No Matter Your Age
Six to sixty-two and beyond
My knees were shaking. My voice cracked. I was in first grade and Mrs. Day asked me to read a book about farm animals out loud to the class. I wasn’t sure why they asked me to do that since it wasn’t something they usually required of kids, but I figured it was because I acted out the sounds the animals made, saying “MOOOOOOO” in the deepest, most bovine voice a scrawny six-year-old could muster whenever the cow talked.
Looking back, I think they wanted to hear a young child read with passionate expression. Don’t get me wrong. I was an ordinary kid, not a genius. But I did love books and could read early, understanding the story embedded in the words and hearing the cadence of the language in my head.
Now I know that that reading out loud is a talent not everyone has. It’s not a skill that we talk about much, and we probably don’t nurture and encourage reading out loud in many of our schools. But we should. Reading out loud has so many benefits, not just for young kids learning the language, but for adults of every age and at every stage of life.
When do we stop reading out loud?
Teachers encourage younger students to read out loud, but because of the stress a student feels to perform, many freeze up, and reading out loud becomes a painful experience. Some educators feel that vocal reading encourages kids to concentrate just on pronunciation and not meaning.
Young students sound out the words and are taught to whisper as they read, but the older they get even whispering words is discouraged. Even if students wanted to read out loud to themselves, the noise and intrusion on the people around them would cause problems.
But words are meant to be heard. In fact, ancient clay tablets are engraved with words that translate, “to listen,” or “to cry out.” Think of the town criers before books were readily available and when many people didn’t have access to education. Messages and news were meant to be read out loud.
Now people have access to billions of words every day, but that doesn’t mean that they all have to be read in silence.
Reading out loud is a beneficial activity — at any age — for four reasons.
1. Reading out loud improves your memory
The very act of forming words and saying them out loud increases your ability to remember them. Research has proven that the “production effect” — what happens when you physically say the words, improves memory. Think about it. When you sing songs, you’re more likely to remember the words than if you just listen to them. Remember the nursery rhymes you heard when you were a kid? You probably remember them because they were spoken aloud to you and you repeated them, not because you read them. And actors? They remember lines, in part, because they are articulating them.
Even mouthing words, shaping them with your lips even without making a sound, can help you remember them. The theory is that those words become distinctive if a physical movement accompanied them.
Over and over, research has shown that reading out loud improves memory functions. Even elderly patients with dementia have shown increases in memory after reading sessions.
“Why You Should Read This Outloud,” by Sophie Hardach reiterates what research has shown:
“People consistently remember words and texts better if they read them aloud than if they read them silently.”
2. Reading out loud increases your comprehension of ideas
Ever been putting together a kid’s toy or a piece of ready-to-assemble furniture and struggled with poorly-written directions? You probably read them out loud, slowly, to help you understand them.
Hearing the words aurally helps understand and internalize them. In fact, research is starting to show that the act of listening is an important element in learning how to read. Children cannot comprehend written texts that they can’t understand aurally. Adults, too, benefit from hearing words.
Another reason that reading out loud improves your comprehension is because it sharpens your focus and eliminates distractions. If you’re reading out loud, your mind is concentrating on both the pronunciation of the words and their meaning. It’s connecting the muscles needed to produce sound with the mental activity of attaching meaning to those sounds.
You’re so busy doing all these simultaneous activities that you must focus on the task at hand.
Increased focus improves comprehension, too.
3. Reading out loud enhances social connections
Why is it that many experts see reading out loud as such an important part of parenting? Yes, you want your kids to recognize the alphabet and see words. You want them to understand the connection of the squiggly lines on the page to the meaning of the story. But there is something so much more important…
Reading aloud creates a bond. It’s a bond of physical closeness, of sharing thoughts, of being engaged in the same story at the same time. One expert acknowledges that we see the importance of this with children, but we ignore its importance for adults.
If you’re old enough, you might remember the scene in the film, Gone with the Wind, when the ladies have gathered together and Melanie Wilkes is reading out loud to them to pass the time and hide their worry over the fate of their men. It’s an activity that used to occur frequently, and it created a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that we might be missing now.
Sam Duncan, a literacy specialist, notes,
“When someone is reading outloud to you, you feel a bit like you’ve been given a git of their time, of their attention, of their voice.”
4. Reading out loud is entertainment
I can’t count the number of times my husband and I have been sitting in our chairs with our coffee early in the morning and one of us will say to the other, “Listen to this!” before reading a clip from the news, a funny quote, an e-mail, or a description of something. Reading out loud is a form of entertainment.
Audiobooks get this. Listening to stories is fun. It’s entertainment, not unlike listening to ghost stories around a campfire. Audiobooks offer fantastic narrators who read with authentic accents, perfect diction, and an understanding of pacing and volume. We like being read to so much that the global sales of audiobooks have increased 25–30% every year, this year exceeding 3.5 billion dollars.
Reading out loud is not just entertainment, it’s a form of beauty, a kind of music created by the rhythm, the speed, the lyricism of the words. Reading out loud reminds us of the beauty of the spoken word — something we sometimes lose when we’re reading quickly and silently to ourselves.
The sound of language entertains us. It uplifts us. It can also bring comfort by letting us escape from the here-and-now to the “somewhere else.”
Try reading out loud.
You’ll remember what you read. You’ll understand it. But most of all, you’ll enjoy it.
If you're a reader, you'll like these other pieces about reading and our modern society. Check out the articles in "Need to Read."