Our cultural tradition gives more weight to individual reading and writing than to the art of oral discourse. In schools and institutes, the teaching of written communication prevails over oral text or reading aloud. In fact, it seems that, as a classroom activity, listening to a person (student or teacher) read aloud is an outdated or boring activity with little pedagogical utility.
However, this was not always the case: in the past, orality was the primary register for scholarly, political, and academic communication. Alberto Manguel tells us that Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, found it strange that Saint Ambrosio isolated himself in his cell to read alone, in silence, concentrating on the text. The normal thing then was reading aloud and in a group. This, in fact, is still maintained in the Christian liturgy.
Our times are very different from those of Saint Augustine. Literacy rates in Spain stand at 98.1% of the population, and in our Western societies information is recorded mainly in writing because that is how it lasts, fixed on a material support (paper, screen) that can be easily transmitted.
But this does not diminish the importance of speaking and listening as scholarly communication skills. We don’t just use our voice to talk. The written text is an instrument that can also serve us to learn to use orality better. And so we can apply it in the classroom in teaching-learning activities.
Dictations, yes or no
These activities do not have to focus on the traditional dictations, for many already out of fashion, but still arousing debate ( for example in France ).
In dictation, the text is only read aloud to be written and not as an oral reading by itself. But let’s look at other ways to take advantage of reading and listening to what is read in the classroom.
Infant stage: enhance speech
Human beings mainly use orality to communicate on a day-to-day basis. It has a series of exclusive discursive features (its linguistic signs follow one another and are perceived in simultaneous interaction in time and space between sender and receiver), which is why it is ideal for everyday life.
This ability is natural to our species and manifests itself in two areas. On the one hand, the organs of speech (lungs, larynx, vocal cords, mouth…) and hearing (ear). On the other, our mental capacity to distinguish linguistic sounds and understand them, giving them meaning. Both develop as we grow.
Reading aloud, as a classroom activity, has to be adapted to the level of development of each student in this regard. The texts must also be appropriate to achieve the proposed objectives. Reading aloud allows us to identify possible learning difficulties in the child , but it also fulfills other educational functions.
In the first years of schooling, between the ages of 3 and 5, the functioning of reading mechanics can be introduced. This is the logographic stage : children may not be able to decipher letters and words, but they can “read” images.
In addition, orality is their only form of efficient communication, and for this reason it must be worked on in the classroom .
The child of this age perceives himself as the center of his world. Reading aloud thus becomes an extension of your own desire to express yourself. The books of this stage, in large format ( illustrated album ) and manipulative materials (soft covers, pop-ups ) are perfect for this purpose.
Reading aloud in elementary school
Already in primary school, from the age of 6, the alphabetic system of relationship between sound and writing is introduced. The child begins to associate the words that he already knows how to say with their calligraphic representation.
The educational law of Spain includes “reflexive comprehension through silent and aloud reading, accompanied by images”. This serves, in the first cycle of Primary, so that the student learns to recognize the formal features of texts and reflect on their content.
At this stage, reading aloud serves to practice these skills. It connects both “worlds” that the child begins to explore: the oral and the written . The use of illustrated albums in the first cycle is maintained and the complexity of reading progressively increases.
As the child’s cognitive development progresses, images give way to letters, but even so they remain a very powerful resource due to their visual nature and immediate impact.
Playful and interactive strategies also come into play here, as well as instructive, to encourage reading . Storytellers, for example, are very helpful for working on different skills. Dramatization, gestures, inflection of the voice… The written text acquires full entity when it becomes oral and public. The whole class, or even the whole center, can be part of the same community of reader-viewers.
What about children with speech or reading difficulties?
Clearly, reading aloud poses a challenge to all students. Orality is worked less in the classroom as an academic skill, despite the fact that we mainly communicate by speaking and listening. And it is not only difficult for those who are ashamed to speak in public.
Especially, it is a complex challenge for those who have difficulties with speaking or reading . They are children who are aware that there is a “barrier” that it is difficult for them to overcome in order to communicate with others. This frustration must be managed in class with empathy and well-founded teaching guidelines.
One solution is to create a class environment conducive to accepting these difficulties. Albums like ¡Voy a comedte! They help the child perceive them as something normal and not as a reason for ridicule or laughter. Reading aloud texts with “mistakes” can serve to downplay them in front of the whole class. And that will generate confidence in the students who manifest these difficulties.
Reading aloud for teens
And how do we do in adolescence? Literary education is oriented towards understanding the literary language and learning the history of authors and works. Oral communication is not evaluated in the university entrance exams. Is there room in the classroom for reading aloud right now?
There is , but we must look for it. Orality continues to be a skill that must be developed in the classroom. Reading aloud is no longer explicitly present in the Secondary curriculum , but it can be linked to other skills. Students must understand and produce oral, written and multimodal texts. The degree of training specialization is greater. And this can be linked to oral reading.
All written text has a phonetic dimension : that is, it can be read aloud. This allows us to work on intonation and prosody (pauses, rhythms), or link spelling with pronunciation. And even more: there are texts from areas of exclusively oral communication (for example, radio programs , debates, gatherings…) that can be taken to the classroom as part of activities based on real communication situations. This opens up a wide range of training possibilities.
So any text can be valid material, because what interests us is to encourage reading aloud as an activity in itself. And this reveals to the student the similarities and differences that exist between orality and writing, in texts that are essentially oral and that must be produced according to that register.
From past to future
And if we leave aside the oral dimension of reading, we lose not only what was its first manifestation in history. We would also exclude that dimension that makes it a social activity.
The ideal texts to read aloud are those with a dramatic aspect: plays, epic poems or narratives with a predominance of action. But, in essence, any text can be exposed in public. Only in this way can its full potential as an instrument of collective communication be verified.
Educators know that the main tool for transmitting content in the classroom is speech. And the book holds enormous potential as a repository of stories to capture readers’ attention from a very early age. Both, speech and books, are therefore called to meet. So why not take advantage of this opportunity?
Author Bio: Alberto Escalante Varona is Professor Assistant Doctor. Department of Hispanic and Classical Philology. Language and Literature Didactics Area at the University of La Rioja