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Last week we started a series on the art of reading aloud. Those of us who use the Charlotte Mason Method of homeschooling read aloud regularly. And Charlotte gave us some tips to help us read in a way that would bring pleasure to our listeners.
The three common faults she addressed are
• Indistinct and careless enunciation,
• Stumbling over words and phrases, and
• Gasping or yawning.
We discussed the fault of yawning last week and shared Tip #1: Inhale through your nose, not your mouth. Today let’s talk about what we can do to correct the second fault: stumbling over words and phrases.
Like Driving around a Town Square
Some people read like they’re zipping down an Interstate. They take off as fast as they can, set the cruise control, and don’t stop for anything until they reach the exit ramp.
But if we are going to read aloud for the pleasure of others, we must instead read like we are driving around a busy little town square. Can you picture that town square in your mind’s eye: the courthouse in the middle, the small shops and wide sidewalks around the perimeter, and the people bustling along? We must slow down and look at what is happening in the block ahead if we are to navigate successfully.
Tip #2: Slow down and look ahead.
“The stumbling reader spoils his book from sheer want of attention. He should train himself to look on, to be always a line in advance, so that he may be ready for what is coming” (Vol. 5, p. 221).
Slow down. We usually speak faster than we realize. Often we prattle along because we are familiar with the words. But we must keep in mind that it is often the listener’s first time hearing the passage, and we should pace ourselves for the pleasure of those listening.
A good read-aloud pace is about 150 words per minute. The book excerpt a little farther down in this post is 154 words long. If you’re curious how close you are to that pace, read the excerpt aloud and time yourself with a stop watch. You want to finish close to the one-minute mark. If you finish a lot sooner than sixty seconds, you’re reading pretty fast and would probably give more pleasure to your listeners if you practiced slowing down.
But just slowing down does not make for smooth reading. We slow down so we can have time to look ahead for hints that will help us navigate smoothly through the passage—just like driving through that town square. We’re looking ahead for points that will direct our pacing and inflection. For example, punctuation. Commas and periods are like stop signs and stop lights in traffic. When you see a comma, pause a bit; when you see a period, pause longer.
But there are many other things that a careful reader will notice and make adjustments for as she looks ahead. This book excerpt will serve as an example.
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ride upon a beam of light? In the first years of the twentieth century, there lived a young man who wondered about that. In fact, he wondered about a lot of things, and what became of his wondering you shall see.
“In 1905 Albert Einstein spent his days in an office in the Swiss city of Bern, working as a patent clerk. He helped inventors fill out the paperwork so they would own their creations and no one else could claim them. He typed out the forms and filed them in their proper places, chatted with his friends in the office next door, and ate his simple lunch every day at his desk. When evening softened the sky, he walked home and greeted his wife and newborn son, and then shared with them a dinner of beef and potatoes, or pea soup and cabbage” (Stories of the Nations, Volume 2, by Lorene Lambert. Taken from chapter 11, “On a Beam of Light”).
Here is a sampling of what my “looking ahead” radar picked up as I read that passage aloud.
- The first sentence is a question and should sound like I’m asking the reader something.
- There is a comma in the second sentence that sets off an important mental history marker. I need to pause at the comma and let the date register with the reader.
- The third sentence has a conversational in fact at the beginning and should sound like the author is chatting informally.
- The end of the third sentence is a teaser designed to entice the reader and give him a hint of what he will learn if he keeps reading; my voice should reflect that “tease.”
- In the second paragraph, the second sentence changes meaning if you move the word own. It would be easy to glance over the phrase and incorrectly read it as “their own creations,” but that phrase does not fit the rest of the sentence. I need to be careful to put own in its proper place in the sentence: “so they would own their creations.”
- In that same paragraph, the sentence that starts He typed has a series of actions Einstein did, separated by commas. I should pause at the commas and my inflection should indicate that each action is one in a list, plus giving the listener a vocal hint as to which action is the last in the series.
All of those items should affect the reader’s pacing and inflection of voice as she navigates through those paragraphs.
It might seem overwhelming when reading through a list like that, but think back to when you were first learning to drive. If you were to list all the items you had to watch out for when navigating down two blocks of city traffic, that list would have seemed overwhelming too: a pedestrian at the corner approaching a crosswalk; another pedestrian dodging between parked cars; brake lights two cars ahead; a bicycle coming up behind on the passenger side; a parked car with reverse lights on half-a-block ahead.
But the more you practiced driving, the easier it got, until now it’s almost second nature. You probably don’t even realize all the items you are noticing and navigating around smoothly as you drive.
And it’s the same with reading aloud. Slow down, look ahead, and keep practicing. You will soon be navigating smoothly through “busy” paragraphs with ease.
Next week we’ll look at Charlotte’s tips for speaking clearly.