Despite the fact that I am recommending shorter school days and fewer subjects, I am convinced that reading aloud should be a big part of every class plan.
Reading and writing are a fundamental part of the curriculum, and have been for many centuries, we know that; but we forget how unnatural they are. Speech isn’t unnatural. On the contrary, it’s innate. All human beings speak and consequently grasp the complex relationships between things and ideas on the one hand and abstract elements of expression on the other. A baby learns very early on that certain sounds of lips, tongue, and vocal cords means mother or food or dog.
Many peoples have gone beyond verbal expression to pictures, though perhaps not all peoples. Pictures seem to be a natural but not universal impulse of humankind. We have to be taught to interpret them, which may come as a surprise to those of us who have seen pictures from our birth. But the ability to interpret from two to three dimensions, to understand representational perspective and comparative size, or whatever the dominant conventions are in each artistic tradition – these are learned traits, albeit learned by almost all humans.
Writing and the ability to read writing, on the other hand, have been rare accomplishments in human history. They developed relatively recently – so far as we know, the vast majority of human life on earth was writing-free. Usable systems of writing were developed in a few places and still haven’t spread to all languages and peoples. Even in those places where writing was well established – Mesopotamia, China, India, Egypt, Central America – a tiny minority of people ever learned to read and write at all; in these days of attempts at universal literacy, I’d still contend that only a minority are fully fluent in written language. Literacy is not natural or universal, nor will it ever be, however wonderful our schools become.
This seems like a self-defeating claim for a teacher of writing and literature to make. It’s not, though. It is an important foundation of my efforts to teach both basic and fluent literacy.
Basic literacy is the ability to match abstract shapes with – in our language – sounds. Sounds, though they differ from language to language, are universal and natural – all normal children coming to first grade speak and understand without conscious effort. But showing a child that B means the “buh” sound and that BALL means a) the combined sounds of buh-ae-ull-ull and b) the round bouncy thing – that’s a much more complicated process. Still, almost everyone can learn it, but not everyone – limited by ability, need, and/or opportunity – will become fluently literate. The Kyrgyz schools I mentioned earlier achieved almost universal literacy – but in almost every case it was only the ability to interpret necessary written documents and not a habit of reading widely.
Fluent literacy, like fluent language, is achieved when reading is as fast and easy as – or even faster and easier than – speaking. Fluent literacy, like fluent language, never has to make an effort to interpret; there is no break between the thought and its abstract expression. The fluent reader, when reading a novel, for example, is not aware of words but is wholly absorbed in the story, participating in and experiencing everything the characters undergo. (Of course, this absorption requires an equally fluent writer who avoids jarring errors of style and grammar.)
I have been fluently literate since I was about eight. I’m a fast reader – the fastest I know except my oldest daughter. I realized recently that I don’t, as a rule, read words or even sentences. I read paragraphs or chunks of paragraphs, in the same way that conductors read all the lines of a symphonic score simultaneously. I’m not unique in this ability, but I am part of a small minority of human beings who are able to experience written language this way.
My reason for making these points is to clarify what language arts education should be. I am not advocating an elitist view of “Only students as good as I am should be properly educated” – not at all. But I think it’s essential that teachers and society at large understand that the first two Rs of basic education are unnatural, extremely difficult, and incremental. Some – perhaps many – people will never get to the point where reading and writing are comfortable, unthinking activities. While I would love to share my delight in the joys of fluent literacy with all my students, I may not succeed with everyone. And certainly I can’t just teach “See Spot run” in first grade and then lament that my students find Moby Dick difficult to understand a few years later.
There is a danger, then, in a society based on literacy, that literature would belong only to the elite, that people like me get to read the challenging and transformative works and everybody else be relegated to watching reruns of Friends. That would be – may I say that it already is? – a disaster. Great literature serves an essential humanizing function. A society that lacks stories, plays, philosophy, and poetry has cut itself off from this function.
What are the functions of great literature? Why should we read Little Women, The Divine Comedy, Oedipus Rex, As You Like It, or Watership Down? Several points come to mind. These are true for oral as well as written literature.
