Do You Ever Read Aloud?


Read Aloud, Photo by Ben Stephenson, [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

You might be surprised to know that at one time, reading and reading aloud were synonymous. It was especially common to read aloud when books were scarce and literacy levels low. There is a sense to this. Books and other forms of the written word are a way of storing human speech, whether it is our stories or our history or our ideas about matters of ultimate concern. Much of the New Testament consists of letters that were read aloud in the churches to which they were written. Likewise, the Psalms were Israel’s prayer and song book.

I posted the question in the title of this post recently on Facebook. I found out that quite a few people read aloud, and for a variety of reasons.

Perhaps the most popular is reading to children and grandchildren, one of my own favorite reading aloud experiences. One person even reads to her dogs (they are in the middle of The Adventures Robin Hood at present!). Others read aloud to children in Sunday Schools and libraries.

Some of our reading aloud is simply to share something delightful we’ve found. My wife certainly has endured that!

There are certain forms of literature that derive from oral discourse. Sermons, sacred texts, lectures, prayers, and poetry are good examples. One person wrote, “I read poetry out loud to myself, especially poems I am working on memorizing.” Several mentioned reading out loud in the context of memorizing.

We read out loud to comprehend. For some, it helps in noisy settings. I find reading dense writing aloud sometimes makes it more intelligible.

Some of us read aloud when we are reading a language that is not our first language. Perhaps it helps with the comprehension, and sometimes for the rhythms of the language.

One of the most delightful practices I read about were adults who read aloud to each other. One couple took turns driving and reading on long trips. My favorite was this one:

I did so as a school librarian, and have read aloud in the evenings to my husband for 44 years. His and my preferences are generally similar, although slogging through the Iliad recently was tough for me, and Pride and Prejudice was enough Austen for him.

I thought that was quite lovely, and loving, that each would work hard to grasp something that the other loved. I wondered if this was what many others did in the days before television and streaming services.

I’m reminded that the rise of audiobooks also reflects that we love being read to, whether we are children or adults.

This leads me to wonder how often writers think about their works being read aloud, about written words becoming spoken words?

Your thoughts?

Mom, Dad, and Mrs. Smith

Mom, Dad, and Mrs. Smith. These three people are the reason I love to read. This blog probably wouldn’t exist without them (and perhaps a few English teachers who tried to teach me how to put sentences and paragraphs together).

There is Mom. My mom loved to read and even though things were tight in our house, she was a member of two book-of-the-month clubs. I don’t recall her reading to me, but I do recall sitting at lunch and talking about the books each of us was reading, even when I was young. It was one way we bonded, and I think her pleasure in reading rubbed off. Even in her later years, when reading was difficult for her because of macular degeneration, we would still talk books on our weekly phone calls.

Dad was the one who took me to the library when I was young and got me my first library card. Every Saturday, we would visit the main library and go down to the lower level where children’s books were, and he’d just let me roam. It was like being in paradise, and I’d bring home books on science, boys’ adventures, and baseball.

teachersMrs. Smith was my teacher for both first and second grade When I first learned that I was going to have Mrs. Smith again, I thought I had flunked. Instead, we were both promoted a grade! It was in Mrs. Smith’s classes that I learned to read. We learned reading through a version of phonics where we learned the sounds letters represented individually and in combination as they made up words, the written expression of our language. We had the classic “Dick and Jane” readers and could trace our progress as we graduated to readers with more and more words on a page, and longer, and more complicated words and stories. I remember workbooks where we had to show that we comprehended what we read. We’d read aloud and Mrs. Smith would listen to how we pronounced words and how smoothly we read and help us where we had trouble.

In later life, I’ve discovered that I was blessed with the two things critical to a lifelong love and enjoyment of reading. The first is a home experience where books are valued and closeness with parents is associated with reading. In later years, the “bedtime stories” we shared as a family became a cherished memory and turned our son into an early and lifelong reader. The delight in good stories and the physical and emotional closeness were part of what made this so special.

It was on a recent two hour bus ride that I was reminded of the other blessing, a teacher skilled in helping young children put all the elements of reading together. I was sitting across from a friend who is a retired teacher, who had worked for many years as a reading specialist and continues to stay up on the field. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned a number of the different things children need to do in order to read well. There’s the ability to decode words, to read with fluency, to learn vocabulary and to comprehend what one is reading. I was reminded of all the things so many of us take for granted that good teachers actually work hard on. They help young children acquire reading skills that will last a lifetime. I was reminded how urgent the acquisition of these skills in the early grades is for everything else children do in school.

