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Reading aloud allowed?

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2 teens reading
In this post, Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English, teacher trainer and ELT consultant, discusses practising and correcting pronunciation through activities that encourage students to read aloud in class.

Sometimes it is worth questioning our procedures and attitudes in the classroom: asking the question “why”? Why use this technique or procedure and what is its value? By doing so, we continually reassess our attitudes, principles and procedures as a teacher. We avoid becoming dinosaurs. 

Reading aloud was a regular activity in language lessons when I was a schoolboy. Some of us loved it; others hated it. The procedure went something like this: one of the kids in the class read from the textbook, but only the first sentence of the text. Then a different child would read the next sentence and so on, around the classroom. Some teachers worked methodically around the classroom; you knew when your turn would come

For some children (sadly, myself included), it was an opportunity to turn off and only turn on when the child seated alongside started to read aloud. Other teachers were more alert to the tricks of children like me. They chose the reader at random so you never knew when you might be exposed as a daydreamer.

As I struggled through my sentence the teacher corrected me–and believe me, in my case, there was a lot to correct!  At the end of the sentence I heaved a mental sigh of relief as the spotlight of the teacher’s attention moved onto the next pupil. By the end of the reading aloud activity a lot of correction had taken place. After that, we worked through a comprehension task (usually 10 comprehension questions!).

Does this sound familiar to you? Reading out loud in front of the whole class is a technique almost as old as formal education itself. And it hasn’t gone away. Around the world, it remains a methodological mainstay for many teachers. But, as with everything we do, it is always worth asking the question: what are my principles for doing this? Why ask my students to read out loud? Pedagogically, what value does it have? What are the outcomes for my learners?

For a start, it is a real life skill. We read to our children at bedtime; we read out clips from the newspaper to our partners; newscasters and radio presenters read scripts to us. But if you think about it, it is quite a restricted list. We do not spend much of our time reading aloud. And when we do, it is usually only a snippet, a small amount. 

So why do we ask our pupils to read aloud in the classroom? What are the aims?

Well, one possible aim, and one often cited by teachers, is to improve pronunciation. But I need to be careful here. If the text is 20 sentences long and 20 children read a sentence each and each child makes only two errors, potentially I will have corrected 40 pronunciation errors by the end of the activity. 40 pronunciation errors are eminently forgettable. It’s too much.

To make pronunciation work targeted and effective I need to select what the children read aloud/pronounce and to restrict the quantity. Maybe two or three sentences only? I can anticipate the pronunciation problems my learners will have with the three sentences and be prepared to deal with them. Now my pronunciation work is more manageable, both for me and for the children.

It is possible, in fact, to argue that reading aloud is a combination of reading skills and speaking skills. I think it’s a good idea to keep the two skills separated in this particular instance. Reading aloud to work on pronunciation will be most effective for the kids if they are not distracted by trying to understand the text. In other words, this type of work is best done after they have worked on comprehension of the text i.e. completed the tasks that help them to understand the text. It is the last thing we do rather than, as is so often the case, the first thing we do.

Can you think of a learning aim that justifies reading aloud as I describe?

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44 thoughts on “Reading aloud allowed?

  1. Anothing problem is that you are – in many cases – exposing your class to a large amount of bad pronunciation which they will passively pick up from their classmates!

    • You raise an interesting conundrum: we want the children to speak but by doing so the class is exposed to a range of pronunciation from good to not so good. Has anyone got a solution to this problem?

      • Hello Peter!
        I’ve receintly joined this blog but what I want to point out is that we should follow an strategy instead of just asking students to read aloud, for instance, finding appropiate material according to our students’ age, level and interests will be the first step. We could use a graded book and some of them include a CD which is a tool to drill prounciation and intonation.
        What do you think about this strategy?
        1.- Find a book with a CD according to our students’ needs. (age, level, interests)
        2.- Work on reading comprehension.
        3.- Play the CD focusing on pronunciation and intonation.
        4.- Ask ss to read aloud in pairs. If it’s a story book you can try with role play, this way ss will feel more confident. You can also try reading individually.
        5.- To correct pronunciation, write the mistakes on a piece of paper and read that part of the text to your students and ask a question about it, so that ss don’t feel like they made a mistake.

        Andrea,
        Mexico

      • Dear Andrea JM, thank you for your comment. Your strategy sounds good to me. It looks like it is logical. I think your 5 points confirm what I was describing in my article. Reading skills are confined to points 1 and 2. Number 3 to 5 are about spoken pronunciation. Am I correct?
        I hope to hear back from you.
        Best, Peter

      • Hello Peter!
        Thank you for responding and I’m sorry for taking so long but I’ve been quite busy. You’re correct about the aim of the points. I found it easy and gradual to get my pupils involved with the meaning of the text but also to give them a chance to pay more attention and of course to practice intonation.
        I think you make an excellent point about encouraging teachers to be aware of the aims of each strategy.
        This article is very interesting.