First, regardless of what modern American society assumes, people cut off from their past are lonelier, stupider, and more lacking in survival skills than those who know their history. Birds may be born knowing how to do everything they need; we are not. We need to listen to our grandparents, read the Little House on the Prairie books, and study history for the facts and poetry for the feelings of times and places different from ours.
Second, and at least as important, literature of all sorts stimulates what some scholars call the moral imagination. Through identification and experiential participation in a story, an audience develops empathy – the essential element of which is the ability to identify and participate in another person’s life. Not just empathy but moral sense is developed. Through the tension of choice that underlies any plot climax, the audience is forced to consider, “What would I do? What is the right choice here?”
If the opportunities for moral, emotional, practical, intellectual, and cultural growth afforded by our culture’s literature are available only to those who can read Shakespeare or Milton, society suffers. Therefore, while we must teach literacy and aim for fluency, we must also do a lot more reading aloud and story-telling than we currently do.
First graders should have at least half an hour a day at school of hearing books read aloud, both fiction and non-fiction; their intellects shouldn’t be held back from stimulation until they develop fluency in reading and writing. They should also be read to at home – good books, in an environment of comfort, with time to discuss, look at pictures, and ponder.
Many teachers and parents already do this, of course. But here’s the thing – twelfth graders and even college students need this as much as first graders. They too should be introduced to more ideas and information than may be accessible to them through reading. If they can only learn what they can read, they will most of them be ignorant – and in fact many of them are.
Older students might scorn being read to, but they too are hungry for stories. I discovered this when I was first teaching surly teenagers. If, rather than scolding or exhorting them, I sat on the edge of the desk and said, “Let me tell you a story,” the class would grow quiet in anticipation. There were still some groans, just for self-respect, but there was no question that they liked stories, hokey though they might be.
Stories not only teach lessons in behavior, they can anchor us to our identities. Here’s another story for you. My mother, between high school and college, worked as a camp counselor for inner-city children in New York City for a summer. She didn’t like the work or feel competent at it; she took it at her mother’s insistence and then had to figure out what to do with the kids. In desperation she started to tell them the tales her father had told her about growing up poor on the Maryland shore. The kids were spellbound – not so much by the content of the stories, though; they looked at her in wonder and said, “Your dad told you these? Your dad tells you stories?” Something about the connection between generations the stories implied appealed to them, and they longed for it. They insisted that she tell them more stories every day until the end of camp.
Whether we are talking about oral stories or reading aloud, the point is the same: stories are more real to most human beings when they involve a relationship between living people. Not only are stories easier to understand when read or told by someone who can interpret and answer questions, the relationship between story-teller and audience is more important than we know. This is especially true for a generation whose only relationships may have been to electronic screens. My grandmother read me Uncle Wiggly stories and told me about her childhood growing up in Africa; my children’s grandmother, on the other hand, stockpiled Hallmark family videos for the grandkids’ visits.
I am not saying we should give up on teaching reading. Literacy is essential for life in modern American society, and I want all my students to be as comfortable reading and writing as they can be. Reading aloud, as I’m advocating it, is not a substitute for becoming literate, nor is it a just a supplement to it. In fact, reading aloud actually increases literacy. Children – and people of all ages – who are read aloud to become better able to read and understand literature by themselves. Reading aloud strengthens many of the skills that are necessary for true literacy: understanding structure, organization, and logical progression; interpreting both stated and implied themes; recognizing genres and the expectations they develop; appreciating different times, places, and people; even sitting still and thinking and feeling for a period of time. Students still need to learn phonics and spelling, obviously, but if they have no desire to read, they will never master even those basic skills.
Original Kipling illustration from Wikimedia Commons
I have some photographs of my husband with our three-month-old daughter on his lap. He is holding Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. The first photo shows her looking baffled as he opens the book; the second shows her squirming as he begins to read; the third shows a baby writhing in full hysteria. Well, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to hear classic literature at that point, but we did read it to her again in a few years, and to her sisters, and its language has become ours and its world has enriched ours. Our children’s happiest memories are being read to, either by me reading Wind in the Willows or by my husband going through the entire Lord of the Rings with each of four children. And despite some struggles with dyslexia, all four of our children are fluent and eager readers. It gives me great joy to share the panoply of human thought and experience with them.