Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On Reading Aloud

Leah Libresco recently linked to a series in the Atlantic about new ideas for teaching writing, and noted in particular this post about one low-performing school examining students' poor writing skills and coming to the conclusion that students couldn't write because they could not understand fairly basic grammatical concepts such as conjunctions:

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?”

On reading this, I wondered, "What are these students hearing at home, and have they ever encountered this kind of language from people other than teachers (if even from them)?"

Over dinner, I tried the "although" experiment with my three older ones, using prompts from our current read-aloud, Little Women.

Eleanor, 10: Although Amy loved to draw, she didn't know how to sculpt.

Julia, 9: Although Jo liked Teddy, she didn't want to marry him. Although Meg loved her children, her children were sometimes bad.

Isabel, 6, in a silly mood: Although Beth was a baby, she never cried in her life.

Bonus, from Jack, 4: Although Teddy didn't want to marry Beth, he kissed her on the lips.

Everyone: JACK!

It seems to me that regardless of what is being taught in school, young children will absorb the language they hear at home. Darwin and I do tend to speak in grammatically accurate and complex sentences, but we also have a natural human tendency to simplify our speech for everyday use. That is why reading aloud has pride of place in our homeschooling paradigm: besides being a fine method of packing lots of literature into little heads, it's a wonderful format for presenting more formal structures of speech and complex arrangements of ideas in an enjoyable and memorable way. I've also found that having the children recount the plots of novels we've read over extended periods aids in retention and comprehension. Reading aloud also introduces children to a richer world of thought than their limited reading comprehension allows them to access on their own, as well as preparing them to read these books one day.

No small part of successful reading aloud, however, is having a good reader to interpret the works, to use inflection and emphasis to set off grammatical clauses, and to make clear what can be obscure on the page. Most people are capable of reading aloud at the level of speaking what is written, but anyone who has listened to a trained and experienced reader knows the wealth of nuance and detail they can bring to a work, whereas anyone who's ever had to listen to poor reading knows that even the finest words can be made tedious by someone who either doesn't understand what they're reading or is unable to present those words well.

Reading aloud is something particularly dear to my heart, not only because I like reading in general and because it's essential to our homeschooling, but because it is how I use, every day, my liberal arts studies and my degree.

I've followed the recent chat about the economic value of a college education, and of studying the liberal arts, with mild curiosity but little desire to engage in the discussion. This is in part because it's not a topic on which I have much angst. My degree, as long-term readers will know, in in theater -- English with a drama concentration, to be precise, since Drama did not become a major proper until after my time at Steubenville. Never at any time, in my short theatrical career, did I make more than minimum wage on any show I teched. Speaking at a personal financial level, my life choices make it unlike that I will ever make enough money using the skills I gained through my drama studies to recoup my investment. However, by the most utilitarian calculations, studying the liberal arts at college was an economic boost for me because it placed me in Darwin's path and helped make me attractive to him, and he makes more than twice what I would likely make on my own, even had I been working these past ten years. Yes, I incurred debt -- I had some aid, but my parents could afford to pay scarcely any of my tuition or expenses -- but we've always been able to make the payments, and we're on track to pay it off next year. So, college was a path to my own economic success, even though I'm outside the workforce.

Some people have objected that really, education is wasted on 18- and 19-year-olds because they simply don't have the commitment to study or the drive to better themselves that comes with age. I don't agree. I was no great shakes at acting when I was in college, despite studying it rather intensively. Although I could easily pick up the history of theater and the theory and structure of directing, I didn't have at that time the physical confidence to be comfortable on stage, and I spent a lot of time wondering what on earth my professor meant when he enthused about "changing the other" or "vulnerability". But I've had eleven years since graduating to internalize what I learned and to apply each realization ("Oh, now I get it!") to honing my own craft, which happens to be educating my children through reading aloud.

And with years of practice, I am a good reader. I love acting out different roles, coming up with unique voices for the characters, and using tactics and intentions to convey motivation and subtext (and how much easier is reading a book, which often lets you on what the characters are thinking and doing, than a script in which you have to interpret everything for yourself!). I love interpreting the grammatical structure of convoluted sentences. I love the technical challenge of making narration flow, of following the cadence of the author's voice, of reading clearly, smoothly, and distinctly without being ponderous or treacly. I love using my education to pick up on historical, cultural, religious, philosophic, and scientific references in what I'm reading, and then explaining those to the children. And what a wealth there is to be discovered in Dickens, Alcott, Augustine, Homer, St. Therese, and Shakespeare even before one is old enough to read them to oneself!

I love listening to other people's reading, analyzing what is good in their style to apply to my own, and taking their flaws as reminders of what I still need to work on in my own reading. I love watching my children absorbed in a story and to know that they enjoy and understand what they hear. I love to hear them recount, sometimes word for word, what I've read. Most of all, I love to hear them reading aloud clearly and comfortably because they're following my model.

And that's what I'm doing with my economically impractical, financially unfeasible college education: reading aloud to my children.


Rebekka said...

I snagged a husband with my degree, too. And since I can't actually speak Russian anymore, that's about all I have to show for it. Good enough for me!

And thumbs up to reading aloud.

entropy said...

Great post.

I think this is the first time I've seen the "go to college for the MRS. degree" spun positively.


MrsDarwin said...

Well, and I didn't go to college for that reason; I went because I wanted to study theater at that particular Catholic college . Nor I would I advise anyone to go to college to pick up an MRS. It's not really something you have a lot of control over, whether you meet someone in college whom you want to marry.

