by: Anisa Thompson
Have you ever been that person in a silent room, quietly reading out loud to yourself? Most of us probably have. Maybe you were reading a textbook assignment, some notes, or a confusing chapter of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But the real question here remains; who’s received the response of a rather annoyed individual whisper-yelling, “SHUT UP!”?
I understand the importance of peace and quiet, so I get how someone whispering, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (if you know, you know) could cut through your train of thought and spur quite the irritable outburst. But, what if I told you this person was engaging in the historical art of reading in the way it was meant to be done? What if I told you that reading was intended to be absorbed both visually and auditorily?
According to Reading and Writing in Babylon by Dominique Charpin, over 5,000 years ago, people in Sumer (present-day Iraq) invented writing. The cuneiform word translating to “to read” in English meant something entirely different; it meant “to cry out” and “to listen.” Charpin includes a letter from roughly 4,000 years ago expressing the following: “I am sending a very urgent message. Listen to this tablet. If it is appropriate, have the king listen to it.” If the norm in ancient history was to actively listen to writing, why have we gone astray from an auditory medium to a silent one?
Reading out loud became inefficient. In a BBC article entitled “Why you should read this out loud” by Sophie Hardach, Karenleigh Overmann, a cognitive archaeologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, shares, “’The ability to read silently, while confined to highly proficient scribes, would have had distinct advantages, especially speed. Reading aloud is a behavior that would slow down your ability to read quickly.’” Although reading quickly is attractive, especially to students faced with a plethora of assigned texts, reading out loud has been proven to support memory and cognition. Colin Macleod, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, discovered the production effect, which revolves around being able to recognize words or concepts absorbed auditorily. In an Australian study, children (ages 7-10) were given a list of words. Some, they could read out loud. Others, they read silently. The children recalled 87% of the words they read out loud opposed to recalling only 70% of the words read silently.
Beyond memory, reading theatrical texts out loud is important as well. In my experience with theater, when reading lines traditionally spoken by an actor or actress silently, there’s a disconnect. Silent reading doesn’t fully explore the range of emotions the character may experience, nor does it depict the tone of the character’s voice. There’s a difference between you reading the stage notes telling you to “laugh charismatically,” and you actually laughing charismatically.
Whether you enjoy reading aloud or not, I encourage you to try it! Reading aloud allows us to gain a wider variety of context from words we would otherwise only absorb visually. So please, listen to your textbooks! Listen to your notes! Listen to Charles Dickinson for crying out loud! If you read in the simplest sense, you are only executing half of the definition. Remember: to read, is to cry out, is to listen.