Reading Aloud

I've heard that the number one fear for most people is public speaking (death is number two). I don't know if reading aloud qualifies as public speaking, but perhaps getting up in front of a group does. When I was in grad school I took a class that involved standing up in front of the class and reading aloud from a new short story every week. It was a small class, about seven or eight people, but some of the students were still very nervous. After each student finished, we gave a gentle critique. One student had the habit of looking toward the back of the room and up at the ceiling. Another shifted weight or stood on one foot. One read too fast, another too quietly.

Most of us have probably had the experience of reading aloud to a child, however. Perhaps even to a whole classroom. We naturally read with expression, giving different voices to each character, trying to make the story as dramatic as possible. We might stop and ask the child a question, or make a comment, and engage the child directly.

Reading in front of adults is much the same. But usually we prepare to read to a group of strangers. In the class I took we discussed strategies to make the reading go more smoothly. 

To begin, you would print out your piece in 14 or 18 point type with lots of spacing. Then you start marking it up, like musical notation. What do you emphasize? Underline. Where do you slow down and wait for a response? Maybe you make some dots here. Which words are important to stress? Perhaps underline in a different color. Where do you look up at the audience? Maybe here you put an X or a happy face.

Then you practice. Read aloud to yourself. Read to the mirror or walking around the house. If you stumble over a line, consider rewriting it, rephrasing it, or changing the emphasis. When you can read it smoothly, time yourself. Write down that number. Now, read it again and time it, but consciously read more slowly. How much time did you add? Probably not very much, but it will make a difference to your audience.

I also took a writing and performing monologues class at the same time, which complemented the reading class perfectly. There, we were directed to locate a place in our body where the character lived and to speak from that place, really focus on it and feel it as we spoke. It is amazing to draw out emotion that way. It can ground your reading when you are feeling it in your chest or stomach or legs, etc.. The words radiate outward.

There's a nice little article that talks about how we are used to hearing audio books or listening to recorded music, and that we don't spend much time listening live or reading aloud anymore. That is, unless we go to readings in bookstores, libraries, or other literary events. And there, I was happy to discover, readings can be living, breathing, exciting experiences, some even close to entertaining performances. It is clear that writers who read aloud today know that they are competing with videos, streaming t.v. shows, downloaded movies.

If you don't already read aloud to someone, consider trying it first to yourself, and then with a friend, and perhaps later in a group or at an organized event. You might be surprised at what you hear.

Lightning Strikes a Butterfly, 2002


Velma Bolyard said…
alicia, i was always afraid to read aloud. i teach emotionally disturbed teens, and read aloud to them every day. i tell them it's hard for me. they sometimes ask to read since we're all on the same page, so to speak. fearful and fragile and trying hard. the result is that i have them loving books, loving reading. (of course i have some awesome authors like sherman alexie to thank, too!) hearing a writer read their work is the best. everytime i read wendell berry i hear his amazing voice.
stephanie.h.n. said…
I have a friend who is a librarian, and they have such a passion for books, and love to match readers with the perfect book.