Have you ever watched a play or a movie in which the actors weren’t that great? They just didn’t do a very good job of delivering their lines or communicating what was happening inside and outside their characters. The actors didn’t write the play or the movie, yet they had an important role in making it enjoyable for the audience.
In some ways, that’s like reading a book aloud. The reader plays an important role in making that book enjoyable for his or her audience. Charlotte Mason told each reader to take up a book “with the certainty that the pleasure of the whole family depends on his [or her] reading well” (Formation of Character, p. 221).
In a Charlotte Mason education, the parent-teacher reads aloud often, especially when the children are in the elementary years; but the habit of sharing a good book together should not be neglected with older children too. If you want your children to look forward to those read-aloud times, here are some tips to help you improve your part. The author has already taken care of writing the lines, the “worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told” (Parents and Children, p. 263). All you have to do is read them well.
So let’s talk about the parent’s part in reading great books aloud. I’ve been reading aloud to my children for almost thirty years now, and they seem to enjoy it. (Either that or they’re really good actors… No, they enjoy it!) Let me give you some tips—ten things that I have learned over three decades of reading aloud to my children.
Slow down. Use pauses. Focus on smoothness, not speed. Speed will come as you get more comfortable, but don’t focus on speed. Focus on reading smoothly, not stumbling over words. Your goal is to communicate ideas, not just say words. So give yourself time to process those ideas in your own head too. You can’t communicate an idea that you missed because you were speed reading. Slow down and focus on reading the words smoothly. Pauses may seem long to you, they might seem awkward at first, but they aren’t to your listener. Pauses can help your listeners. So take your time. And along with slowing down, Tip #2…
Enunciate. Speak clearly. Careless enunciation is a bad habit. The good habit that you want to put in its place is putting forth the effort to be precise and clear in your communication. If you want to improve your enunciation, a good place to start is by focusing on word endings. It’s easy to leave off those final sounds or to half-swallow them. You might pick only one ending at a time to work on. Try to clearly say final sounds—final t‘s and d‘s and p‘s, for example. But keep in mind that there is a difference between touching that final sound and hammering it. Don’t get caught in the trap of hammering final consonants; that’s not pleasant for anybody to listen to. Hammering sounds is not going to help us achieve the smooth reading we want to give. It will probably take a little practice to find the proper amount of emphasis to give those final sounds in order to enunciate smoothly, but your children will be able to listen longer and understand more easily if you make the effort, and they will learn from your example. Don’t be lazy; enunciate to communicate clearly.
Breathe through your nose
This one might sound a bit odd, but it works! When you are reading aloud, breathe through your nose, not your mouth. Inhale through your nose, not your mouth. This little technique will prevent you from yawning. Do you have that problem? You’re reading along and everyone is into the story, and suddenly out of nowhere comes a yawn. That can really interrupt the flow! Well, the solution is to inhale through your nose instead of through your mouth. Try it. It works. (Now, I will say that this little tip does not have the same effect when I actually fall asleep while reading aloud. Am I the only one who’s done that? Please leave a comment and let me know that I’m not the only one who dozes off sometimes while reading aloud. I guess that little tidbit suggests a bonus tip: get enough sleep!)
Modulate your voice
Modulate your voice. Don’t get stuck on one pitch as you’re reading, because it can get really annoying to your listeners. Monotone mumblers are not pleasant to listen to. In a way you are delivering lines, as an actor would. Especially with the books that we use in a Charlotte Mason education, there are living ideas to be communicated. So let’s speak them in a living way, seeking to keep life in our voices. You don’t have to become melodramatic about it. Just make sure you don’t get stuck in a sound rut and never venture outside one or two pitches. Listening to good narrators on audiobooks will help tune your ear to modulation that is done well. I’m not saying you have to imitate someone else; but the more you listen to a person, the more your ear is tuned to consider that way of talking as normal. So make sure you’re listening to good examples, and continue to grow in this area of modulating your voice as you read aloud (and even as you speak, for that matter).
Look ahead. Now, this is another reason we slow down as we read. You want to have time to look at least one line ahead of where your mouth is. You should be scanning for any upcoming challenges, like hard-to-pronounce names or difficult words. You’re also looking for helpful clues about how to deliver the lines. Sometimes an author will write the words that a character said and then at the end of that sentence he adds the dialogue tag that lets us know the speaker was whispering or was shouting or was laughing as he spoke. When you’re reading silently, your brain can put that all together just fine; but when you’re reading aloud, you need to know those clues ahead of time so you can whisper or shout or laugh as you convey what the character said. It’s awkward to get to the end of the sentence and realize you should have been whispering. Oops! Looking ahead will help with all of that. If you’re just starting out with this skill, here’s a little clue: look for quotation marks as you’re scanning. Usually those important dialogue tags will show up either between two sets of quotation marks or at the end of a set of quotation marks. Now, when you get more comfortable and experienced with looking ahead as you are reading aloud, you will also be able to catch any sections that need some editing. For example, if a character uses certain words that you don’t allow in your house, you will be able to skip right over them and keep going, and your children won’t even realize you did it. Now that my children are grown, they sometimes reread some of the books that we shared together during their school years, and at times they have told me that they didn’t realize I had edited some words on the fly as I was reading aloud. It’s a skill that comes with practice. The more you work at looking ahead, the easier it will get.
