Reading Aloud

After my students too the AP English exam in May, I had some extra time, and wanted to try something new.  We’re supposed to read The Great Gatsby during the junior course, and, now having read that book something like 10 times, I wanted to mix it up a bit.  What I decided to do was read the book – every single word – aloud to each my two classes.

I have to say it was a wonderful experience.  I used to have a colleague who lamented that “silent reading” more or less takes over the American English ccurriculum after 2nd grade, and this was an attempt to counteract that.  I hope my students appreciated it.  I only got informal feedback, and that’s usually skewed in education towards the positive.  Most kids (though by no means all) respect me enough to keep their “I hate this class”-type comments to themselves.  So when kids choose to say something, it’s usually positive.  Still, they did share positive comments, rather than simply remain silent.

Most of the classes are 50 minutes long, so what I generally did was have a half-hour class discussion about the chapter we read the previous day, and then use the last 20 minutes to read the book to the class.  The discussions were vastly improved vis-a-vis previous years’.  This is undoubtedly because the entire class had actually done the reading, at least in some sense.  I think the discussions were also better because I was able to share some of the love of the book that I don’t get to share when they’re reading at home.  Kids even laughed aloud at jokes, something which is usually verboten among high-schoolers.

I myself also loved it, mostly because I noticed things about Fitzgerald’s language I would never see reading it silently to myself.  Catalogues of party-goers, classical allusions, onomatopoetic diction, extended metaphors, asyndeton, polysyndeton etc. etc. all jumped off the page for me when I heard my voice speak them.  The lyricism of Gatsby’s first few and last few pages is something I never get tired of, even if the book can, on some readings, start to feel a bit shallow.  Some phrases I had just never noticed I now have – like when Gatsby and Daisy appear to Nick “filled with intense life.”

At home too, I’ve been reading Ulysses to Brooke.  That one poses its own challenges, since the shift from interior monologue to 3rd-person narration to dialogue is usually far from clear – it might actually be easier to see when you’re looking at the page, instead of listening.  But again, for me, reading it aloud, I’ve seen things I never saw before.  Joyce very deliberately chose hundreds and hundreds of words to make the individual chapters thematically coherent.  We most recently read the “Aeolus” chapter, where wind imagery, words and phrases dominate.  What seems like a sort of abstract thought experiment when you just look at the words really takes on a life of its own when it’s spoken aloud.  And again, the humor of the book comes through in a way that reading it alone, by yourself, it might not.

So try it yourself – read something aloud, to someone else, to a class of yours, or just to hear the sound of your own voice.

(Though I wouldn’t recommend Kant, Nates…)

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5 Responses to Reading Aloud

  1. Nates says:

    Kant’s only beautiful on the page, in the original Fraktur script.

    This is a really interesting experiment, Josh. I wonder if the effect (meaning the extra stuff noticed when spoken) is greater for works written before reading aloud fell out of fashion. That is, I wonder if there’s a distinctive way of writing for an audience that will actually hear the words.

  2. Josh says:

    It’s funny you ask that. While reading Ulysses there have been several times where I needed to show Brooke how the print looked on the page. A lot of the jokes come from that, rather than the sound of the words. Like chapter 7 – it’s written like a series of newspaper articles, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading it aloud. Or in chapter 8, where the joke involving the phrase “U.P. up” is made several times. That joke isn’t joke aloud, it’s only with the printed letters that it becomes funny.

  3. Nates says:

    David recently recommended Mark Twain’s screed against James Fenimore Cooper: It’s a great piece, as one would expect from Twain. This led me to the Wikipedia entry for Cooper, since I don’t know his stories very well. There I found the following paragraph, which seems relevant to this conversation:

    The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder were criticized by Mark Twain in a satirical but vicious essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895),[9] which has often been criticized as unfair and distorted.[10] As scholars Schachterle and Ljungquist write, “Twain’s deliberate misreading of Cooper has been devastating….Twain valued economy of style (a possible but not necessary criterion), but such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists’ work. Writing with the expectation that their readers would often read their works aloud, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Cooper, and Melville favored a full, sometimes orotund, style that Twain and his fellow Realists a generation later spurned.”

    If this is right, then there was an 18th Century shift in literary style as people ceased to read aloud. Very interesting.

  4. Andrew Rehn says:

    Sorry, I’m a year late to the conversation and only have a person experience to add.

    I read part of Catch 22 aloud to my SO on the drive down to Memphis. It was significantly more physically difficult than I thought it would be. My jaw was sore when I was only 27 pages in (which may not seem like that many pages, but it felt like an hours worth of reading). The rest of the book I read on my own.

    Those first 27 pages were more laugh out loud funny than the rest of the book, and I think it was because I was speaking the words instead of just reading them. The delivery of the jokes were much more apparent when I had to stop and think of how to read them aloud. And actually reading all the words made me realize that I do a lot of skimming when I read (a behavior probably encouraged by standardized testing), which makes me miss the more subtle details of the writing (the lyricism to use Josh’s words). I thought it was an enjoyable way to share what is usually a solitary experience.

    Did you continue the experiment in following year?

  5. Josh says:

    Andrew – Yeah, I continued the Gatsby reading this year too. I changed it around a little. I read the first and last chapters; groups of students read individual chapters. I told them to be “be creative” in how they read it. Some split up characters and the narrator; others just went paragraph by paragraph. Some stumbled on so many words it was almost unbearable; others really had a knack for it. I think next year I’ll try to give them some sort of time to prepare their reading. One of the things I’ve realized is that reading aloud is a non-trivial task – it differs enough from reading on one’s own that you need to prepare a little for it.

    I don’t have problems with the jaw, but I start coughing sometimes. It dehydrates me a bit I think and also causes a weird sort of increase in body temperature for some time afterwards.

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