Reading for the Pleasure of Others, Part 5

Reading together

Reading aloud well is an art form and a skill that we would do well to practice, especially those of us who use the Charlotte Mason approach for homeschooling. Reading aloud holds a prominent place in Charlotte’s methods; it rests with us to make that time a pleasure for our listeners.

That’s why we have been dedicating several posts to tips on reading aloud well. As we wrap up this series, I want to touch on reading poetry aloud. Too many of us have a phobia of poetry in general, and specifically, of reading poetry aloud. We most likely have heard many poor examples of poetry readings and may feel less than confident with this genre of literature.

Charlotte Mason loved poetry, and she encouraged students to have plenty of practice in reading poetry aloud. She wanted her students to realize “that words are beautiful in themselves,” and she counted on the teacher to set the example.

Reading Poetry Aloud

The good news is that the same tips we have already looked at apply to reading poetry also.

  • Breathe through your nose, not your mouth.
  • Slow down and look ahead in order to read smoothly.
  • Put final consonants on words to improve your pronunciation.
  • Make your reading sympathetic, faithfully expressing the author’s heart in your delivery of his words.

But poetry seems different. Maybe it’s because most poetry has a sense of rhythm, and that’s where we get hung up.

Poetry Reading Tip #1: Be aware of the rhythm, but don’t let it hold you hostage.

Read aloud the two lines below and see if you can find the rhythm they follow:
Thank you for the birds that sing;
Thank you, God, for everything

You can probably feel the syllables’ rhythm like this, in a 1-2, 1-2 pattern:
THANK you FOR the BIRDS that SING;
THANK you, GOD, for EV-ryTHING

The trick is to be aware of that rhythm and complement it in your phrasing, but don’t read it in a sing-song-y voice that punches each capitalized word. In other words, don’t overdo it. Let the rhythm be a subtle layer of the poem, not the focus of it.

Just for fun, try this one too. Read it aloud and notice how the rhythm is different from the previous lines:
Over the river and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house we go

This poem has more of a lilting 1-2-3, 1-2-3 feel to it:
O-ver the RI-ver and THROUGH the WOOD,
to GRANDfather’s HOUSE we GO

Now see if you can read the two couplets aloud in a way that demonstrates the difference in their rhythms but doesn’t give their rhythms an undue amount of attention.

Of course, not every poem will have a prevalent rhythm, but many do. And when they do, deliver your phrasing in a manner that complements the rhythm, but don’t let it take over everything.

Poetry Reading Tip #2: Let punctuation guide your pauses, not line breaks.

A great section for practicing this tip is these lines from To a Skylark by William Wordsworth:
Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine,
Whence thou doest pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine

Notice how the sentence and thought continues beyond the line break at the end of the third line: “a flood of harmony.” If you let the line break dictate a pause when reading this poem aloud, your listener would get a mistaken mental picture of a skylark pouring upon the world a flood! Then starting the next thought with “of harmony” would make no sense and confuse your listener even more.

Just as when you read biographies, stories and fables, and other types of prose, look for punctuation to guide your pauses. Don’t automatically stop at the end of each line.

Poetry Reading Tip #3: Focus on communicating the message of the poem.

The reason we don’t give undue emphasis to the poem’s rhythm or stop at every line break is because we are seeking to convey the author’s meaning. That is the ultimate goal. So encourage your students toward that goal, even as you take steps in that direction too.

Charlotte Mason emphasized that goal for both teacher and student.

“He should have practice, too, in reading aloud, for the most part, in the books he is using for his term’s work. These should include a good deal of poetry, to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honour; and that a beautiful word deserves to be beautifully said, with a certain roundness of tone and precision of utterance. Quite young children are open to this sort of teaching, conveyed, not in a lesson, but by a word now and then.

“In this connection the teacher should not trust to setting, as it were, a copy in reading for the children’s imitation. They do imitate readily enough, catching tricks of emphasis and action in an amusing way; but these are mere tricks, an aping of intelligence. The child must express what he feels to be the author’s meaning; and this sort of intelligent reading comes only of the habit of reading with understanding” (Vol. 1, p. 228).

Set a good example when reading aloud, but don’t demand that your students copy your manners and inflection. Poetry reading—or any reading aloud, for that matter—should not be an exercise in mimicry. Encourage each student to read with his mind and heart engaged so as to discern the author’s meaning, then to convey that meaning in his own way as he shares it verbally.

For after all is said and done, that is the ultimate goal of any reading aloud: to faithfully communicate the author’s heart with the words he chose.

Here’s to many happy hours of reading aloud for the pleasure of others!