My Mama Won’t Talk Funny: Exciting Read-Alouds Without Character Voices

I know there are some moms out there whose character voices during read-aloud time rival the work of Oscar-winning actors.

I am not one of those moms.

Better Read-Alouds: How to do exciting read-alouds without doing character voices

Voices are not something I am particularly good at, they take a ton of energy to maintain, and who can remember how each character is supposed to sound when it takes you a couple of weeks to finish a read-aloud?

Reading in a monotonous tone, or worse yet, barreling through the story as fast as you can, doesn’t make for a very exciting read aloud experience. I have a few tricks that I use in place of character voices that help us have a better read-aloud experience — no voices needed.

You can read or listen to this post.

Vary the speed

You will be amazed at how this changes the tone of your story. When there is action going on in the story, increase the speed of your reading just a touch to match the pace of the action.

When things are quiet, in dramatic moments, or the conversation is light, slow down the pace. Sometimes you might even read very slowly. You won’t do this for more than a word or two, but the impact is great.

The second half of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt should always be read at twice the speed as the first half. Always. Or the book police will be knocking at your door.

Use dramatic pauses

This is varying the speed to the nth degree. Sometimes in a story you just need to pause for effect. The key is to use this to build anticipation.

In one of those anticipatory spots, stop, look up at their faces for a second or two, and then continue when they are then on the edge of their seats. The impact of this one can be huge when used correctly.

Also, be sure to streeeeetch out words that show movement and emphasize the sound of language when the author uses alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds like small, soft silence) or onomatopoeia (words that sound like the sounds they make like clop and splat).

Vary the volume

Sometimes a story should become louder — when there is a great deal of action or the suspense is building. I’m not talking about when characters are yelling, though that isn’t a bad time to raise your voice a bit, but more when the action is rising.

Other times a story should be softer — even as soft as a whisper. Use this for periods of calmer action. Emphasize it after a particularly louder part to show the tenor of the story has changed. And by all means use it like the dramatic pause when you want to emphasize some dramatic revelation. It works particularly well at the end of chapters with a cliffhanger.

Combine the three

Once you get the hang of this, you will want to advance your skills by combining more than one technique. Loud and fast. A slow whisper. A slow whisper after a dramatic pause. It is the combination of these techniques that will really bring your reading aloud to life.

You will find that these skills are easiest learned on picture books. As you read those again and again (and you will) it will become easy to know when to read more slowly, pause, or increase the volume. As a word of warning — your kids will grow used to these techniques and will correct you if you read it “wrong” on subsequent readings.

Don’t underestimate your ability to do this with chapter books as well. While it helps for you to know the story, just as your eyes can scan for inappropriate words, you will also grow skilled at spotting places for more dramatic reading.

While these techniques can (and should) be used on every book you read, some books lend themselves much better to this kind of dramatic reading. Here are a few of our favorites for reading this way.

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 Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business We’re Going on a Bear Hunt The Very Hungry Caterpillar We Are in a Book! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear A Frog in the Bog The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog The Prairie Thief The Green Ember Charlotte’s Web The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Dover Children’s Evergreen Classics)

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What are some of your favorites for dramatic reading?

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  • Andrea says:

    Such good ideas Pam – thank you. I made a big effort to do voices when we started the first Harry Potter book, but my son wrinkled up his face and politely asked me to “talk normal”! Sometimes I just keep an emotion in mind when reading a character’s lines (eg. menacing, overwhelmed) and I find that this does add an extra depth to my storytelling without actually trying to change my voice.

  • Amy says:

    I love this. I don’t do voices either, outside of raising or lowering my tone a little bit to distinguish two speakers in a long dialog. My kids have never complained, because I read with feeling otherwise. Life’s too short to let worry about character voices stop a person from reading aloud! 🙂

  • Jennie C. says:

    I do voices. I can’t help it! I even do voices when I lector at Mass. I sure do love me some Moses. 🙂

  • Katie says:

    thank you for this! I feel awful that I refuse to read “The Book with No Pictures” to my kids any more after the first attempt was met with such scathing reviews (their daddy’s reading of the same book, of course, elicits howls of laughter!). I’m adding the titles on your book list to my library requests right now!

    • Angela says:

      It’s the opposite here in my house. My poor husband reads books like he’s reading technical manuals, which is what he usually reads besides the news. We all have our strengths 🙂

  • Nellie says:

    This is terrific advice! Varying the voices can be super exhausting especially when there are multiple characters of the same gender. Oh my gosh. And my kids totally notice when I’ve used the wrong voice.
    Jim Weiss did an interview on the Read Aloud Revival podcast waaaaaay back about this very thing.
    Thank you for always providing posts that strike a chord with the everyday homeschooling mom.

