Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reading Aloud

The text: John 17:20-26 - in Gbaya

Have you ever been in a church service when a lay reader stumbles through the Bible lesson(s) for the day?  S/he doesn’t know how to pronounce all the place names and/or other words, doesn’t get the phrasing correct, mumbles or reads in a monotone?  I have!
Now, imagine that the language is not your first language, you have had limited schooling available to you, and that schooling is in your second language, not your first; also, that there are few books and newspapers available.  All of these result in people have little change to read or to practice reading aloud – in any language. 

I have been thinking about these issues on and off since I have been here in CAR and Cameroon – especially when I am listening to lay readers and catechists read Bible lessons during Sunday liturgies. 

(Note: catechists are people with two years of training at a Bible School who help lead the liturgy, preach, and lead the congregation when the pastor is not available.  Before being accepted at the Bible School, most have the equivalent of a middle school education.  Pastors attend three years of training at a theological school – sometimes after attending a Bible School.  The level of education is often a little higher, but is not the same as pastors in the US who attend four years of university and then seminary.  By the way, ELCA supports the Bible Schools in both Baboua, CAR, and Garoua Boulai, Cameroon.  I know we also support the theological school in Baboua and believe we support the one in Meiganga, Cameroon, too.)
Bible School in Garoua Boulai

I think I am particularly sensitive to oral reading because I spent so many years as an elementary school teacher, many of them teaching fourth grade (9 year olds).  Part of teaching reading at that level is helping students respect punctuation and read groups of words as phrases that go together to create meaning.  These skills help the reader make sense of text but are also key to helping listeners understand.  Let me repeat that last sentence with breaks that a good oral reader is likely to use.  (One / means a slight pause; two // is a slightly longer pause.  At a period there would be a pause that is even a bit longer ///.)   These skills / help the reader // make sense of text // but are also key / to helping listeners / understand. /// 

In addition to grouping words for meaning, good oral readers naturally consider what they can say in one breath.  Pauses are also a great time for the oral reader to look up from the text and scan the listeners making eye contact and bringing them into the reading process.  Looking up also helps the reader monitor if the listeners are understanding and following the text. 

Yeah!  The teacher in me jumps out onto the page!  Well, that is what happened one morning after the daily meditation at the Bible School a couple of weeks ago.  The reading was particularly painful and the catechist-in-training read not only the Bible passage, but also his prepared remarks (short sermon).  I told to the Director that I could work with the students to help them develop oral reading skills.  He agreed and I did just that for two hours this week – one on Wednesday and one on Friday.

The students were very appreciative; they recognized the need immediately.  Here are the steps I suggested to them:

1.     Pray for understanding and patience before approaching the task.
2.     Read the text silently and be sure you understand it.
3.     Think about the way you want to divide the text into natural phrases.
4.     Write out the text in phrases so that it is larger and the phrases are on separate lines.  (I did this for them for the Gospel lesson they will be reading in churches Sunday when they lead worship and preach.  Their homework was to practice reading the French aloud and to divide the Gbaya text and practice it.  Many practiced, but no one wrote the text to divide it or even wrote on the page I gave them that had the first three verses in Gbaya.  I think they thought they didn’t need to do it because it was their first language, but believe me they needed this step!  It showed in their oral reading.)
5.     Practice!  Read the text out loud many times.  Remember that once you feel confident, you need to practice several more times.  Overlearning will make things go more smoothly once you are in front of a congregation and feeling nervous.  (Many catechists to be expressed fear or shame about reading in public.)

Those of you who went to the Biblical Storytelling Seminar with me will recognize parts of these steps.  They also overlap with the fluency training elementary teachers use in US schools. 

I also gave the learners a couple of tricks.  Keep your thumb or a finger at the beginning of a line to help you keep track of where you are and to avoid skipping a line when going from the end of one line to the next.  Look at the listeners!  For those who are afraid, practice looking at a spot just over their heads.  Readers won’t increase their fear by making eye contact, but listeners will be sure that the readers are making contact with them.  The catechists-to-be really liked these, especially the second one!

At the end of the first class, I asked for questions.  One student asked that we take time to talk about the key points of the text that they will be preaching on.  We had given a two-sentence summary at the beginning of the class, but I agreed it would be a good idea to spend more time developing key points together in the next class.  Although I prepared my list of key points (always a well-prepared teacher!), they listed points as they understood them and I wrote them on the board.  Not surprisingly, they, as a group, developed a more thorough understanding than I had on my own. 

The text in French
We heard a lot of improvement after these couple of days of practice – some more than others, of course.  I would love to be in all the congregations on Sunday to hear each of them read aloud and preach on John 17:20-26.  (It’s not an easy text for their first foray into a congregation as a catechist-in-training!)  Of course, I can’t, and many liturgies will be in Gbaya with a couple in French and a couple more in Fulfulde.  I will go to the church closest to me where I usually attend.  I hope I have a chance to help them reflect on the experience next week.  (Boy, does that sound like a teacher from the US!)  

My dream is to continue to work with oral readers here and to find ways to help train those in the US who are lay readers.  If you want to help with this dream, feel free to use these suggestions with oral readers you know!  Oral reading is a skill that needs to be developed and practiced.  Listeners everywhere will be grateful.

Note:  I have written this blog entry on Saturday, May 11, 2013.  Let’s see when I can post it.  At the guest house this morning, we are currently without electricity again (I am working off the computer battery).  There is also no running water (pump still not repaired), and a new wrinkle today – no phone service which means no Internet.  Moving backwards in time…  Good thing I am getting to know the Bible School students and teachers and some people in town since my support system at a distance is cut off. 

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