At other points in the conversation, I heard of the “regime changes” that would lead at times to scrapping approaches that were yielding good results for new approaches that teachers would have to learn while reading scores suffered. I’ve heard similar stories from another friend who also focused on reading instruction. Both have retired from teaching, at least in part, because politicians have moved from simply giving proper oversight to education to turning it into a political football with teachers constantly on the defensive. Neither of these teachers was “dead wood” but rather skilled practitioners who really cared about teaching and about children. I would acknowledge that there is a conversation needed about those who are under-performing and protected by union contracts. But the vast majority of teachers I’ve known past and present are professionals who are good at what they do and love children, who increasingly feel they are not supported either by parents, or school administrations, or the state.

It seems to me that one of the most basic interests of our country is children who know how to read and understand what they are reading. It is telling that 85 percent of juveniles who end up in juvenile courts are functionally illiterate, and that 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a fourth grade level. It seems to me that rather than squaring off against each other, it is an urgent need for parents, teachers, and legislators to form new alliances to support each other in this critical task.

Each of us has an important part to play if children are to learn to read well (and acquire the other necessary skills to equip them for life, which includes the arts, as well as math and science). My parents’ generation, my school teachers, and even our government got that when I was young. Will that be said of this generation?

I don’t know. What I can say is, “thank you Mom, Dad, and Mrs. Smith.” You gave me a gift I’ve treasured my whole life.

Thank You, Gladys Hunt!

Keith and Gladys Hunt in the dining room at Cedar Campus

Keith and Gladys Hunt (c) InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, used with permission.

Yesterday, I came across a video on Youtube about the importance of reading, even ten minutes a day, to children. Unfortunately, it felt to me that the message of the video was fairly negative: read to your children or this is what will happen! We had a very different experience of reading aloud in our family when our son was growing up and this was, at least in part, thanks to Gladys Hunt.

Gladys Hunt passed away five years ago this Saturday, July 4, 2010. I first came to know her as part of the husband and wife team of Keith and Gladys Hunt who helped develop from its very beginnings, a conference center  known as Cedar Campus, located at the eastern end of the Les Cheneaux islands chain in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, owned by the organization for which I work.

Many of us knew her as “Rusty” for her auburn hair. She was not only involved in developing this facility and actively engaged in Christian ministry among university students, she was a writer who authored over twenty books during her lifetime. She was also a person who shared her love of reading first with her family, and then with students and staff who visited Cedar Campus as well as many others who came to know her through her books. Her husband became a co-conspirator in this enterprise, often reading aloud to groups of us by a fireplace the Winnie the Pooh stories of A.A. Milne. I had never discovered these stories as a child and delighted as much as the children in the adventures of Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Christopher Robin. We learned that these readings began in their own family circle, and eventually came to include the rest of us!

Honey for a Child's HeartWe learned more of the story of the Hunt family’s experiences of reading aloud through her book Honey for a Child’s Heart. The book describes their experiences as a family reading through The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Little House books, and many others. We learned of the joy of the memories of good books shared with one another. We learned of the most important criteria for a children’s book: that it not only be suitable for the age of the child but also one that adults would enjoy reading. And the book offered us a wonderful list of book recommendations by age group that we used to find books to read aloud in our own home. All of this contributed to the cherished memories of reading aloud at night before bed, snuggled on the sofa in our guest room.

On visits to Cedar Campus when our son was young “Rusty” would talk with our son about what he was reading, really just two friends talking about the books they loved. When he was older, Gladys was working with good friend Barbara Hampton on revising a book that was subsequently titled Honey for a Teen’s HeartThey asked him to contribute his own ideas of good books and his name even appears in the acknowledgements!

On this fifth anniversary of Gladys Hunt’s passing, it seemed a good time to express my profound appreciation for the love of reading aloud as a family that she imparted to so many of us. We still read aloud at times to each other on trips. Just last night my son dropped by and part of the conversation was on books we were reading. Reading aloud when our son was growing up didn’t simply save him from illiteracy. It provided a rich wealth of shared memories of family closeness and good books enjoyed together.

Thank you, Gladys Hunt!

