I once worked with an organist who had been taught the mechanics of playing the instrument. She had also been informed about the idea of “playing with feeling” and was careful to vary the speed and volume of the piece she was performing. The only trouble was that she threw in those variations at random. They did nothing to communicate the song itself or what the composer intended or felt as he created it.
We’ve probably all heard readers who do the same thing. They are careful to enunciate and they’ve practiced enough that they don’t stumble over the words, yet they seem to hold the passage at arm’s length. And I’m not referring to an eyesight issue; I’m talking about emotionally at arm’s length. It’s as though they have not entered into an understanding with the author. They do not share the same sentiments and, thus, are not communicating the author’s heart.
Charlotte Mason urged us toward, what she called, “sympathetic” reading.
Reading with Sympathy
“If reading is to be pleasant to the listeners, the reading itself must be distinct, easy, and sympathetic” (Vol. 5, p. 220).
In this series on reading aloud, we’ve already looked at how to make our reading “distinct,” by enunciating clearly, and “easy,” by looking ahead so as not to stumble.
The third component Charlotte called to our attention is “sympathetic” reading. Sympathy means to share or understand the sentiments or ideas of someone—in this case, the author of the book we’re reading aloud. It denotes an understanding between people, a common feeling.
When you are reading aloud you have the privilege and responsibility to communicate what the author intended. So it is obvious that you, yourself, need to understand the passage first. But you also need to convey that intention in your delivery of his or her words.
Think about which words should be emphasized to best convey the meaning. Use expression, but not just random rises and falls of the voice: deliver the lines. Tell the story. Paint the scene. Don’t just say words.
This is not the time to be timid or self-conscious. You have been given a trust by the author to communicate his or her heart. As you approach that responsibility with care and enthusiasm, your children will find it easier to pay full attention and learn.
“The teacher reads with the intention that the children shall know, and therefore, with distinctness, force, and careful enunciation; it is a mere matter of sympathy, though of course it is the author and not himself, whom the teacher is careful to produce” (Vol. 6, p. 244).
Listen to yourself. Start with a short passage. Record yourself reading a paragraph, then play it back and really listen to it. Does it grab your attention and convey the author’s heart? Can you understand the words clearly? How is the pace and smoothness of delivery?
If you don’t like what you hear, take steps to improve. As with anything worthwhile, it takes practice to become proficient. But be encouraged that it gets easier the more you do it.
And best of all, in this art of reading aloud well, any effort you put forth—large or small—will increase the pleasure of your loved ones who are listening.
Next week we will wrap up this series with some pointers on reading poetry aloud.