But as a statement of fact, I did come out of college with a husband, and so do many people, so it's not a bad idea to consider who you might want to be married to, and whether that sort of person is likely to be met with at college. And it's simply a fact that I'm economically better off married to Darwin than I would have been working on my own, and that means that college was a good economic decision apart from its educational value.

But even though I don't work, my education permeates almost everything I do, and although sometimes I've regretted not working in theater, I've never regretted studying theater.

bearing said...

This is a wonderful post.

The fact that so many college-educated people meet their future spouses in college makes it worth taking into consideration when making the decision. It strikes me as a wholly reasonable reason to attend a school run by one's religious denomination, for instance.

But I don't think "going to college for the m.r.s. degree" is likely to work. One is interesting because one has real interests of one's own.

entropy said...

This line:
However, by the most utilitarian calculations, studying the liberal arts at college was an economic boost for me because it placed me in Darwin's path and helped make me attractive to him...
is what made me think of the "MRS degree." Not in a bad way but, as you say, a utilitarian way. It's fair to think in practicalities when you're headed off to college.

No one who's read your blog for five minutes (or met you in person) could think that you're not a total catch. I didn't mean to imply that you were/are sneaky or not-interesting or whatever other images my poor comment dredges up.

(I have a friend that takes things one further: she believes that to send your children to a secular college does those children a serious disservice because they are so likely to meet their future spouse at college so at a Catholic college the likelihood of a Catholic suitor/spouse increases.)

It makes sense, I suppose.

I'd like to say, again, how much I like this post. Sorry to derail the conversation.

MrsDarwin said...

No, I'm not offended! I understood what you were saying. Frankly, an institution of higher learning ought to be a good place to meet a guy, if higher learning is something one values. I'm not ashamed!

But again, it's just something one can't count on, as quite a few of my acquaintance could attest.

Darwin said...

Actually, one of the reasons that I ended up going to Steubenville and meeting MrsDarwin was that a lot of the adults I respected had met their spouses at college. I didn't think I was necessarily up to not marrying someone I loved because I had religious disagreements with her, so I figured it might make sense to go to a college where if I met my wife there, she'd likely be Catholic.

(Another reason was that after visiting and staying at a couple of secular colleges, I was pretty sure if I went into a moral environment that far from what I was used to, I'd become an angry reactionary and hold back even from legitimately okay activities.)

While neither of us specifically went to college to get married, our relationship did result from a college culture, with a lot of our early commonality coming from discussing books, classes, ideas, etc.

bearing said...

Heh, and of course, as readers of my blog well know, I met my future husband when he stopped by my room in our co-ed dorm and offered me (and my roommates) tequila at nine o'clock in the morning. It was a football Saturday in the Big Ten, after all. I like to tell the story when people at church hear that we went to school in Ohio and gush, "Oh, did you go to Steubenville?!?"

I turned him down, btw.

Turned out for the best, though you wouldn't necessarily have known it at the time. Particularly since the Buckeyes lost.

Darwin said...

Heh. I dunno, that sounds kind of fun.

That wouldn't have thrown me as much as the quantities of drugs and to a lesser extent sex that I ran into on visits. But yeah, I was a moderately sheltered and impressionable 17-year-old.

Laura Staum said...

MrsDarwin, would you consider posting videos of some of your read-alouds? This is a talent that not all of us fully possess, and it would be fun and interesting (and edifying?) to hear! I also like the idea that kids whose parents aren't able (through lack of time or talent, perhaps) to do this for them might be able to get some portion of the experience through youtube...

On the subject of MRS. degrees, I'll just add that I met my husband in graduate school, and that he was completely worth the 6 years (and the financial opportunity cost of them) that it took me to get a Ph.D. :) College is a great place to meet a spouse, but if that doesn't work out, or if you're looking for one with a Ph.D. then grad school isn't a bad option...

MrsDarwin said...


Ee, I don't know about video, but I will try to record some reading and post it if there's ever a quiet moment around the house. The one thing that drives me nuts while reading is people making a lot of background noise so that I feel like I'm reading into the void, which is why a lot of read-alouds here are punctuated with, "Hush, Mama's reading!" or "Someone put Jack out."

Amber said...

I love to read aloud as well, and it is the cornerstone of our educational program in our family. I read aloud for about two hours each day (broken up, of course!) and my kids wish I would read more. I read a large variety of works out loud, sometimes nestled on the couch with kids, sometimes pacing with the baby in the Ergo on my back. In the car we listen to audiobooks, and I have learned a lot about how to and how not to read. My family heartily wishes for a ratings system on Librivox!! But listening to bad readers has definitely helped me to become a better reader. I hope to someday record audiobooks myself for Librivox, but finding a quiet and available time is about impossible in this busy house with an open floor plan.

And I agree with you - reading aloud is essential for developing an ear and understanding of our language! Why this is not part of public education is beyond me.

nancyo said...

Reading your post has me wishing that I could rewind time and read again to my now-adult children!

I met my husband in law school, and although my 4.5 years of working as a lawyer arguably earned enough to pay off my (fairly reasonable) law school debt, it would have been a sound investment had I not worked a day. I use the training in myriad ways. So much of education is not quantifiable, but still valuable.

Peter and Nancy said...

I love this post -- I am a liberal arts/English graduate. Our classical charter school takes time every day in the early grades to read *good* books aloud for just this reason. A friend who teaches kindergarten in another city is always sad when she has children in her classroom who are not read to at home. He can tell who those kids are, and they are usually far behind their peers as they begin learning to read and comprehend. Read on!