In Praise of Reading Out Loud

I grew up in a family of readers and I remember being read to as a child. I still have several Little Golden Books that were read to me and that I’ve read to my children. I look forward to reading them to my grandchildren within a few years.

Having spent my adult life in and around churches, I have been troubled at times that otherwise intelligent and articulate people seem to struggle with reading out loud. Maybe reading an occasional verse or two in Sunday School is the only time they ever read out loud? I have come to appreciate that the ability to read does not automatically translate into the ability to read out loud in a smooth, natural manner.

The ability to read out loud—so as to not torture your hearers—is an important skill that all adults should posses. I believe it is no different than knowing your multiplication tables or how to write a coherent paragraph. But reading out loud isn’t just something we do for children only until they can read on their own. We read out loud to them to help them increase comprehension and continue to grow in their understanding of the language. We read out loud to share stories together. I don’t remember any books from elementary school except the ones read out loud to the class.

Anyone whose duties include speaking in front of others should practice reading out loud. Not only will it help form your delivery techniques, but it can help you do a passable job from a well-constructed manuscript, even if you rarely speak in front of others, if you are a proficient oral reader. (Constructing that manuscript is a whole other matter.)

This skill is crucial for clergy. In a recent post, I lamented the poor impression we give when we are halting and fumbling while leading corporate worship. I surmised that it may come from an unfamiliarity with the service being lead, but it also may come from the failure to nurture the important skill of reading out loud.

Clergy must practice reading out loud as there is no substitute for practice. On occasion, I read out loud to my wife. Since she enjoys listening to audio books while she cross-stitches, I sometimes take on that role. This lets us share together in what we are reading, gives us opportunity to discuss it, and helps me stay sharp on my oral reading ability. It also builds our relationship.

Sometimes I even read out loud to myself. Some works are easier to understand when read aloud, especially if I am dealing with Elizabethan English. When words are set free from the page and allowed to be heard and not just seen, the shape of the prose as well as its meaning become more accessible. This is the same phenomena that makes Shakespeare a struggle to read silently, but easier to comprehend in a performance of one of his plays.

To read out loud well is not just the ability to pronounce words. That is a fundamental skill, but it is not the whole. Just like being able to sound the notes on the scale on an instrument doesn’t make you able to play a piece of music. It’s a start, but there is much more to it. There are parallels between music and reading out loud. We need to recognize which inflection is called for based on the sentence and see the development of tension or argument in order to give it proper emphasis.

Just as in playing music, to read out loud well you need to be able to read ahead, not fixating only on the word to be said at the moment. This too takes practice, but without this ability, inflection and flow of words is almost impossible. Listen to most computer text to speech programs and the effect is jarring. Each. Word. Is. Given. Together. Yet. In. Isolation. It quickly wearies the listener.

The next time you are home alone with time to read, do it out loud, even though it will be slower than you can read in your head. As you form the words in your mouth and set them free into the room around you, you will notice things you may not have seen before in a familiar work. If it is something you are reading for the first time, it will place you closer to the author as you engage in the words they chose more fully. You will retain them better and you will be better able to share them with others, should the opportunity arise.


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