The Sounds of Literature
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
Reading literature out loud to my students is one of my favorite things about teaching. It reminds me of when I was a child, and my mother would entertain me with her exaggerations and interjections. When I read to my students, I feel I can be human with them. I can pull out the feelings of the character into the room. It’s when I can be funny and mock a character that deserves it. Or add some imaginary lines to the dialogue to modernize it.
On my way home from school yesterday, I listened to a podcast from “The Science of Reading” with Tim Rasinski about fluency. He spoke about elementary school students, but I kept thinking about how his ideas applied to my seniors. Rasinski defined fluency as the ability to comprehend the emotions and meaning while reading out loud or silently. He stressed that reading a passage two or three times helps students unlock the meaning of the text and gives them access to the emotions of the speaker. Do we understand language at the word level, phrase level, and sentence level? Do we read each word like they are all the same, in a monotone voice, like they’re dead? How do we bring our interpretation of the significant phrases and the important words to our reading? Where do we pause or slow down when we read, and where are the moments when the character needs time to digest an idea? To let it really sink in? Is the character angry, disappointed, conflicted, confused? How does confusion sound? How does it look?
There’s a moment in Emma by Jane Austen, right before (spoiler alert) Emma and George express their love:
While he spoke, Emma's mind was most busy, and, with all the wonderful velocity of thought, had been able—and yet without losing a word—to catch and comprehend the exact truth of the whole …
Think about how that line sounds when you read it. Maybe not that exciting. When we read silently, especially when we read a book like Emma, with its subplots and minor characters, we’re concerned with keeping track of the events, and of listening to the unique voice of the narrator. It’s a lot of mental work. Sometimes, we forget to really listen to the words like we listen to each other in conversation. When I read this passage out loud in class, I emphasize the punctuation marks, conjunctions, and prepositional phrases that slow this moment down. Emma has misread the feelings of many people at this point in the novel, but now she must slow down her “wonderful velocity of thought” and read the body language and gestures of the person she loves.
When students watch the movie Hamlet for the first time, you can see the lightbulbs going off around the classroom. Oh, that’s how he sounds. Actors stop at the punctuation marks, and not at the end of the line. They pay homage to the exclamation marks and stop to deliberate at the dashes. Those dashes might represent doubt or disbelief. Actors “hold the mirror up to nature” by reading and performing just like real people, filled with distrust, jealousy, admiration, and disgust. I have an activity where I assign groups different passages in the play. First, they have to conduct a close reading of the passage to determine the emotions behind the language. Then, they pick parts and record a reading of the passage using their phone. They have to demonstrate the connection between the emotion and the rhythm. I play the recording out loud before they explain their interpretation of the passage.
There’s moments in teaching when I feel like it all gets too, for lack of a better word, academic. Trochaic dimeter. Villanelle. Sestina. I sometimes forget the point of all the structural and technical terms we throw around as teachers, and that’s to capture the emotion behind the words, and the rhythm, the prosody, of the text. Think about the beginning of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin and the beginning of “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan. You’re in two completely different worlds, and all because of the rhythm. When I ask students to think about rhythm, I’m not asking them something academic, I’m asking them to think about how they sound in real life. My favorite poems to read out loud are “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth and “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” by Bob Dylan (yes, it’s a poem, not a song). The words are just as powerful as the sounds.
I’m organizing a Poetry Out Loud competition at my school again this year. It’s a great program where high school students memorize and perform a poem from a published poet. What Rasinski calls fluency, the rubric calls “dramatic appropriateness”. I call it authenticity. It’s language. It’s circling around us all day long and finding the right words can be a messy and difficult process, or an easy and effortless process. The sounds of the conversations of our lives and the sounds of the written word work together to create a meaning rooted in emotion. It has little to do with intelligence or logic. It’s an amazing thing when we take words off the page and put them into the air.