Reading Out Loud

There’s a famous episode in book 6 of the Confessions where Augustine takes special note of the fact that Bishop Ambrose had the habit of reading silently to himself:

But when [Ambrose] was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good. (Confessions Book VI)

Augustine’s apparent surprise at seeing Ambrose reading without vocalizing–he even spends time speculating as to the reason why–has caused many people to wonder about how people read in the ancient world, and whether or not reading silently was an anomaly. This question seems rather controversial–and perhaps people are misreading Augustine’s surprise in this frequently referenced passage. (Check out this 2015 interview with Daniel Donoghue of Harvard on the subject.)

Others have argued that since Latin (and Greek) did not have spaces between words or punctuation, reading aloud made texts easier to comprehend. I mean, the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid would actually look like this:


Or, in English:


Imagine hundreds of lines of that!

The line reads, “Of arms and the man I sing, he who first from the shores of Troy…” For another example, take a look at this beautiful 1,600 year old illuminated manuscript page of the Aeneid digitized by the Vatican:

So you can kind of see that the argument about reading out loud for clarity as your eyes interpret a long series of letters without punctuation or spacing might have some weight.

Whatever the case might have been for the ancients and medievals, it seems that most of the reading we do nowadays is silent. Texting, twitter, and other social media platforms don’t require speaking out loud; nor do they usually involve in-person contact unless you happen to be showing a friend a juicy text you just received from a potential admirer. And even then, I suspect that 70% of the time people usually pass their phones over for the friend to read the text for herself.

I read rather quickly, and reading silently certainly accelerates my pace and allows me to read a lot more. But sometimes I wonder how well I read when I don’t have the demands of vocalizing or listening to others to slow me down.

In my Jane Austen seminar I’ve been reminded again just how delightful it really is to read out loud with others. Austen is more funny when you read her aloud. (So is Flannery O’Connor, by the way; so if you’ve had trouble getting into her stories make sure you’re attempting your best Southern accent with friends.) There’s kind of a social dimension to humor; we are more likely to laugh when we hear others laughing. And I don’t think this is superficial or merely herd instinct or groupthink–I think there are real elements of a text that can come out more clearly in community.

In Austen’s novels themselves you often encounter scenes where characters read aloud to one another: Mr. Collins boring the Bennet family with Fordyce’s Sermons or Henry Crawford charming Fanny Price and the Bertrams with Shakespeare. One thinks also of Marianne decrying Edward Ferris’ lifeless reading of Cowper in Sense and Sensibility:

Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!

Jane Austen herself, according to John Mullan, seems to have been a bit particular about how to voice each of her characters appropriately. In a fascinating interview you can listen to here, Mullan explains,

There’s quite an interesting, telling complaint in one of Jane Austen’s surviving letters to her sister, Cassandra, that Jane Austen and her mother have just received the first delivery of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and they’re reading it aloud. She complains that her mother doesn’t make sufficient distinction between the voices of the characters, because the novel is like a play script as well as being a novel, and Jane Austen has written the dialogue in order that you be able to hear and distinguish the character voices and what they’re like from their voices, and she complains that her mum doesn’t quite get it right. So I very much think that reading aloud generated that attention to what literary critics call ‘idiolect’: the way people speak which is singular to them.

Can you imagine Jane Austen reading her newly published work out loud with her family? How wonderful to have experienced that!

When I was teaching high school, especially in the first couple of years, I was afraid to spend time in class reading passages out loud to my students lest they think I was condescending to them or treating them like little kids. But I soon discovered that some of them had never been read to at home, and many of them had trouble reading anything at all. It became clear that if many of them were going to learn how to read better or at least approach challenging works with more open-ness it would require a communal effort.

It took me a while to get the hang of it–my voice had to get stronger–and I had to be willing to take more risks in trying to adopt different voices and tones and pitches. In Huckleberry Finn Twain adjusts the spelling of his words to echo the accents of his characters, so in order to read the dialogue comprehensibly you need to adopt a Southern drawl (which tickled my Louisiana students when they heard their Boston-born teacher attempt it!)

Some of my favorite memories of teaching are the classes I spent reading out loud with my students. We could pause and I could give some explanation or background, they could ask questions about what certain words or phrases meant, and all of us could laugh out loud or gasp or groan together. You could see many of their faces light up as even Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter started to seem a little less laborious.