  2. Many students are shy of speaking out their thoughts. It may be because of various reasons: sometimes they are short of vocabulary, sometimes they don’t have the right answers, some time they have both but they are hesitant. To solve such issues , if in the begining the students could be asked to start with aloud choral reading then in due course of time they will atleast be able to fight their shyness and they will themselves realize that they have been able to read fluently. Then they can be brought out from their moulds and asked to read aloud individually. Slowly but surely they will be more comfortable in reading and with constant practice they will certainly improve their pronunciation, tone and rhythm.

    • thank you for your comment. You raise some interesting issues. Is it fair to say that your comments are more about the children’s pronunciation? I think it would be more focused pronunciation work if the class worked on two or three sentences and not the whole text. I think the issue for me is that if the children and the teacher are distracted by pronunciation then they’re probably not focusing on meaning. What do you think?

  3. In continuation to the issue, Reading Aloud Allowed?, I wanted to know till which level should aloud reading be done in the classroom. When should the teacher switch over completely to silent reading in the classroom?

    • Thank you for your comments, Priamvada. It is difficult for me to answer your question without knowing more about your local context, and without knowing that I can only generalise. I guess the big question I’m asking is this: is reading aloud, when the rest of the class are silent and one child reads aloud, a valid procedure. If it is, there must be a learning aim for the whole class. My question is: what is the aim of reading aloud In the situation I describe?

      • @ Peter
        One of the aims of reading aloud in the class can be to help SS understand the right sense groups.
        @ Shiv
        I agree that to help students develop their speaking skills they should be made to speak their own thoughts. But,in rural areas the condition is deplorable. The point that I tried to start is : just in order to help students to shed their inhibitions of whether they ‘d be able to speak or not they can be made to start by reading aloud. When once they are themselves convinced then they can be lead into the unfamiliar by asking them to actually “speak”.

      • Dear Priyamvada, can you say more about the right sense groups? I get the feeling that this would best be done receptively rather than productively. But I may have got the wrong end of the stick.

  4. Pingback: Reading aloud allowed? via Oxford University Press « englishstrategies

  5. You are right about the practice of making kids read aloud in the class. It’s age old practice and it’s universal. And that’s unfortunate. Reading out aloud is perhaps the worst habit a child can pick up in class, if the goal is to induce better comprehension or reading abilities in a child. It extremely slows down our ability to comprehend written text and as you have shared your experience, sometimes doesn’t help in comprehension at all. Our mind (and eye) reads and comprehends words in “groups.” It’s scientifically proven that to read and comprehend a word only the first and last letters are sufficient. To read and comprehend a passage you don’t have to read all the words (or even all the sentences). The idea is to skim through what’s unimportant and concentrate on what’s important. You can’t do this if you are reading out loud or even lip syncing, you have to read every letter, thereby wasting valuable time. Speed reading is an invaluable skill that ought to be taught right from primary level.

    If, on the other hand, the goal is to improve pronunciation, diction, etc the pupils can be made to repeat only those difficult words that need training for better pronunciation. It’s absurd and an utter waste of time to make kids read whole sentences or passages aloud to improve their pronunciation!

    If, the goal is to induce confidence and better speaking abilities in a pupil (as Priyamvada has pointed out above), then they would be better served if they are asked to speak their own sentences without making them read from a piece of paper or book. Reading from a writen material makes for the worst kind of public speaker, boring and mechanical. The goal should be to create passionate speakers of tommorrow who speak from their heart, and improvise depending on audience reaction and not robots.

    Bottomline: Reading out aloud either in classroom or at home is a bad habit that should be discarded completely. It encourages learning by rote, without application of our brain. No wonder children lose interest in class. It’s not their fault. There are no inattentive students, there are only uninteresting teachers.

    • Thanks, Shiv. it sounds like we are in general agreement. As you point out, part of the problem is mixing two aims. Are the children a) trying to improve their pronunciation or, b) trying to improve their reading skills?

      Both a) and b) are valid aims but the effective teacher will be clear about which one they are working on at any particular moment. If the teacher decides to work on improving their pronunciation, then reading aloud, sentence by sentence, child by child does not seem an effective use of time or material. But, it’s a classroom procedure that’s been around for a long time.

      By the way, the very last sentence you write opens up a whole new area for discussion!

