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Friday 31 May 2024

“Tell Me a Story”: Why Reading Aloud Still Matters

With National Simultaneous Storytime just behind us and CBCA Tasmania’s ‘read aloud to your child every day’ campaign in full swing, Lyndon’s post provides a perfect backdrop for the importance of reading from an oral perspective - hearing the words adds a further dimension.

Imagine, for a moment, that you don’t live right now—not in our time of Netflix and YouTube and Xbox and a hundred other things to distract and delight us—and that instead you find yourself, let's say, four-hundred years ago. What does fun look like to you? If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ve got your hands on a book of some kind. 

"First Lady Frances Wolf Attends a Read Aloud Event for Children at St. Paul’s
United Church of Christ in Dallastown, York County
by governortomwolf is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

But what about those shared moments of joy, the ones that are so easily created in the modern world with everyone around the couch watching some kind of event episode of a favourite TV series, or a movie?

"News Muse: Reading the newspaper aloud in a
boardinghouse room. Washington, D.C., January 1943
by polkbritton is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

The chances are that your 1600s self would find these common experiences by reading your book aloud, similar to Mr Collins being invited to share a novel with the family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (characteristically, he opts for a sermon instead). What’s interesting is that you would probably still read aloud even if no-one else was around. As Alexandra Moe notes in a recent article in The Atlantic, the contemporary image of the silent reader would be a real oddity, even going into some parts of the 20th Century. Indeed, we have historical precedent for this, with Saint Augustine finding it peculiar that Saint Ambrose sits in a garden and reads without speaking in Confessions. Reading out loud, it turns out, is hardwired into us.  Although there are studies that dispute whether it is significant in terms of our comprehension, it is clear that there is a measurable impact on the amount that we will recall later, even as adults, if what we are reading moves from our eyes and our minds to our mouths. The gift of punctuation—the breath-in pause of the full-stop and the quick rest of the comma, as so many teachers have reminded their students over the years—provides us with visual cues that might indicate the same rhythm and flow of human speech that the author intended in their thoughts’ transcription. Somewhere along the line they replaced the very thing they were created to represent.


In a recent article in The Guardian, Sarah Manavis admits something that many of her readers will find heart-flutteringly romantic, and others eye-rollingly lame. Beginning with a once-off performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol one frosty December night, she and her partner created a tradition where they read aloud before bed… a custom that has continued across seven years and a vast canon of the classics. A study by the University of Liverpool analysed the outcomes of a number of people living with chronic pain who joined a “shared reading” group. Alongside a number of positive effects that emerged from the experience, such as increased self-reported feelings of positive mood and quality of life, even when their reported pain had also increased, the study found that “literature was a trigger to recall an expression of diverse life experiences—of work, childhood, family members, relationships—related to the entire life-span, not merely the time-period affected by pain.” Many of us have always recognised that reading is a noble thing, but I have always worried that we sold it as if it were Brussels sprouts—something “good for us” to be quickly choked down so that we can get on to everything else. On one level, yes, the reading undertaken by these groups is operating as its own kind of medicine, but on another level, the data seems to indicate that reading aloud with a group—once we get past the nerves—is valuable because it’s fun. It exists, at its best, at the intersection between performance, writing and audience, and it gives us a shared vocabulary of story.


There are some of us who have not forgotten the skill that is in our DNA. I’m talking, now, to those of us who cannot cook without reciting the recipe, who chant the day’s tasks as we wander throughout the day like it’s a daily prayer; those of us who wouldn’t dare read a poem without at least whispering it under our breath to find the cadence and flow, or who must recite an email back to check for tone before sending it. I think of the wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett, in his struggle with Alzheimer’s, who woke up one day and accused his assistant Rob Wilkins of stealing the letters from his keyboard, but who found it possible to keep writing using dictation. There is nothing wrong with reading and working quietly, or even silently—especially in a busy world in which sometimes it is the only way to get things done in communal environments—but I wonder if overall the pendulum hasn’t swung too far… have we lost something in our calm insistence that the writer and the reader talk to each other only in their own minds?


Back in our modern world, we live in a landscape of inputs. Our TV screens and speakers, our headphones and handheld devices; all of them feed in far more than they ever feed out. The reader, in almost every instance, is the passive responder: a sponge, absorbing, absorbing, absorbing. Yet by the same token, how long have teachers been encouraging their students to read quietly to themselves when editing something, to catch the cadence of the phrasing, the flow of the sentences, and the little words that look right at first glance but reveal their lack of clarity or spelling the moment they are given breath? Reading aloud, of course, doesn’t have to be loud. It can be as soft as a whisper or a mutter, an almost-unnoticeable verbal acknowledgment of the true nature of the tale.

"SAKURAKO reads book aloud to a grandma." by MIKI Yoshihito.
is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It's what we’re hard-wired for. From the beginning, stories were always meant to not only be read, but heard.


Maybe it’s time for us to let them speak once more.


Lyndon Riggall is a writer, teacher, and co-president of the Tamar Valley Writers Festival. You can find him on social media @lyndonriggall and at http://www.lyndonriggall.com. 

1 comment:

  1. YES! Couldn't agree more! Thank you for sharing your insights and research Lyndon.