I was reminded of that experience again in the Austen seminar. I often take on the role of narrator, but I often ask others in the group to take on the speech of Darcy or Elizabeth or Lady Catherine, just as you might when reading a play. And the result is marvelous. Besides discussing the nuances and artistry of a well-written story, sometimes it’s just good to simply sit back and enjoy it together, to let Jane Austen speak for herself.

If you don’t currently have a space in your life where you read literature out loud with others, I highly recommend asking a friend or family member to join you to try it. It’s good for the soul.

Reading Devotions to Grandfather (1893). Albert Anker (Swiss, 1831-1910)

Reading to Learn and Learning to Read

There are lots of assumptions about high school students you have to get rid of when you become a teacher.

The first is that most high school students know how to read.

This group of kiddos, born around the year 2000 (!), grew up with internet, cellphones and an increasingly frantic cultural emphasis on the soundbite, the status update, and the hashtag. It’s sobering to realize that most of them do not remember dial-up.

Even when I was in elementary school, computer typing classes with boxy, green-screen machines were in vogue. Judging by the widespread pushes in education nowadays about iPads for every child, I can only imagine that for many of my kids technology already was a big part of their elementary school experience – Smartboards, Youtube videos, Powerpoints, even “educational” video games… again, useful vehicles for condensing information into small, digestible bites.

Baby food, but not meat and potatoes.

The point is that unless these high school students had parents who read to them every night, access to lots of books, encouragement from their families, and a special type of intellectual thirst that can’t be quenched by television or wikipedia, they inevitably suffer from an inability to read in order to learn. 

They are still too busy learning how to read for extended periods of time in the first place.

Unfortunately, in high school, most textbooks assume that you already know how to read. Most teachers do, too. For social studies you might be assigned a chapter about the origins of the American revolution and quizzed the next day, under the assumption that you learned something from reading it (or that you read the chapter tat all). Or in science you read a chapter about mitosis and meiosis and later you’re expected to explain the process yourself. Or even in math, the text gives you charts and graphs and directions – and sometimes even word problems – and you must have both sides of your brain working at once to tackle the problem.

But of course all that kind of reading requires a lot of patience, mental stamina and an awareness (learned in fairytales and other classic literature) that people often do not say what they mean, nor do they really mean what they say. But if you haven’t read about deceptive witches and foolish greedy children who eat Turkish delight, then you come into high school totally unprepared for the biases and hidden agendas sprinkled throughout most texts you encounter.

I find myself, when teaching, trying to find ways to make complex directions and concepts as short and simple as possible. I have even adopted catchy phrases to help my kids remember how to write thesis statements (“A is B because of 1, 2, 3!”) and explain quotes (“remember, quotes can’t speak for themselves!”) and even sit up straight (“SLANT!”). That is what the teacher books tell me to do.

I’m trying to meet my kids where they are, so that’s okay I guess. But sometimes with my own use of Youtube videos, graphic organizes, and gimmicks, I feel like I’m exacerbating the problem and catering to their infirmities rather than helping them learn how to really read.

I’m not saying that all my students suffer from this malady. I do have a few very strong readers – far better than I was at their age. But year after year, that number is growing smaller. And I am faced, as an English literature teacher, with introducing Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Dante’s Inferno to a group of people who need to learn how to read before they can to read in order to understand.

High school teachers are not themselves prepared to teach reading. Our own certification is based largely on our content knowledge – not on our ability to impart basic skills. There are many times when I wish I had been in ACE’s middle school or even elementary English content class so that I would have a better grasp of how children learn how to read in the first place.

It’s very difficult to teach someone how to do something you don’t remember learning how to do yourself. This is true with teaching writing but even more true of teaching reading. All I can remember is being constantly read to and suddenly — seemingly out of nowhere — reading C. S. Lewis for myself. I doubt this was the actual course of events but that is the way I remember it. And I read Lewis in order to learn – because I was curious about miracles and the problem of pain and all the rest of it.

Unfortunately, many of my kids read in order to avoid bad grades. Or to get good ones. Or they simply don’t read.

Cris Tovani, a reading strategies specialist, has been a huge help to me in the last few years in breaking down the complexities of the reading process. If you are at a high school teacher like me, often at a loss as to how to bridge the gap of years of little reading in your kids, check out her books.

You’d be reading to learn yourself – but perhaps eventually you’ll be able to pass that invaluable skill on to your students.


