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What is Oral Interpretation?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Reading an excerpt from a book or poem out loud allows a speaker to make that excerpt as dramatic or banal as he or she chooses. The excerpt can take on new life depending on how the speaker interprets its meaning, nuances, and vocal patterns. Such a reading — and the process of assigning one's own vocal performance to the excerpt — is called oral interpretation.

An oral interpretation can apply to any type of writing, from poetry to prose, from fiction to non-fiction, from humorous to dramatic. The performer will interpret the lines of text to deduce what key emotion they want to convey, and they will give their vocal delivery based on that emotion. The idea comes from the desire to give texts more character and emotion beyond a dry, flat, or monotone delivery.

Creating vocal performances from book passages or poems can be labeled as oral interpretation.
Creating vocal performances from book passages or poems can be labeled as oral interpretation.

The style depends less on the actual text and more on the reader's performance, which allows the reader to transform the words into any mood that he or she wishes to achieve. It is not unheard of for a reader to take a dramatic excerpt and read it in a humorous manner in order to play up the subtle melodrama in the subtext, or vice versa. While the actual text of the excerpt certainly does matter, the manner in which the performer delivers the text can enhance or detract from what's written by stressing ideas or emotions of the reader's choosing, rather than those of the author.

Oral interpretation differs significantly from the general category of acting in a few ways. While both forms stress vocal delivery, acting relies more heavily on movement and visual presentation. For example, actors often wear costumes and make-up, and make full use of a large stage or setting. Oral interpretation performers, however, do not employ the use of props, make-up or costumes, relying instead on vocal delivery and subtle movement to bring their excerpt to life. In fact, props and costumes are generally banned from performances and competitions.

Beyond simple performance value, this type of reading can be useful in deciphering particularly difficult texts. Reading a passage out loud often allows the listener to hear ideas or concepts that were lost, and assigning emotion to words often allows readers to hear the passage in a different way. This can be particularly advantageous to high school and college classrooms in which the idea of interpretation and discussion is vital.

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Discussion Comments


I'm trying to look for tips on how to orally interpret song lyrics, but I can't seem to find any. I know that it's almost similar to orally interpreting a poem, but what do people do with the repeating chorus or verses?


@allenJo - That’s great to hear. It’s true, actors need to become comfortable, and step into the role of the persona that they’re dramatizing. Some people are a little stiff however, and that metamorphosis you describe doesn’t quite happen to them, at least not so easily.

For these people, a good idea would be to try humorous interpretation scripts. They can take a classical piece of literature like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, modernize it and make it funny. Or they can find humorous scripts online if they want.

Then when they deliver their lines, everyone will start laughing and the actor will feel more comfortable and will inject more feeling into the role. Of course a comedic piece is not the same as a tragedy, but at least he can be comfortable getting up in front of people and dramatizing the role.


@blackDagger - I’ve noticed that something strange happens when you are asked to deliver an oral narrative, be it prose, poetry or drama. You study the lines beforehand and focus on your delivery, to get the proper emotional expression, inflection and nuances just right.

Then you stand up, deliver your lines, and as you deliver them-something happens. You’re no longer an actor. Suddenly you become the person you’re dramatizing; and with that transformation, emotions and feeling start coming to you that you had not thought of when you were rehearing.

They start bubbling forth in speech, and the audience is amazed at how well you captured the essence of the text.

You’re amazed, and shocked, as well.

How do I know this? Because it’s happened to me. And this kind of thing happens to actors all the time as they immerse themselves in their fiction.


There is a huge mistake that many people make when they first are presented with an oral interpretation challenge; often they think because the lines do not have to be memorized (they are actually read, sort of readers theatre style), there is no work that needs to be done.

As a result, they let their oral interpretations piece collect dust and never really practice it.

Wrong! As any good theatrical director could tell you, learning the lines is the first step to any good production; not the end all and be all of it. Everything else is far more important.

Believable and interesting inflections and body language must be mastered. Timing is crucial. And that is just with regular acting.

Think about having to believably perform standing still. Trust me – oral interpretation is not ‘easy’ because it is not 'regular' acting.


I actually studied Theatre Arts in college and we had to do many specialized courses in oral interpretation. It is not as easy as it seems to take the written word and make it truly interesting and unique out loud.

After all, if the written word was meant to be acted out, it would be a script! And although acting and directing were my focus in school, I actually began a true love affair with oral interpretation that has lasted for years.

I also enjoy all of its cousins, such as storytelling and make a point to find good oral interpretation pieces when going through scripts as well.

It is absolutely amazing what one can weave with their words! Whole other worlds can be created and shared through a masterful oral interpreter!


@Kat919 - I'm so glad you had a good experience! I'm an English teacher and I love to do oral poetry with my middle school students. I require them to memorize a poem and recite it to the class. (Memorization is a lost art--more people should practice it in school, in my opinion.)

I didn't require them to turn it into oral interp.; I was just happy if they read like human beings and not robots. But several did give us a good show every year. I remember a particularly memorable interpretation of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" that was quite unintentionally funny. He was so solemn, too, poor kid.


This is also called dramatic interpretation, and I think it's great for kids who don't think they have a "talent" because they don't sing, dance, play the piano, etc. I was once of those kids in high school--no athletic or musical ability of any kind.

But I took Latin and freshman year I went to my first Junior Classical League convention. My teacher persuaded me to participate in the oral interpretation contest (reading a snippet of Latin literature in translation). There weren't a lot of contestants, but I came in second and it was the first time I ever won a ribbon in anything.

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    • Creating vocal performances from book passages or poems can be labeled as oral interpretation.
      By: Konstantin Yuganov
      Creating vocal performances from book passages or poems can be labeled as oral interpretation.