Evaluators who visit my classes sometimes cite me for not letting my students read aloud more, and I agree with that criticism—study after study shows the connection between reading comprehension and the ability to read aloud expressively. Each seems to feed the other, and, by taking the lion’s share of passages, I’m denying students the chance to develop internal reading voices.
Except… a.) few students seem to mind—many (most?) prefer not to read for the class because it’s awkward, plus b.) their readings don’t do much to foster an appreciation of the literature, especially the author’s artistry or tone, and I want them to think this stuff we read is cool. If I’m honest, however, I’m really being selfish, for c.) reading aloud is one of my greatest pleasures.
And, embarrassingly, I particularly love to read my own words.
Maybe the childhood ritual of reading a chapter every night ended too soon for me. Immersing myself in the rhythm of an author’s syntax always grooms my mind, lines up everything disarrayed, and quiets my mental noise. Each day after lunch my first grade teacher Mrs. Llewellyn read another few pages of Charlotte’s Web. Many of my classmates napped—that may have been the idea—but, for me, the half-hour of listening justified the whole day. I wanted to read like that, and Charlotte’s Web was the first real book I read on my own.
I urge students to read their essays aloud to locate errors and awkward moments. I’d be even happier, though, if they searched their prose for their own voices and worked to make them more vivid. When they come to see me for extra help, I ask them to read sentences and paragraphs to me. I nod when they say something valuable because I want them to imagine a listener who is hanging onto ideas and phraseology and expecting them to say something articulate and important.
It’s no exaggeration to say my wife heard every word I wrote when I studied for an MFA. It didn’t matter much if she listened. I just needed to think so.
But I sometimes wonder if my mania for loud and proud reading is neurotic. I wonder if everything I write is a really a speech or homily, a recitation or confession, a soliloquy or a cry in the wilderness. Maybe all of it is a desperate desire for approval. I might be a better writer if I could imagine a silent reader who assembled pictures and pieced parts together to make music of his or her own. I’m not Homer, after all, and no modern can be.
And it’s silly to think anyone cares. This spring, my officemates—also English teachers—staged some read-arounds in the afternoon and told me I was good at reading poems and passages. Big mistake. Reading aloud is almost invariably self-indulgent, stilted, or—in the case of your own writing—self-congratulatory. We all like to think we can do it… but we have little tolerance when others do.
I have to hold the phone away from my ear to avoid my message on our home answering machine, what would make me think someone would want to listen to my ramblings?
I wish I had a more thoughtful response, as—if you took the bait—you could be listening to me right now. But I have only this partial answer. What I really want is not to be famous or popular or amusing or pleasant or even artful or insightful or clever. I just want to be heard.