  6. You’re right Peter. The last sentence does hold a huge debate within itself. But I once had the priviledge to be in the class of a very interesting teacher who, in his very first class, pointed this out and said that it’s a tall claim to make and he won’t be successful if we didn’t behave like adults and help him out. As it turned out, we did help him out, because he deserved our attention. The question I ask is, should teachers command attention and respect because of their position or authority, or should they be made to deserve it, to earn it, through their own efforts? Anyway this is a whole new debate, and if addressed properly can revolutionize the education system globally. But it’s beyond the scope of the current topic (however not completely unrelated, and is, in a way, the cause of the “reading out loud”/”learning by rote” tradition), so i’ll stop.

  7. Peter has drawn attention to the awareness of what we do and why we do it professionally, thanks for that.
    Reading aloud is an exiting topic, actually it has also been discussed elsewhere:
    http://kenwilsonelt.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/reading-aloud-in-class-is-a-complete-waste-of-time-discuss/
    Take a look, it is worth.

  8. Hi Peter,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

    Please feel free to post there when you have anything you’d like to share.

    Best,

    Ann

  9. Does anyone out there teach mature adults individually or in small groups of two or three, as I do? If so, do you not think that reading out loud is essential to the development of pronunciation, and that accents and notes on pronunciation can, and should, be made on the document being read, and that this should precede a check (in whatever form) of understanding?

    • Hello Philip. Thanks for joining in. Is it okay if I chip in with a comment? Well, it’s a bit of a question as well! I have always understood that form without meaning is meaningless and therefore difficult to remember/ learn. I notice you say, “precede a check of understanding”. As a learner I would find it difficult to concentrate on pronunciation if I wasn’t clear about the meaning: I’d be repeating meaningless noise. I would be distracted by the question, “but what does it mean?”. Or have I got the wrong end of the stick?

  10. Hello Philip. Thanks for joining in!

  11. I really absolutely that reading out loud is very beneficial. I like the random method so that the class does not know who is next and therefore must stay alert. When i read out loud I get to hear how it sounds and to make corrections if needed. It is the responsibility of the teacher to maintain order in the class so that if a student makes mispronunciations he or she will not be made fun of. I think that is the biggest fear, being made fun of.

    Shirley

    • Hello Shirley. Thank you for your comments. I do agree with your final comment about being made fun of. It can really knock a learner’s confidence.
      I take your point about getting to hear yourself and how it sounds. I found it very valuable going to the language laboratory when I was a learner. I had the chance to compare my own pronunciation with the model I had copied off the cassette. I’m not so sure that other learners were interested in my attempts to copy the model of pronunciation. I guess part of the point I’m trying to make is that other learners are not interested in my pronunciation errors and my feeling is that people are more inclined to learn from, and remember, their own mistakes than those of others. If that is the case and you have 20 kids in the class, while you are correcting one child there are 19 others “on hold”.

  12. I agree that there are usually no goals for reading aloud in a foreign language classroom, but some students here in Brazil ask me to use this technique.I explain to them that there are no clear objectives for doing this communicatively.I´ve noticed that the students who usually ask for reading aloud in class are the ones who have the most touble in producing the target language. Alicia Laguardia de Figueredo

    • Hi Alicia Maria. Have you tried pairwork dictations where the students are dictating to each other? Student A has half of the dictation and student B has the other half. Do you know what I mean?

      I find myself in a strange kind of sympathy with the learner who is having trouble producing the target language and feels that reading aloud will help. They are trying to find an answer to their problems. They are also suggesting a possible solution. Good! They are being pro-active with their learning. But if you can provide a better solution, then perhaps they will move away from a technique they may have used in the past, but which is not the most efficient in solving their problem. It’s why students come to us: for our knowledge of the language and our ability to facilitate their learning.

      It’s hard to say “no”, if students feel that something is beneficial. What do you do about the students who want to read aloud when you personally feel that it may not be the best thing to do? Any thoughts?

      • Dear Peter,

        I have to agree with this reply. In my experience, I have noticed that the students who have the most trouble are the ones who have latched onto a learning strategy that is not working for them.

        I have spent the last 5 years working with a multimedia system that focuses on listening and speaking first so that students learn in a natural way. The students who adapt do well but the (usually more mature) students who stick to the way that they learned in schools often have trouble.

        We need to remember just how far the study of language learning has come in the last 30 years to realize that we really need to be adaptive and help our students to adapt too.

      • hello Glenn,
        thank you for your comments. And sorry about the delay in replying. I agree with much that you say. How do we match our teaching style to different learning styles when there is a classroom of pupils to deal with? It raises the question of how we can match our teaching style to their learning styles. I suppose the short answer is we can’t! I suppose the best we can ever do is to try and push as many learning “buttons” as we can. The more skilled the teacher, the more learner “buttons” are pushed.

