Thoughts on Teaching and Reading Aloud

One of Dickens’s Public Readings in 1867.

I’ve been mulling over Mark Sample’s post from last year “On Reading Aloud in the Classroom.” Mark calls it an “elementary technique” which is all too often “a right reserved for the professor” and “too easily tossed aside in the undergraduate classroom—and in the graduate student classroom for that matter.” For him, reading aloud gives students an opportunity to reread and to better understand the dramatic context of a specific narrative.

My own experiences with student reading are sparse, and usually failures. I remember attempting it a few times: pointing to a student, asking them to read, getting slightly annoyed because they chose to read it in a different tone than I would (or no tone at all), then saying “I guess I could just read this myself, couldn’t I?” The students heartily agree and I end up being the one who does the police in different voices.

I never really thought of reading aloud as a right, or as a skill, merely something that I did for my classes. It was a performance, like many of the performances I undertake daily in the classroom.

This semester, I’ve decided to look more closely at reading aloud as a valuable skill for undergraduates. I’m teaching a 19th Century British Novel course, in which we explore the various technologies of reading that impact the history of the novel during the period and our own reading of the novel during the present. I argue early in the class that the idea of reading alone, in private, is a historically-situated technology that emphasizes the emergent separation of the private and the public sphere. Reading aloud, on the other hand, was a common practice during the Romantic and Victorian periods. According to Maggie Lane, in Austen’s day “most people took it for granted that they must amuse one another during these last hours of the day. In Jane Austen’s own family there was often reading aloud” (50). Dickens, of course, was well known for his dramatic readings of his own novels during the latter days of his life. Charles Kent wrote an entire book on Charles Dickens as Reader, in which he describes the audiences for Dickens’s public readings as:

Densely packed from floor to ceiling, these audiences were habitually wont to hang in breathless expectation upon every inflection of the author-reader’s voice, upon every glance of his eye,—the words he was about to speak being so thoroughly well remembered by the majority before their utterance that, often, the rippling of a smile over a thousand faces simultaneously anticipated the laughter which an instant afterwards greeted the words themselves when they were articulated.

Dickens and Austen both represent two faces of reading aloud: the domestic and the public. For Austen, domestic reading is a form of making and preserving family and community. For Dickens, public reading bordered on the theatrical, preserved the popularity of his novel with his audiences, and gave him much needed income. When confronted with both cases, however, students are often surprised to see the tight relationship between novel-reading and performance – especially since many of them associate reading with sitting in the corner of the room and being silent.

In my own class, I decided to have my students listen to Austen’s Northanger Abbey and simultaneously investigate Brian Cox’s 1878 guide to public reading called The Arts of Writing, Reading, and Speaking. Cox gives powerful and specific advice about topics as various as getting over your shyness when reading in front of an audience, affecting different voices and practicing different lines before a performance, and the importance of reading aloud when preparing for public speaking. In a chapter called, appropriately enough, “Public Reading,” Cox shows how accoustics and inflection are more important than simply reading at a high volume.

Before you begin to read, if the room is strange to you, you should make a trial of your own voice, to be assured that the whole company can hear you distinctly. If they fail to do so, not only are the distant deprived of whatever pleasure you can give them, but there is sure to be restlessness among those who cannot hear which will disturb those of the audience within earshot and annoy you not a little. (183)

 Cox’s discussion of reading a pitch higher than one normally speaks is particularly interesting:

You will best secure a hearing by speaking in a key slightly raised above the talking key, by slow utterance, by studiously distinct articulation, by raising the voice (the upward inflection) at the end of every sentence, and by employing more of emphasis than would be permissible in a smaller circle. Clearness is far more effective than loudness. (183)

I have yet to see how my students take (or do not take) Cox’s advice, but I’m planning on having them create readings of Austen’s novel as podcasts on audacity. Once they have completed their readings, they will be asked to write about 1000 words reflecting on their experiences and explaining their choices. Hopefully, they will come to see the theatrical and performative dimension of public reading as a cultural experience made more viable by the rise of podcasts and freely available audiobooks like those collaboratively created by the  Librivox community. So, in addition to Mark’s argument that reading aloud empowers students to take a central and authoritative role in the classroom, I hope to instill the idea that reading (even if in new modalities) can help us reconnect with the families and publics outside the classroom.



  1. Roger,
    Nice post! I too was intrigued by Sample’s article. The only variation I can suggest is using short poetry selections. I have done that for awhile in my African American literature class and it seems to work fairly well. If the selections are short enough, I can sometimes ask for multiple people to read the same poem. For poems like Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” or McKay “If We Must Die,” it interesting to see how the second and third students who read do a better job.
    Thanks for posting on this!

    1. Richard! Great to see you here!

      Thanks for the comment. Poetry works really well for this type of assignment, and surely people in the 19th century were really well versed in reading poetry. My current course is a novel course, and so the larger point I wanted to emphasize was the theatricality of novels. You get that, of course, in some poetry. But longer and more involved narratives, I believe, require a different set of skills in differentiating dialogue, in setting up scenes, or just in dealing with the density of prose.

      But your suggestion about having different people read the same poem is a great one. The next time I teach a poetry course, I’ll be sure to integrate that in some manner.

  2. This is a fascinating assignment–I’ve tried to do something like it, with the assignment language here: — I asked students to read Haywood’s Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze aloud as a team. I divided up the piece, read a sample, and basically let them have at it. My principle goals were getting students to pay attention to the text (not drop words or read things that weren’t there), think about tone and voice (including their own), and problem-solve independently. I am not sure how well the assignment worked, as it was primarily an experiment, but everyone did it–some rather well! I do have a completed MP3 file somewhere on the wiki. I was pretty impressed with some of the ingenuity students used in completing the recording, though the quality did vary quite dramatically.

    If I were to do it again, I’d like to incorporate more critical awareness of, as you say, the theatricality of reading–and, of course, the thematics of theatricality and performance we see so often 18th century fiction. Get more clearly at the bigger picture. I’d also like to do this kind of assignment more systematically and professionally, so they can contribute to librivox. I really like your idea about publicity, too. Keep us updated, and thanks!

    1. Tonya,

      Your assignment looks really cool! I like the whole discussion surrounding consciousness and private reading, as well as your attempt to make the assignment more than a historical recreation. I think it’s important to integrate literary history w/ skills that benefit students today.

Leave a Reply