Reading aloud has great value, as any teacher of young children will tell you. Socially, it encourages bonding and a sense of community—picture an adult and children snuggled together on the couch at home, or gathered around a book in a classroom. Academically, reading aloud builds vocabulary and comprehension, stretching young attention spans. It develops recognition of the spoken-written word correlation, something which, in turn, reinforces good spelling. It models correct pronunciation and strengthens memory. And the list goes on. But reading aloud also offers unique benefits for older students.
I learned this first-hand as an English major in college. Difficult passages in a textbook often made more sense when read aloud. When my eyes alone were overwhelmed by lengthy, complex sentences or challenging vocabulary, also reading the passage aloud—hearing it–enabled me to better grasp the meaning. From a learning style perspective, this more active form of learning (verbalization) improved my comprehension by using sight and sound together.
Later, as a professional copywriter and editor, I saw this again but with a different twist: if a passage was unclear, stopping to read it out loud would also offer clues to how to fix it. The ears—well-trained by now—caught things the eyes might overlook. From an editorial perspective, eyes and ears together provided a helpful, multi-dimensional map of the writing that made it easier to correct or improve.
For this reason, when I teach or tutor middle school and high school students, I recommend students read each writing assignment aloud at least once during the process of self-editing. I have seen regular use of this practice aid these older students in three specific ways: it helps them identify errors in writing mechanics and grammar, improves their overall writing style, and even builds public speaking skills.
Reading One’s Writing Aloud Reveals Mechanics and Grammar Errors
By middle school most students have had several years of instruction in the mechanics of writing– punctuation, capitalization, and spelling—and in grammar—the correct use of words, phrases, and clauses. Students who are avid readers may already excel in these areas, given their frequent exposure to writing that is often well above their grade level. But they will benefit by reading their writing aloud right along with those students who rarely pick up a book.
In looking at mechanics, consider the audible clues to correct punctuation. When reading their piece aloud, your student will hear natural pauses, often knowing instinctively when they should stop to take a breath. A long pause would signify the end of a sentence. Was the appropriate period, exclamation point, or question mark used? A shorter pause, in contrast, would call for a comma, colon/semi-colon, or dash. Is there dialogue in the piece? Dramatically reading any written conversations will remind your student that quotation marks are needed to properly distinguish the beginning and end of each character’s comments.
Missed capitalization can be caught at this point in the read-through as well. After a long pause (sentence end), a capital letter is needed to start the next sentence. Is it there each time? Are the names of specific people, places, and things—most often proper nouns–begun with the required capital letter?
Spelling errors or typos are also more likely to come to light during this process. Is your teen describing an event of special historical or political significance? If special is spelled (or typed) incorrectly—for example, psecial—the quick sounding-out required during the read-aloud may catch this transposition even if it was missed in a previous proofreading.
Grammar issues like subject-verb agreement can often be heard even when not seen. A student might read aloud the following: “This author exemplify….hmmm…This author exemplifies….yes!” The ear can pick up that something is off, even if that error was missed in a silent proofreading.
Sentence fragments or run-ons may be identified in the read-through, giving your writer the chance to fix these. Dangling, or misplaced, modifiers are audibly highlighted, often with comical effect: “Major Peabody handed out MREs to his troops wrapped in brown paper.” The absurdity of troops wrapped in brown paper should bring the student up short, force a reexamination of the sentence, and point to moving the modifying phrase to directly follow MREs, which it actually modifies.
Other grammatical catches involve students double checking often confused homophones in their writing. As they read through their piece, they can make sure they’re using the correct form of each word there. Ambiguous pronouns, flawed idioms, and an inappropriate use of spoken slang can also be revealed as students hear their writing at the same time as reading it. If mistakes are caught in word, phrase, or clause usage during the editorial read-aloud—and they often are–this extra step is well worth it.
Reading One’s Writing Aloud Suggests Improvements to Writing Style
Writing style is a second area that benefits when older students read their writing aloud. By this time, students can usually distinguish between adequate and elegant language. Does the writing within paragraphs sound choppy? The student may be using too many simple sentences, or too many sentences may open with a subject-verb. Adding more sentence detail will help with this first issue; varying how sentences begin will address the second.
Draft: “Charles Dickens was a British author. He lived from 1812-1870. He wrote A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol.”