  • Kimberly Locke says:

    http://www.amazon.com/Mulga-Bills-Bicycle-A-B-Paterson/dp/0207172846
    my kid’s fave
    (2 week baby nursing…im typing w.one hand 😉

  • Karin Owens says:

    I love this. I naturally do all of those when reading aloud to my kids. I will do voices often though. And, yes, remembering what they sound like or being able to get that same nuance to the voice or character every time over perhaps the course of several weeks is difficult…usually impossible to me. However, my kids and husband love them and it does add to the fun factor. For instance, several years ago I read aloud the first in the Redwall series. I used a British accent for this rabbit in the book. However, I couldn’t ever get it the same two readings in a row. Sometimes he even sounded more Australian. LOL But it was fun and we all laughed…yes, mostly at Mom’s expense but it was all good-hearted. Anyway, each one of us still remembers that and laughs about it occassionally…or maybe compares my butchering of this voice to the rabbit one. LOL I love reading aloud to my family! And I am so happy and blessed that all my kids still love it, even my almost 17 year old 11th grader. In fact, she is really going to miss our read-aloud time once she goes away to college. We’ll have to be sure to be finished with a book when she comes home on a break so we can start a new one to read while she’s there. 🙂 Thanks again.

    • Shelah M says:

      Karen Owens….
      LOL I am RIGHT there with you! Literally. I do exactly the same thing.

      I started the very 1st book “Redwall” in the Redwall series (by Brian Jacques) in December 2013 to my then 10 year old son. We have been hooked since.

      We read through the first SEVEN books in the series in six months!

      Then, we took about a year break from Redwall to read the series Warrior Cats and some of the books in Lee Roddy’s series.

      We picked back up on book eight in the Redwall series in July 2015 and have been steadily reading about a book a month since. We are currently on book 18. (Only 5 more in the series to go!)

      Taking a break from the series left me to figure out the “voices” all over again though. Ha ha. And there are SO many different “main” characters in the series it is sometimes hard to keep them straight.

      My son says he enjoys the books mostly because I “DO” the voices. And our favorite is the voice of the hare! (Wot wot!)

      I very much enjoy reading aloud and I love to “do voices”. It makes for such a memorable time spent with my sweet son.

      Pam,

      I think you have given the best advice ever for parents who don’t “do voices”! I don’t think I’ve ever seen it explained so thoroughly and so definitively.

      I’m going to be sharing your article with all I know (and not just in my homeschool community). Thank you so much.

  • Kelly Cook says:

    I don’t remember who it was, but one of the creators/readers of audio dramas that does the homeschool convention circuit suggested picking one voice for one character and just doing that. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’d sure be easier than remembering what they all sound like!

    I like these ideas and do some of them without really thinking about it.

  • Lisa says:

    These are great ideas that are sure to keep kids engrossed in the story. I try to do voices, but when I read “Swallows and Amazons” last year to my daughter I just couldn’t keep the voices straight in my head. Now we’re reading “All-of-a-Kind Family” with five girls as the main characters. It’s impossible! =)

  • Angela says:

    These are great ideas! I do some of them, but I need to work on dramatic pauses and slowing down sometimes. I can’t help but do voices, even though they change because I forget. I like to ask my kids what they think this person would sound like, especially when I forget. We love reading aloud the Ramona Quimby series and Winnie the pooh, but that one was exhausting for me to read doing all the voices.

  • Anita Klein says:

    We are just finishing the Complete Tales of Winnie The Pooh. My boys have been reading daily from it, to me and by this time they each have developed voices for all the characters. I’m going to miss our friends from the Hundred Acre Wood but mostly I’ll miss my boys adaption of it!!!! They do a much better job with “voices” than I ever could!

  • Dana Houchin says:

    We have been reading the Laura Ingalls series and we are reading little house on the prairie now. I’m just now learning these things and I can see they make a difference. They seem to stay more interested and want to sit for another chapter. Thank you for your advice!

  • Annalisa says:

    Thank you for this awesome post Pam!!! I absolutely love reading to my children, and at this busy season of my life I am always trying to figure out how to get more time in to do it. Thank you for relieving me of the idea that you can do a great job with reading aloud even if you never do special voices for each character. Such an amazing article!!! ? Thank you, thank you for sharing!!!

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