New Teacher Temptation #1

There is a new English teacher at my school who is working with the freshman. I love her! She has done so well – especially coming in halfway through the year and working hard to establish great procedures. But like all new teachers, she is overwhelmed.

I have loved talking with her and remembering my own first year teaching. I am doing my best to help her not succumb to the same worries and temptations that I did – or, at the very least, to be aware of them.

One we were discussing recently is new teacher temptation #1:

The idea that unless you are talking the whole class period and exhausting yourself, you are being a lazy teacher and your kids aren’t learning.

Or, it can also manifest itself this way:

The idea that if your kids are working silently for long periods of time and you are not talking to the whole class, you are being a bad teacher.

Both of these ideas are completely false, but they are chronic worries for the new teacher and sometimes even for the more experienced teacher.

These tempting but utterly misleading ideas arise for many reasons. One is that some teachers, who merely pass out worksheets all day and sit behind their desks while the kids do them (or don’t do them), are being bad teachers. If that practice is your modus operandi, there is something seriously wrong. I saw this practice occurring a lot at my old school and I wanted to be as different from that as possible — and so I thought that it was my job to be the entertaining center-of-attention in my classroom.

Like this:

So exciting. Source:

If you google “teacher cartoon” on google images, you’d see how most of the pictures look like this, because this is what society thinks teaching should look like. Teacher talking, chalkboard behind him or her, and coffee.

But that’s not always true.

New teachers: the center of attention in your classroom should not be you. It should be student learning.

Whatever methods get you there are good methods.

Sometimes that means you, as a teacher, need to do most of the talking during a certain lesson. Other times that means the kids need to do most of the talking. Other times that means nobody needs to do ANY talking for a certain period of time.

The point is, you want to find the most helpful and efficient way to facilitate learning in your kids.

This is a nice picture, but I bet you very little actual learning is going on here:


I mean, how could it be? The blonde boy will have an aching neck in a moment, the girl with the pig tails can barely see the text, and the boy with his mouth open in astonishment is pointing at a conspicuously huge and picture-less volume that is probably not as thrilling as the picture wants you to believe. Only the girl on the right seems to be reading.

I mean, these pictures look a lot more realistic to me, albeit less glamorous:



My friend, the new freshman teacher, was wondering if it would be okay for her to spend a few days having the kids read a challenging text individually in class (since they probably wouldn’t read it outside of class) and answer questions about it. I gave her some further ideas about how to differentiate.

“Are you sure that’s okay?” she said. “I mean, it’s going to be really quiet in my room for the next couple of days. It’s okay to have them read during class? By themselves?”

I affirmed that it was, indeed okay – in fact, wonderful – because it was the simplest way for her to help her kids achieve the learning goal.

I couldn’t help but think of Harry Wong saying “Get to work! Get to work! Get to work!” in his video on classroom management.  But he is right. The point is not to make yourself work (although, inevitably, that will happen). The point is to make the kids work:


Here’s an example of a choice I made today that I would have had a very hard time making my first year:

We’re starting a new unit (our last unit!) on Dante’s Inferno. Here is my objective:

SWBAT explain historical context and background information for Dante.

My first year of teaching (and my second… and my third…) I would have felt it was my responsibility to give the kids information like this. After all, some of them haven’t even heard of Dante, and none of them know more than one or two facts about him. So I probably would have made a guided notes sheet and a power point presentation where I used “direct instruction” (translation: teacher talking, students listening and taking notes) to get the important facts about Dante into the kids’ heads. After all, “explain” is a very low-level Bloom’s verb and so taking on the more active role is not a bad idea.

But this year I realized that this method was not the most effective way for my kids to learn about Dante’s life and times.

So instead, this year, I created a packet with critical questions and suggestions for helpful websites. Then I took them to the library and they researched Dante’s life themselves and answered the questions, citing the sources. All I did was walk around, observe, keep them on track, and help them when necessary.

Tomorrow I will briefly go over the answers with them just to make sure they have their facts straight.

My classroom was not only quiet today, it was empty.

And the library was pretty quiet too.

But the point is, it was much more powerful for the kids to find the information for themselves rather than merely receiving it from me. They will be more likely to remember it, too.

I still felt a little guilty. That New Teacher Temptation made me want to explain myself to our librarian, to assure her that I wasn’t just taking the day off.

But I resisted.

New teachers – trust yourselves. Pick the method that will help your kids learn — not the one that makes you look good.