I remember the first time I was teaching Aristotle’s Ethics about 23 years ago. I was, like so many 2nd year teachers, reading the book the same day I assigned it to the students and creating the materials that night! I still remember reading the first paragraph. I got to the end of the paragraph and realized that I did not comprehend anything. I read again it silently. Nothing. Third reading. Zero. I thought, “Oh, no. I assigned 50 pages for the students to read tonight.” I went back and started reading it. This time I read out loud. It made a little more sense. I read it aloud again. I began to understand it.
When I got to class the next day, two of my five students looked very sleepy. They had fought their way through. The other three were perky. They had given up quickly! I apologized and then said something like, “Hey, let’s start by reading this aloud. This is challenging, but we can understand it better if we hear it and talk about it.”
In Omnibus, we can be tempted to run really fast, but good discussion hinges on comprehension. For some books—especially books of philosophy and political philosophy like Ethics, The Federalist Papers, Democracy in American, and others philosophical works—reading aloud can be a critical tool to help students understand the work. Here are three reason why:
Reading Aloud Helps Students Understand Difficult Passages
Reading silently is a mental exercise. It happens in the mind. It is a skill that we should master and encourage our students to exercise and grow stronger. It uses the sense of sight but it only uses the eyes and the mind.
Reading aloud employs more of our senses. It uses the mind, the eyes, the mouth, and the ears. These additional senses are often crucial for many students to gain insight or even to ask good questions.
I tell students reading difficult books to read them aloud even when they are alone and to read them in a quiet place away from others. Reading aloud in the presence of others is often annoying to them. Go to a quiet place, I tell them, read aloud and block out time, if you can, to read an entire chapter. This discipline can greatly enhance the student’s understanding of challenging works.
Reading Aloud Provides Insight into Students Understanding
If you are reading aloud in class, you, as a teacher, can gain great insight into student comprehension and reading ability. As the teacher, you should read aloud to them at some points. It is really ok to struggle with some words and names. It teaches them humility and that you, as their teacher, struggle with words that you don’t know. As a side benefit, you can also teach students how to use a dictionary and give them confidence to approach words and texts that might be challenging.
The teachers reading aloud in class, however, should be mixed with students reading aloud as well. When students read aloud, you get insight into their understanding of the text, their reading comprehension, and their vocabulary level.
There are a couple of tricks that you can use to keep everyone on their toes and mentally engaged. First (this one comes from my Grammar School ninja/teacher wife), put all of the students’ names on tongue depressors and put them in a cup. This randomizes reading order and makes everyone know that they could be next. Second, if someone is really struggling, be careful to make sure that he still getting the opportunity to read, but step in and protect his dignity if it is being compromised. Make sure that you are encouraging students who struggle. Reading aloud is a skill. (I am not great at it personally but it is important enough to keep practicing.)
Reading Aloud Allows for the Insertion of Teacher Insights
When you are reading aloud, it gives the teacher the ability to pause the reading to check comprehension and to challenge the students to dig deeper into crucial texts. Too often students’ minds pass over important texts and the words are apt to run off of their minds like water off of the proverbial duck’s back.
Here is an example from the Federalist Papers. One of the most important descriptions of our system of government comes from Madison’s Paper #51. He states:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
After we read this passage, I often stop and say, “What does this mean?” Initially, many of my students have struggled to pick this statement apart, but to fail to understand what Madison is saying here is risk misunderstanding the American system of government. Let students struggle through passages like this. Force them to think. Build test and quiz questions on passages on these crucial passages so that students learn to pay deep attention during these times.
Reading aloud can feel more like grammar school, but it is crucial for deep understanding of critical passages. It is a great tool for the wise teacher to gain deep insights about the students and about the students’ comprehension of the text. It is also enjoyable, so do it and have fun with it especially with difficult books and critical passages. You’ll be glad you did!
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