Coaching Children to Read in Church

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Once a month in our parish we celebrate a “Family Mass.” What is different about this one is that the parish children take care of most of the roles. This includes reading in front of the whole congregation!

I’m proud of our young readers. They put a bold front, and do an outstanding job. In many cases, their enthusiasm makes you listen anew to readings that had become trite and uninteresting from being read always in the same monotone. And even when they don’t quite pull it off, they still get the whole congregation to smile and feel that things aren’t so bad after all!

Through mysterious ways, I’ve somehow ended up as the “reading coach.” This means that every month I have to help a group of children and teenagers, ranging from ages 7 to 16, to prepare some really challenging readings. Sometimes with only a few minutes before showtime, since we don’t have formal practices set up. In the process, I have come upon a few tips & tricks that I’m passing on to you. (They may be helpful for other occasions too.)

1) What readings you need to cover:

In a Sunday Catholic Mass, readings go like this:

 The first reading is taken from the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Book of Revelations. Most of these readings will be either a narrative passage, or a passage from one of the prophets.
The greatest challenge with the former are the long, unfamiliar names of places and people. With the books of the Prophets, the challenge is to make the words “sound” prophetic.

 Between readings, the Psalms are normally sung, but if they aren’t, you may need a reader for this too.

 The second reading is taken from the Apostolic Letters. The style, the long sentences, and the fact that these are normally selections from a longer, ongoing argument, make these readings a challenge even for adult readers.

 The Gospel is read by the priest, so you don’t need to worry about that one.

 After the Offertory (when the gifts are brought forward to the priest), the Prayers of the Faithful are read. These are normally between five and six short prayers, written specifically for that Mass, each followed by the congregation answering “Lord, Hear our Prayer,” or a similar invocation. When read by children, these are usually split among them.
Practice especially the last one, where the “intention of this Mass” is read. This will have the name of the person/s for whom this particular Mass is prayed. It has to be heard well, and proper names can be tricky.
If you have more than one reader for these, and they are reading many prayers each, it is better not to alternate them (Reader 1, prayer 1, reader 2, prayer 2, reader 1, prayer 3 and so forth).
Group them instead (e.g. Reader 1, prayers 1, 2 and 3; Reader 2, prayers 4, 5 and 6). This is because readers may be of varying heights, and stand differently, and then you’ll be needing to adjust the microphone for each over and over.

 Lastly, you will need a vivacious reader for the Announcements. These are read at the end of the Mass, right before the final blessing. By then the congregation’s attention may be faltering, and you need to convey these announcements in a way that reaches your audience!

 Sometimes, you will also have the person reading the announcements (or a different one) read a short welcoming phrase at the beginning of the Mass. Make sure that everyone involved knows this will be read, and that the priest has a clear signal to indicate that the Mass will begin (since he will usually stand by the main door and process in).

A good rule of thumb is to get five readers: Welcome/Announcements; Reading One; Reading Two; and two readers for the Prayers of the Faithful.

2) What to do during practice time:

So those are the readings, and here are some tips that have helped my readers come through loud and clear.

 Have at least three copies of each reading available. One goes to the reader, so they can practice before Mass (and review during Mass, if they are nervous). One goes to the lectern (the reading stand), so the reader doesn’t need to bring their copy, and one stays with you, for emergencies.

 Determine who will be reading what, at least a week before, and e-mail the readings to the designated readers or their parents. Ask them to practice at home many times. That will make an enormous difference!

 Ask all the readers to arrive early. (20 to 15 minutes before Mass works for me, but you may need more time if you are just beginning to work with them.)

 Ask each reader to read their part once. Take mental notes of the places they have trouble with, and make them read those again until they get them right. This will usually involve strange names of people and places; long, unusual words; and long sentences with complex structures.

 Strange and unusual names and words: Pronounce them slowly, and ask the reader to say them a few times. Then ask them to read the whole sentence. (If you are not quite sure how a name is pronounced, don’t sweat it. Just give an authoritative best guess. The important thing is that they feel confident about it.)
A curious effect is that these difficult words sometimes come out even clearer than the rest of the reading, because the reader slows down in order to get them right!

 Long, complex sentences: Tell the reader where to stop for breath, and give them a pen to mark it in their copy.

 After you have sorted out these details, ask the reader to read the whole thing once more, “from the top.”

3) Some common difficulties, and how to deal with them:

Some readers (especially younger readers) tend to read “inwards”; that is, they seem to be reading to themselves, rather than to the congregation.
When practicing with them, a good trick is to stand at about ten feet away from the reader. Tell them that you have to read to you, where you are standing. This will hopefully get them to start projecting outwards.
It also helps to tell them that they are reading to the people standing at the back of the church, though it will be normally the older children who can use this trick to their advantage.
This is a challenge that can rarely be resolved in one day. Your readers will need time to grow in their reading skills and become more confident. For this reason, it is usually a good idea to assign the younger readers to the Prayers of the Faithful, since there isn’t such a dire need to hear these loud and clear.

Many readers tend to rush. This is either because they are really nervous, or because they think that Reading Well is Reading Fast. As a result, their reading lacks power and clarity, and they end up without breath in the middle of the reading.
In my experience, telling them to “read more slowly” doesn’t quite work. They will slow down for a sentence or two and then start rushing again.
Instead, tell them to take a full breath at the end of each sentence. When they see a period, breath. Do this with them during their practice (tell them: stop! Breathe). Even exaggerate it, if needed.
Kids take well to this kind of very specific instructions. The result is that they will slow down significantly, relax, and they will have time in between to start processing the next sentence.
Think it will go too slow? It won’t: If they are using a microphone, this is just the time needed for the echoes of the last phrase to die away.
As an added bonus, if the reading is from one of the prophets, it will sound very powerful!

Teenage and pre-teen readers (especially girls) tend to pitch their voice through their nose, and to blur and dissolve together groups of words, especially those with the sound “M” on them. Even excellent readers start doing this when they reach this age.
And good luck telling them that! You can have them read those clusters of words a few times, insisting that they separate the words more, and it may work. But their resistance to direct criticism being quite low at this age, you could have your practice run backfiring badly.
What I’ve done, to rather surprising effect, is blame it on the microphones. I tell teenage readers that the microphones are creating a lot of echo, and that it is important that they wait until the echoes have died out before they read the next sentence, or it will all get blurred together. (Which is true!)
This seems to create in them (at least in the most conscientious ones) an additional degree of awareness about the need to separate the sounds. The times I’ve done this, there was not a word that could not be heard clearly!

So that’s what I’ve got for now. I’ll keep updating this post as tips and techniques come up my way.

Alf the Red

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