Posted by: philsteele | December 9, 2010

Say it out loud

It was my daughter Elin’s 14th birthday yesterday.  She recently cleared her bedroom shelves of many of the books we were reading together nine or ten years ago, leaving a tottering pile to be sold at the school Christmas fair.

‘We can’t get rid of this one – and certainly not  that one!’, one of us would exclaim periodically,  as we went through the dog-eared volumes that had once meant so much to us all.  Soon there was  a growing pile of books that just had to be rescued and saved.

The  most precious were rarely those picture books with worthy stories,  tasteful artwork or design awards. Some of them had already been old and tatty when Elin first saw them, old books from the 1950s with garish two-colour printing and cheap paper, or some from the 70s which seemed to have dated even more. The common factor of the Saved Pile, it occurred to me, was that all those books were perfect for reading aloud.

The cadence of natural, everyday speech is ideal for children learning to read, and far better than those artificially simple sentences, made up of staccato monosyllables, that were recommended so many years ago.

I’d always known that reading to children was  a Good Thing, but had not previously realised just how much it can benefit the adult  as well as the child.  I still remember, word for word,  whole sections of books read to me when I was little, as well as the stories I read to Elin in my turn.

Reading a piece of writing out loud can often show up the true quality of the writing. I never found JK Rowling fared very well in this test, I must say. Her sentences sometimes straggle or become  tangled and trip up the tongue.  Mind you, that never stopped her  cash tills ringing. I am sure my sentences are no better, but I do often  read out loud as I write, even when working on non-fiction books. I imagine I am speaking directly to a child of the required age group, explaining how something works or describing a historical event.  (Please note I have not applied the same rule of thumb  when writing a blog for you lot!)

The power of the spoken word, the oral tradition,  marks out much of the best literature. It can be heard raging through the ancient epic rhythms of Homer or Aneirin. It inspires those passages that Dickens chose for his public readings.

Give it all you've got, Mr Dickens!

Speech is the lifeblood of all good narrative.  Even the mundane speech of 20th century suburban America can  become magical, when it rings true – as in a Raymond Carver short story.

A recent biography and a radio broadcast have offered some  interesting perspectives on the spoken word.  Apparently Jane Austen’s real talent lay in recreating natural speech: the polished construction and grammar belonged to her editor.

Another pundit has pointed out that the magnificent  language of the King James Bible was intended for declaiming to large congregations, and that this it why it is superior, as a work of art, to modern translations. The same could probably be said of Martin Luther’s Bible, which  helped determine the future of the German language, or of William Morgan’s Bible, which shaped the Welsh language.

So, let’s keep on reading out loud –  from the cradle to the grave!  Now then, I’d better be carting those bags of  books off to the school fair. Penblwydd hapus, Elin, a Nadolig Llawen  a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i’n holl ddarllenwyr!



  1. Penblwydd hapus! I hope it doesn’t get overshadowed by Christmas.
    Reading work aloud is excellent advice. I do this with whole novels. And then I feel for those Ancient Greek poets who had to stand and declaim for hours on end without the benefit of Strepsils.

  2. I used to read aloud when I was a child and drove my mum and dad mad at the same time. I find it very helpful to read aloud my own wip cos it helps you to hear where you might be going wrong eg repetitions.

  3. I remember with great pleasure my father reading a child’s version of The Odyssey to me.
    BUT alas, best laid plans etc. I also remember trying to read to my daughters a book I’d loved as a child – Susannah Of The Mounties by Muriel Denison. All went well until page three when it was revealed that Susannah had an Indian doll called Minne-Pooh-Pooh. Total collapse of entire family except me, and including I’m sorry to say, my husband who was egging them on. Look, I said, yes, ha ha , it’s very funny, but can’t you just get over it and listen to the rest of this lovely story? Absolutely no use. Susannah was lost. I guess at that point I realised my reading aloud days were over.
    Lovely blog, Philip

  4. As a primary school teacher, I often read aloud to my class. Sometimes I use my own novels and I don’t always enjoy it. Every now and again I’ll read a sentence of mine and feel myself wincing ie ‘I wish I could go back and re-write that.” Or maybe, why did i use “declared” when plain old ‘said” would have done?
    Michael Morpurgo holds up very well, when read aloud, I must say. I find some writers, even very reputable ones, occasionally come across as a bit too flowery, others a bit too fond of their own vocabulary, others overdo adjectives and adverbs. Obviously, I ain’t gonna name any names. I think it’s good for children to know that even published writers can’t get it right all the time. Writing a novel takes such sustained effort and concentration, as we all know.

  5. I agree, Paul, Morpurgo’s work is perfect for reading out loud.

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