saying ‘slowly, silently, now the moon walks the night in her silver spoon’ quickly. The long vowels and sibilants do not allow the reader to hurry. In contrast ‘the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ defies saying slowly. Children’s books abound with onomatopoeic words which carry the story. These should be savoured as they are spoken, for it is only when they are spoken out loud that their full effect can be appreciated. However it is not only the words themselves which demand to be read at a certain tempo. The length of the sentence and its complexity will speed up or slow down the reader. Descriptive passages may be lengthy; they will set the mood and tone for the ensuing action which will have shorter sentences, depending on how fast the action is occurring. Let us not forget the pause. It is invaluable for both the reader and the listener; for the reader it allows time to scan what comes next; the listener is enabled to assimilate the information he or she has heard.
Lastly, there is expression; this can only come with understanding of the text. Of course there is the fun aspect of putting on different voices for different characters, but more than that, there is you have to know which words to give emphasis to. This is especially important when reading aloud as it helps the listener to ‘pick up on the important bits’. The words the reader emphasizes can change the meaning of a sentence. The inferred meaning of a sentence even as simple as ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is dramatically transformed if the emphasis is placed on each different word…including both ‘the’s. Try it and see how your listener reacts!
To sum up: familiarity with the subject matter helps build a repertoire of potential words; repetition of vocabulary allows increasingly fast recognition of words; speed of recognition enhances understanding of the text; speed of recognition allows the reader to choose a suitable tempo; understanding of the text allows the reader to use expression, thus making the whole experience enjoyable. Reading aloud has as much in common with acting and public speaking as it has to recognizing the printed word and gaining information. As with any skill, the more you do it, the better you get.