When, as enthusiastic university students, my girlfriends and I asked poet and Nobel Prize laureate, Seamus Heaney (may he rest in peace), what he would advise aspiring writers, his answer was simple: “Read!” His answer is universally affirmed by writers, educators, and researchers alike: Reading (and being read to) is the number one indicator of a successful future writer.
As a writing teacher, I often suggest reading books—paper back, hard back, digital books, audio books—and not just silently by oneself. Family read-alouds are enjoyable and valuable in so many ways. Folks often get more from a book when hearing it aloud, and no one is ever too old to enjoy hearing a good tale.
Another reason read-alouds and audio books are such a great idea is related to the fact that language is primarily spoken and heard and only secondarily written down. When we write, we are writing what sounds good “in our head.” If students will listen to great poetry, stories, speeches, and essays frequently and repeatedly (for example, why not listen while doing chores, exercising, riding in the car, resting in bed, etc.?), they will start to lock the sentence structures and rhythms in their memory. When it comes to literature, repeat listening is great. Once the patterns are in, they will naturally start to come out in the student’s speaking and writing. This cycle of listening and imitating is how we first learned to speak our native language, and it is how we learn to write with an elegant voice.
Narration—telling back orally what we’ve heard—can also help quite a bit with observation, comprehension, and memory. Likewise, orally discussing books and passages may be the most important and effective way to develop comprehension and thinking skills, two very important aspects of high-level writing.
A healthy diet of books includes a breadth of classic literature from different genres and time periods, with large helpings of poetry, the King James Bible, and great speeches. The King James Bible—regardless of one’s religious persuasion or opinions regarding biblical translations—is also classic literature and is foundational to our English language and cultural heritage.
Memorization and recitation of beloved poems and prose passages cements the verbal patterns even more firmly while providing the scholar with a long-lasting source of joy. Poetry—and poetic prose—is, after all, a sensual thing meant to be heard and enjoyed for the way it sounds, the way the words feel in the mouth, as well as for the images the words evoke in the mind. Before television and movies, before even books and the printing press, there were poems and stories recited around the hearth. These poems and stories still give us life.
“Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.”
HT: Sally Clarkson for the video link.
If this topic interests you, you might want to check out Andrew Pudewa’s article, “The Arts of Language,” on the Institute for Excellence in Writing website, which spells out more fully how listening and speaking are the foundation for reading and writing. (There is also a corresponding audio download here.)