I recently read an article about the value of reading aloud for memory. For both children and old folks, material listened to was retained better than text read silently; words we read aloud to ourselves were even more likely to be retained then words read to us. Old people in particular benefit from this differential, retaining about 20% more when reading aloud.
In the beginning, almost everyone read out loud. (By the way, aloud is the formal and proper term; out loud, however, has come into common use and is apparently here to stay.) “Listen to this tablet” said the writer of a message inscribed in clay. The first real record we have about reading silently comes from Augustine, who described how singular it was that Saint Ambrose read without moving his lips.
When written literature was in short supply or only a minority of people were literate, much reading aloud imparted the content of books, newspapers, and pamphlets. Many 18th century books were largely read aloud by family groups around the fire in the evening. Now, of course, almost all adult reading is done silently. We lost something.
Human culture started with an oral tradition, and old folks have been particularly affected over the ages by the shift from an oral tradition to widespread literacy. Before general literacy and availability of books, older people were more valued for their experience and history. How to plant the crops or tend a baby was information that we got orally (and sometimes loudly) from people who had done it before. I remember my own grandmother taking umbrage at my mother’s attachment to Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care – which contained advice that did not always jive with earlier custom. My mother stuck to Dr. Spock; I wonder if my grandmother felt less valued.
Also, when literacy did start to take off in the eighteenth century, it was usually the young who learned their letters first. This often meant that offspring of the household – the children and grandchildren – could read the new broadsides and chapbooks that their elders could not decipher. We could imagine that, instead of tales told around the hearth by the oldest member of the group (the member with the longest memory and the most to “tell”), the literate were now reading to the illiterate. Imagine a grandmother having to rely on a grandchild to write her will or to read to her the latest popular broadsheet. We might think of the relation between young and old these days in relation to technology. Who hasn’t relied on a younger member of the family to set up their computer or teach them how to stream a movie? But also, who of my generation does not remember the joys of being read to by Nana or Grandpa, in those days before competition from TV’s and iPads?
Reading aloud is akin to thinking aloud, and we all know the value of spoken thought in clarifying our minds. Often, I can ponder a problem or decision mentally for weeks without coming to any conclusion. What helps most at that point is a long talk with a trusted listener. There is something about having to frame the issue in communicable terms and tones that illuminates the question in ways that unexpressed thought cannot. Of course, writing about such things help too, but you lose the ability to use vocal inflections and to monitor the facial responses of the person listening. You need a really good listener to do this well, and when that is not readily available, writing and then reading one’s words aloud to yourself (or your cat) is the next best thing.
Confession, too, seems to work better when it is spoken. There is something about putting the words out in the world that helps to dissipate them. Churches now often have a scripted group confession prayer that is intoned in unison by the congregation. While this is somewhat purgative, it does not force us to enumerate and enunciate our specific failings. Perhaps they shouldn’t have gotten rid of those confessional stalls.
There are other benefits of reading aloud. For one thing, it precludes skimming (my great vice). And for a writer, the process of reading one’s own work out loud is invaluable – both to catch simple errors and to feel the tone of a piece. I have been in writing groups that circulated pieces ahead of time and then had meetings where we only critiqued the writing; my current group reads the pieces out loud at the meeting and sends along the critiques later. The reading aloud makes a tremendous difference.
Reading aloud is also a bonding activity. As we peruse the Sunday NY Times at the breakfast table, my husband and I take turns reading interesting tidbits to each other. He tires of this before I do, but newsprint is dull and rarely elicits the laughs, groans, or shrieks that oral delivery of the news can bring. It allows us to express the emotions elicited but usually unexpressed as we ponder the events of the world, and to do it communally.
You might want to revisit my story “Playing by Ear,” and try reading it aloud. Or read anything aloud today – to yourself, to the canary, to someone over the phone. You will remember it better and appreciate it more. You will exercise the speaking apparatus that is probably atrophying a little in these times of little social interaction.