Learning to Read (Aloud)

jeromeI’m not an expert on many things, but in one area I can count myself proficient: reading aloud.

I have five children (and another on the way).  My oldest is twelve now, and for various reasons has always been above average at listening to books.  From the time he was three continuing until now, he has loved to listen to chapter books.  So for almost ten years, with an ever growing audience, with always diverse ability levels, I have been reading halfway serious children’s literature (Arthur Ransome, Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Laura Ingalls Wilder, etc.) aloud to my children.

That’s not to mention, of course, the myriad picture books.  But here’s the thing: pictures carry much of the weight in picture books, and the easier story lines and great repetition don’t require as much from the reader.  Whereas getting kids of all ages to understand and stay engaged in a semi-complicated story without pictures means you have to make the words come alive.

I hope you’re seeing where I’m going with this: the same is true of the liturgy.

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Now, I know there are readers famous for their fun voices for different characters, but I don’t think that’s the key to reading literature aloud.  In fact, my children get angry with me when I do voices – partly, to be sure, because I’m not much good at them, but partly because voices get in the way of the story.  What makes a great story great is not the voices, which aren’t on the page anyway.  What makes it great are the words.

vespersMy insight, at this point, is that the real key to reading is pauses and, even more, emphasis, at the right places.  You have to understand what you’re reading, you have to see how the words come together to form small and big units, and you have to make that come across to someone who is listening, half distracted, not as experienced as you, and unable to look back to the page if she missed something.

Consider the following:

“He ran until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, then turned and ran until he nearly reached the hedge on the other side of the field.  Then he turned and crossed the field again.”

Now, in these two sentences, at the beginning of a great series of books on sailing, we are introduced to the pivotal concept of tacking.  But at this point, the listener knows nothing about the topic and doesn’t yet know if the book is interesting or understandable – and meanwhile, we’re also learning about hedges and footpaths and fields, all of which are also foreign (at least to my non-British, city kids) and which are painting a background.

The key, again, is pauses and especially emphasis:

“He ran .. until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, … then turned … and ran until he nearly reached the hedge .. on the OTHER side of the field….  Then he turned and crossed the field AGAIN.”

It’s an art.  I find that in order to emphasize a phrase, you emphasize not the most important word of the phrase, but the word that kind of ties the phrase together: it’s not, for example, that “nearly” is that important of a word, so much as that “nearly-reached” is the key to seeing him use the maximum of the space.  Then somehow you have to make clear that the-hedge-by-the-footpath is not a series of details, but one key part of his path.

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A few months ago I was discussing Gregorian chant with an uncommonly excellent group of students.  Graduale_Aboense_2They said what’s great about Gregorian chant is that it creates a kind of monotone, so that you don’t have to pay attention to the speaker.  I was shocked that they’d get it so wrong, but I think it’s a common misconception.

What’s great about Gregorian chant (Leila Lawler’s lovely book The Little Oratory has a nice section on this) is precisely that it cares about the text.  Chant – when it’s done right – is all about loving the text, discovering the text, saying the text like you mean it.  And the same thing must happen with the readings and prayers of the Mass, whether chanted or spoken: like a father reading to his five-year-old, you’ve got to make the text come alive, both for your own sake and for theirs.  If there aren’t pauses in the right places, you’re doing it wrong.

We have a lot to learn about this.  There seem to be methods of teaching people to “read well” that involve hand gestures and voices and eye contact – but not the text.  That’s wrong.  And there are various forms of music, even common interpretations of chant, that are just as bad, monotones that obliterate the text instead of discovering it.

We need to learn to read aloud.  Which means we first need to learn to read.

How are you growing in your understanding of Scripture?

eric.m.johnston

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