On “Children’s” Books

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t said much about children’s books in this blog nor reviewed any children’s books. A search of my posts came up with one post where I used the phrase, “children’s books”, a post on C. S. Lewis from last fall. In my post September 2014: The Month in Reviews, I even noticed the serious tone in the books I’ve been reading of late.

At one time, this would have been a very different story! One of my treasured collection of memories are all the “read aloud” times when our son was growing up. We read lots of “children’s” stories together and found that the ones that were the most special were the ones we both liked best. We learned early on that good children’s literature is simply literature that is both age appropriate to the child and engaging for “children of all ages.”

I still remember our shared delight as we read I Am a Bunny by Ole Risom with exquisite artwork by Richard Scarry. It’s the board book we buy whenever we learn of friends who have recently had a baby. Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon was a favorite later on with its evocative story of a young boy and his dad walking in the woods on a snowy, moonlit night to go “owling”. We read all the “Little House” books (which I had never before read) and the Narnia Chronicles (which I first discovered as a college student).  We read several of Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction/fantasy books, which probably helped awaken my son’s love of science fiction. One summer, when my son was laid up with a broken leg, we read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy aloud as a family (probably my third or fourth time through these books). A special find was Jean Lee Latham’s Carry on, Mr Bowditch which tells the story of a young boy, Nathaniel Bowditch, who is taken on as a ship’s boy and begins to study navigation, which stimulates a love of mathematics and results in him later writing one of the foremost books on navigation of his day.


Of course, our son went on to high school, college and now marriage and with that, our “read aloud” times have gone by the wayside. And one of the losses I’ve recently noticed as well, is the loss of reading those books that are good for children of all ages. And so as I was looking for my next book to read, I picked up George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, one of those children’s fantasies probably suitable for children grades 3 to 6 or so, that I had never read.

I’m about midway through so I don’t know (nor want to know) how it ends. But one thing I’ve noticed is that while this is a much easier book to read than some of the “dense” works I’ve reviewed recently, that doesn’t mean it is by any means “light”. Already, the book has explored the line between courage and foolhardiness, the fears of the night that don’t go away with adulthood (are there goblins or other dangerous things out there?), the power of light to dispel evil, our conceptions of age (with the great-great grandmother), and the question of warranted belief. How does Princess Irene know that there actually is a great-great grandmother?

I think one of the things that makes this and other good children’s books great is that they are like life. I think there are “layers” of understanding in even the most every day events. Both children and adults fear “goblins” but the ones we fear may be different. A children and a grandparent can read the same story and the child identifies with the princess, and the grandparent with the great-great grandmother. Both children and adults wrestle between believing the trustworthy promises and listening to the voices of cynicism. As adults, however, we may be the one’s who have learned that cynicism, which is questioned in the “children’s” story. Will we be so guarded against deception that we miss out on wonder?

Perhaps it is time to revisit some of those stories I’ve loved and to discover new ones.

What are the children’s stories that have continued to speak to you into adulthood–the one’s that are good for “children of all ages?”



Reading Aloud

I’ve written much about John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University of late, perhaps because it is such heavy wading but also has some interesting ideas for those of us who spend time around universities. For this post, on a Sunday afternoon, I thought I’d focus on an unusual experience in trying to read him, and that was that I found my comprehension of Newman increased when I read him aloud. In fact, I found that his long sentences with numerous subordinate clauses actually made more sense when I read them as he might have spoken them–this book is the text of his lectures. At least one question this prompts for me is whether one ought do this with other forms of writing that are meant for oral presentation–sermons, poems, political discourse and more? (Provided you find a private context where you will not be thought a little nutty!)

In the past, I’ve thought of reading aloud as primarily something I did when my son was young, something my wife and I do occasionally on long trips, or something done on audiobooks–which I have rarely listened to. I do have wonderful memories of books read aloud, particularly ones where it seems the author wrote with the view of his or her work being read aloud.  I think here of Tolkien, particularly some of his songs and poems, or Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, one of our favorite children’s stories, or the marvelous Winnie the Pooh stories that I was introduced to at InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus retreat center by Keith Hunt, its first director. “Pooh readings” were a tradition for many of our ‘camps’–as much loved by students and adults as the little children among us!

What are your experiences of reading aloud?  Do you have books you would especially recommend that are good to read aloud?  And do you ever read aloud to yourself?