Practice with a story you know
Practice with a story you know and love. If you want to focus on slowing down and enunciating, modulating your voice, and looking ahead, choose a book that you are very familiar with. Select one that you know well and already have a good idea what is coming up and who says what to whom and how the lines are delivered. That way you will be able to focus more on the skills you are trying to practice rather than on all of the skills plus the plot and the new characters and their names and the wording style of the author and everything else that is involved in a new book. If you can’t think of any titles that you would feel comfortable with, ask a friend for suggestions or take a look at our lists of recommended family read-aloud books and choose one. Pre-read it for yourself. Get familiar with it and enjoy it privately first, then share it with your children as you work on your read-aloud skills.
Listen to yourself
This one is going to sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many people don’t do it. When you are reading aloud, listen to yourself. I had a piano teacher once who said that to me and it took me by surprise. She asked, “Are you listening to yourself as you play?” I thought, “No, I’m not. I’m just using my eyes and fingers to play the notes. I’m not using my ears.” Listening to yourself is a key technique to help you improve. Now that you know what to listen for—a smooth reading that is easily understood, pleasant to listen to, and that communicates the ideas—listen as you read. Use your ears as well as your eyes and voice, and you’ll be able to determine what might need adjusting. If you want to, you could record yourself during a reading; and if you have a trusted friend—one who will be honest as well as kind—you might ask her to listen to the recording and give you some feedback. Listening to yourself can reveal the areas in which you need to improve. Once you know those areas, take Charlotte Mason’s advice and work on just one at a time.
Expect attention from your audience. We’ve been talking mainly about your responsibility as the reader to deliver a good reading experience, but that experience can also be affected by the actions and attitudes of your audience. Since you are the mom and the teacher, you have the perfect right—and even the responsibility—to stop reading if your audience’s attention has wandered. Sometimes regaining their attention might require only a long pause and maybe a pointed look, and the disrupter will get the message and refocus his attention on the book. Other times you might need to stop the reading, set it aside and go do a different type of lesson that doesn’t involve reading, and then come back to the reading after that mental switch. And then sometimes it might require stopping and putting the book away for that day. That’s it. The privilege of listening to the story is gone; they have forfeited that privilege. If the situation should come to that, may I encourage you to close the book and put it away with an attitude and an expression of sorrow and regret, rather than of anger and resentment. We want to keep read-aloud sessions a time of pleasure, not of anger. Now, if only one child is causing the problem, another option might be to send that one disrupter out of the room. (If it’s a good story, he will probably listen outside the door, and that’s okay.) The main thing is to realize that part of your responsibility as the reader is to keep the experience pleasurable for all of your listeners. If something or someone is threatening that good experience, you need to do what needs to be done in order to eliminate the distraction and restore a pleasant atmosphere.
Stop at the good parts
Don’t be afraid to stop at the good parts. I’m not saying your children will appreciate your doing this, but it is a technique that has powerful results in many ways. Stopping at a cliff-hanger gives your child the opportunity to mull over what might happen next. He might not realize it, but he’s exercising logical thinking skills as he ponders different options. He also gets practice with creative writing by thinking through what could be the next event and how it might play out for the rest of the story. Give him that space and time to wonder and imagine. Don’t assign him to think about what might happen next. Making that a school assignment is a quick way to steal all the joy out of the book. Just stop at cliff-hangers or unresolved parts of the story and make sure the children know that they are not allowed to touch the book. Giving that time to ponder what was read helps with retention too. Taking a book in small chunks and spreading it out over time makes a deeper impression than binge reading. Your child will remember each section better if he is given time to live with it before moving on. Many of the best authors already incorporate good parts at the ends of the chapters, so you probably won’t have to search for them. But keep this tip in mind if your children beg for more. Don’t give in. That situation is a good thing. First, it shows that they are enjoying the book. Confirmation is good. But more importantly, making them wait for the next part of the story teaches them delayed gratification. It is an opportunity for them to practice self-control, and self-control is one of the most important traits any child will need throughout life. So be firm: stop at the good parts.
Give yourself time
Remember that reading aloud well, just like any other skill, comes with practice. Give yourself time to make improvements and to grow. Daily reading will give you that essential practice time. But remember: practice does not necessarily make perfect. Simply reading a chapter aloud each day will not guarantee that you make progress in your reading-aloud skills. Mindless practice only perpetuates the same mistakes. Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect. If you simply practice the same mistakes over and over, you will not improve. So invest thought and effort into those daily practice times—those daily read-aloud sessions. When you do that, you will see progress.
Those are my ten tips for reading aloud. Did any of them resonate with you as I mentioned it? Maybe you need to slow down or to enunciate more clearly or to modulate your voice so it’s pleasant to listen to, or perhaps you need to practice glancing ahead so you’re prepared and can keep the reading smooth. Maybe you’re just eager to try that breathe-through-the-nose technique that eliminates yawning. Whatever idea sparked your interest, let me also encourage with this one: small changes over time can produce big results. Be faithful to practice that one change every day as you read aloud, and you will improve.
It’s worth the effort. I think deep down we all want to become our children’s favorite book readers.