Literature is too often a silent affair. We sit and peruse our individual books in isolation. Literary types may discuss common loves—the monologues of Macbeth or philosophy of Dostoyevsky—but here the communion of literature ends, a conversation over preread passages. Shakespearean characters converse on the page, and poetry speaks to us in silence.
I have a unique opportunity; I read great literature out loud almost every day with children. In early December I read “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost with my twenty-three sixth graders. As I finished the final line, my most rambunctious student stuck his hand into the air, unprompted, and said “I think when he says that he has miles to go before he sleeps, he means that he has a lot of work to do in his life before he finally dies and rests.” That comment prompted an extended silence and we then all shared stories of times spent reveling in our dark Wisconsin winters. We shared these moments because we read together.
Later that week, during recess duty, students recited Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson together during their games of four-square. As they hit the ball, they spoke of miles to go before we sleep and the little bird that came down the walk. Even a few of the students that normally stay on the social fringes joined in for the day. When my class reads out loud together, there is a connection that grows between everyone in the room to each other and to the author from the past, and this provides a common interest around which students can relate to each other.
We experience literature differently too when we read it out loud. When just reading, our eyes skim, passing quickly over words, ignoring the minutiae, and at times even skipping whole sections. Reading out loud requires the pronunciation of every syllable. The musicality or lack thereof becomes readily apparent. Is the text in hand tinny, bulky, fluid? Fitzgerald becomes a poet and Edgar Allan Poe cumbersome.
Shakespearean characters come alive from the dry, dead pages. My students are timid at first but after I act, speak in accents, yell, scream, and laugh they begin to follow. A student chastised me recently when I tried to pull my class together for a short discussion because I had “interrupted her evil laugh.” In place of the standard complaints when work begins, my students often cheer when we pull our books out for collective readings.
The benefits of ‘read alouds’ needn’t remain abstract. Through this strategy, the teacher becomes something of a support, allowing students to access more complex texts with more advanced vocabulary, more complex linguistic structures, and more profound themes, characters, and plots than their current literacy skills would allow them to access individually.
Similarly, more advanced literacy depends not on skills but background knowledge—it’s difficult for some of my students to understand To Kill a Mockingbird not because they cannot pronounce the words but because they do not know about the Great Depression, Jim Crow Laws, or southern culture—and so reading out loud is an efficient means to teach something like history through books. Phrased differently, in their primary years, students learn to read; in middle and high school, students read to learn. Reading out loud facilitates this second goal of reading.
Accordingly, reports and studies into the effects of ‘read alouds’ confirm their benefit to literacy development. Nonetheless, I find such pragmatic and utilitarian justifications for reading out loud—they improve standardized tests scores—to be ultimately unconvincing. Rather, again, it’s the way they foster a shared experience and love of something beautiful.
I wonder how our political discussions would differ if every American had read the Declaration of Independence out loud in a group. I wonder if a paired reading of Langston Hughes and Robert Frost would do more for race relations in America than often questionable, corporatized diversity trainings. We can argue and employ syllogisms all day but stories and beauty change minds.
Reading out loud to my class is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my daily life, laughing at the jokes in Romeo and Juliet together or tearing up at Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict. Students are timid at first but eventually fight over who gets to read next. Thankfully, it’s a practice that needn’t remain in the classroom as books can be shared in any living room or around any dining table. Let us all read out loud together.