But my students like it! Why reading aloud may be a bad idea.

12 07 2012

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As I prepare for my upcoming Braz-TESOL presentation entitled Activating the Receptive Skills – Beliefs and Practice Versus Current Research (together with my colleague Marta Rezende), I wonder why round-the-class reading has stood the test of time, regardless of all the recommendations against it. Recently, in a talk about teaching reading, I brought up the reading aloud issue, my pet peeve, and presented all the arguments against it, mine and many specialists’. At the end of the session, a teacher approached me and said, “But my students like it so much!” This comment reminded me of one of my favorite blog posts by Ken Wilson (2010), particularly a part when he says:

If a teacher says ‘My students really enjoy X’, you can usually interpret this as ‘I like X, and I ask my students to do it a lot’. Which CAN be a good thing. But not with reading aloud.

I’ve observed many lessons in my career. Just as Ken describes, every time students are asked to take turns reading a text out loud, unless I have the printed materials to look at, I can never understand a word they’re saying. The intonation isn’t right and many words are incorrect. Why? Because as our good old Krashen recommends, the texts we use with our students for intensive reading are i+1, that is, a little above their current proficiency level. This means that they will contain words our students don’t know and, thus, probably can’t pronounce.

Jim Scrivener (2005, pp. 189,190) presents many reasons why round-the-class reading is not a good technique. I reproduce some of them below with some comments from my experiences as a student and teacher:

1)  I read faster than he speaks.

Absolutely! People read at different rates, even native speakers. I’m a fast reader and I am always annoyed when I have to follow along someone reading at a slower rate than mine, be it in Portuguese, my first language, or English, my second one.

2) He can’t pronounce it and he gets embarrassed.

Of course! Asking students to read a text with unknown vocabulary out loud, especially if it is their first encounter with the text, is a sure exposure to ridicule. They are doomed to be unsuccessful. Try getting a text on a topic you don’t know in your native language and reading it in front of an audience. How would you feel about that?

3) I’m so nervous about reading, I miss the story.

Sue Swift explains in her blog post:

Frequently the task of processing meaning and speaking aloud at the same time is too much for the learner, with the consequence that processing meaning gets dropped. Thus, it doesn’t improve reading skills, and neither is it useful for language reinforcement, as the learner is reading without understanding.

4) It’s going to be 35 minutes till my go.

I remember very well my old school days when we had to take turns reading in class. I counted the sentences or paragraphs to know what I would be reading when it was my turn. Instead of paying attention to my peers, I practiced my lines so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. And this was in my native language!

I would also add the following arguments:

5) It’s not an authentic activity.

When do people read texts out loud in real life? At church maybe? When giving a speech? In most cases, we read aloud texts that we are already familiar with, be it a speech we wrote ourselves, or a passage from the bible we’ve read many times or had the chance to rehearse. Okay, sometimes we read something on the newspaper out loud to our family at the breakfast table or a bedtime story to our children. But that is a whole different story, isn’t it?

6) Most written texts (with the obvious exception of plays and poems) were made to be read silently, not out loud.

In most reading materials, sentences are longer and the discourse markers are different from the ones used in speaking, so it’s not easy or natural to read them out loud. Of course there are talented oral readers who can enchant an audience for hours, but these are hardly our EFL/ESL students struggling to learn the language!

7) But the most important reason for not doing round the class reading, in my opinion, is that we use readings in class to teach our students to become skilled, strategic readers, and this is no small task. We already have a lot in our hands if we want to work on reading comprehension. Anderson (2009, p. 118) proposes a pedagogical approach to the teaching of reading that will:

a) Activate background knowledge

b) Emphasize vocabulary learning

c) Ensure effective language knowledge and general comprehension skills.

d) Teach text structures and discourse organization.

e) Ensure word recognition fluency.

f) Build reading fluency and rate.

g) Promote the strategic reader rather than teach individual strategies.

As you can see, there’s a lot to be accomplished in a reading lesson, and speaking and/or pronunciation practice, the main reason why teachers say they do round the class reading, is not one of the features. As Ken Wilson also points out, it’s not good for their pronunciation at all. “In fact, when I’ve had to the chance to talk to students afterwards, I discovered that their speaking was markedly better than I might have imagined if I had only heard them struggling through the text,” he argues.

However, if despite all that has been said above, you still find reading aloud a valid technique for your classroom, perhaps you should change your approach to it. In the excellent article Reading Loud and Clear – Reading Aloud in ELT, Costas Gabrielatos explains that reading aloud is used in most ELT contexts for the wrong purposes, with the wrong types of texts and usually upon students’ first encounter with the text. The author proposes that if reading aloud is to be done at all, it should be taught as a skill, with the types of texts that are typically read aloud, such as radio broadcasts, announcements, speeches, or lectures, for example. Likewise, Sue Swift argues that some students may have to acquire the skill of reading aloud in English and, thus, proposes some useful techniques.

I personally suggest that if your students really do like reading aloud and you strongly believe it is a useful technique, perhaps you might do it after a listening activity, by having students practice reading the tapescript, preferably in pairs or in groups.

A disclaimer is in order, though: what I’m referring here as “reading texts out loud” or “round-the-class reading” has to do with having students take turns reading out loud the texts that the book presents for reading practice. I’m not talking about instructions, answers to exercises, or even dialogues presented in the book. These can of course be read out loud by volunteers or selected students!

 

What about you, my colleagues? What’s your take on round-the-class reading?

 

 

References

Anderson, N. J. (2009). ACTIVE Reading: The Research Base for a Pedagogical  Approach in  the Reading Classroom. In ZhaoHong Han & Neil J. Anderson (Editors). Second Language Reading Research and Instruction – Crossing the Boundaries.  Ann Arbor,  Michigan:  University of Michigan Press.

Gabrielatos, C. (2002). Reading loud and clear: Reading aloud in ELT. ERIC, ED477572

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching. Oxford, UK: Macmillan Education.

Swift, S. (?). Reading aloud. [web log post]. Retrieved from http://eltnotebook.blogspot.com.br/2006/12/reading-aloud.html.

Wilson, K. (2010, October 14). Reading aloud in class is a complete waste of time – discuss. [web log post]. Retrieved from http://kenwilsonelt.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/reading-aloud-in-class-is-a-complete-waste-of-time-discuss/.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/buttepubliclibrary/ (Public domain)

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