Edited Version: “Charles Dickens, born Charles John Huffam Dickens, was a famous British author. Born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, he wrote novels that showed the social problems of his time. A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol were two of his best-known works written before his death in 1870.”
Do the jumps from paragraph to paragraph sound clunky? Your teen can audibly connect the paragraphs by using transitions. These words are incredibly powerful, adding flow between paragraphs (or sentences) and offering helpful directions to the reader. Is your teen giving examples over multiple paragraphs to defend a particular argument? “In addition,” “in the same way,” and “likewise” would be useful. Are they giving an example of a counter-argument? “On the other hand” alerts the reader to that. If summarizing points, “to summarize” works well. “In conclusion” neatly introduces a final paragraph. Your teen should keep a list of transitions nearby for easy reference whenever they’re writing.
Hearing their writing aloud also gives teenage writers a chance to refine their word choice. Does their writing sound simplistic or bland? Consider sentences two and three in the edited passage above. In sentence two, the word “showed” could be changed to “examined” or “exposed,” and “problems” could become “injustices.” In sentence three, “penned” could replace “written.” These refinements add a more intellectual feel along with an element of sophistication—both to be encouraged as young writers mature.
Wording can be enriched further using allusion. Is your teen writer critiquing a novel and describing a character’s weakness? They can add richness to their prose by instead mentioning that character’s “Achilles’ heel.” Did the character begin life poor but end life prosperous? Sharing that character’s “Cinderella story” again adds depth of meaning…and depth of sound.
Alliteration and parallelism are two rhetorical techniques–and tools for your student–that can make reading aloud a pure pleasure. Poets use alliteration to perfection. Consider this stanza from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,/The furrow followed free;/We were the first that ever burst/Into that silent sea.” The very sounds of the letters and words bring the poem to life.
But alliteration can enliven more than just poetry. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald frequently used this technique, as seen in this sentence from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Martin Luther King, Jr., used alliteration in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech when he called for a “marvelous new militancy” and urged people to rise from “the dark and desolate valley of segregation.”
While alliteration highlights the sounds of words, parallelism highlights their rhythm. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address used parallelism, along with skillful repetition, in this recognizable section: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The very cadence of these words adds memorable elegance to the writing. Winston Churchill, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, used parallelism masterfully in his writing. Consider this brief but powerful example: “In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Good Will.” These techniques that add flow, depth, sound, and rhythm to a piece of writing should be practiced and refined by teenage writers. When your student reads their writing aloud, these techniques can be best appreciated.
Reading One’s Writing Aloud Develops Public Speaking Skills
A look at these highly audible rhetorical devices—used in poetry, prose, and the speeches above–leads us to why reading their writing aloud also helps students with speaking skills. Yes, public speaking requires confidence, supportive body language, and a dynamic reading of one’s audience. Yes, it is admittedly the most common phobia for young and old. But regularly reading their writing out loud can improve your teen’s public speaking, with long-term benefits.
In reading their writing aloud, teens practice enunciation, learning to pronounce words clearly. They refine inflection, when their voice rises or falls in tone in response to the text. They exercise modulation, learning how to add effect to the written content by the volume and quality of their voice.
Teens experience their writing in a different way when they read it aloud to self-edit. They slow down. They interact with the text in a more thorough way. Remember that multi-dimensional map mentioned at the beginning? More and more, your teen will catch those errors in mechanics and grammar. They’ll hear where transitions are needed and utilize the tools of language to improve their style. They’ll grow more fluid in their reading of the written word, and more comfortable with the spoken word.
As your teen reads their writing aloud, they’ll learn to focus not just on what they want to say, but on how their message comes across. Is the content clear? Is it easy to follow? Are the word choice and tone both accurate and appropriate? They’ll learn to fine-tune how they say what they say as a means of better reaching their audience. Will certain words show they empathize with readers/listeners? They can incorporate them. Is it likely some readers/listeners will disagree with an argument? They can address counterarguments in the piece. Reading their writing aloud will make your teen a better reader and a better writer; and as their writing improves, they will, in turn, become a better speaker.
Before you know it, your teen will have an admissions interview or a job interview. They will be asked to speak in a classroom or in their workplace. They will want to defend their perspective at a town meeting, or share their testimony with an acquaintance. The skills they have learned by both writing and reading their writing aloud will make them more skillful communicators in any of these settings. So build a read-aloud component into your teen’s self-editing routine. This ordinary practice could yield extraordinary results.
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