        Your multimedia system sounds interesting

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  14. I teach both children and adults in Brazil. Being one of those who love reading aloud (I always have), I’m a little biased. I believe that reading aloud does have a place in our society. In Brazil, one of the bigger challenges I face with my students is speech tone. Co-incidentally, many Brazilians read aloud, even when reading privately. I often watch them in a public setting, reading to themselves with their mouths moving to the words.

    When faced with a passage, I get my students to read through the entire passage quietly or for homework. They then come to class with questions ready. I get them to read a portion, usually 3 or 4 lines, out loud, so that we can work on tone and pronunciation. This is after I’ve explained the pronunciation of the more complex words.

    I have one young student who, when speaking, rattles on at high speed. Slowing her down to correct pronunciation makes her lose confidence in speaking. Correcting pronunciation while she’s focused on the written word is far more effective. So much depends on the individual. Having said that, I’m very lucky in that I don’t have large classes to deal with. This system works well in the individual class setting.

    • good morning Corrianne. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I’ve been away.

      I agree with some of the points that you make. I too believe that reading aloud has a place in our society: we read snippets of articles to our friends; we read to our children at bedtime. But, the list is quite restricted. The main question I was asking is this: what is the aim of reading aloud in a classroom? In your post you mention a number of aims but they all seem to be speaking (pronunciation) aims. I think we need to be specific about what we are doing in the classroom. What are the reading aims?
      By the way. The people you describe in a public setting…are they saying the words out loud? Or, are they mouthing the words but not actually making the sound?

      Thank you for your 1st post. I hope to hear from you about the above.
      Peter.

  15. Hello Peter Redpath. My name is Joel Kohlman. Most of my teaching is one to one or groups of less than 6. In my case I like to use reading in several different ways. If the student or students level/levels are lower I will let them listen to a recording of the passage followed by vocabulary work and comprehension questions. Once I feel they understand then I ask them to read aloud. I don’t correct all of their errors while they are reading but I will help them pronounce difficult words. When they have finished I will review their trouble spots. I have been given good feedback with this method. The students seem very engaged.

    Conversely, if the students level is higher, I will try to find a little bit longer passage that is somewhat above their vocabulary level and have them read it to me. In this case I will help them often with words they don’t know or mispronounce. I try to check their comprehension of the main idea as often as I can without stopping them too much. However, if they show interest in certain vocabulary words I will take time to find definitions in English as well as in their language and discuss the meaning in different contexts.

    I know this is not exactly the topic of this post, but I was wondering if you thought that reading out loud has the same drawbacks in an individual setting. Mostly because I don’t have kids waiting to read and I do have time to address comprehension as new words come along.

    Thanks in advance,

    Joel Kohlman

    • Good morning, Joel. I think what we do in the classroom is given more validity if we can describe a learning aim for the children. What is the aim for the situation that you describe? If you can give one, we can talk about how useful it is the children. This sounds like it could be an interesting discussion! I hope you have time to respond.

      About your last question… I think the drawbacks are the same. The question keeps on coming back to this: what are the learning aims?

      • Hello Peter. Most of my classes are 1 to 1 or 2 to 1. I have a larger group at a hotel, but the class I will refer to here is a private group that is usually 3 but sometimes 4 students. They have been with me for close to three years and put in the work on grammar. We used to read short passages and answer questions to build comprehension and vocabulary. Now we are reading longer works. We finished Candide and started reading short stories. I tell them the goals are to become more familiar with English sentences that are “authentic” – much of what they are exposed to in school is full of errors or misguided by literal mistranslations from their L1. Another goal is to have them encounter new words in context and challenge them to intuit their meanings. Still another goal is to correct their tendencies toward phonic errors and help them with stress and fluidity. Lastly, it is to provide a current topic with which they can express themselves as individuals. Free expression isn’t the norm here so many students will keep quiet under most circumstances. This way, while they are reading, they are actually talking and generally, after we have spent time understanding a character, they will all have at least something to say, if not be willing to engage in conversation. I look forward to what you have to say and I will check back more often so that I can reply more promptly next time.

        • Hello Joel. I’m sorry about the delay in replying to your post. I’ve been travelling recently and it’s not always easy to get online. I hope it’s okay if I list and summarise what you have said. It will make it easier for me. As I understand it you have made the following points:
          1. by exposing them to authentic texts in English you are immersing them in the language.
          2. Seeing language in context helps to develop their vocabulary store.
          3. You work on their pronunciation of individual words.
          4. you work on aspects of connected speech.
          5. You use it as a springboard for discussion.

          I think all of these are valid things to do with the text and valid outcomes for the learners. I think it’s critical to make sure they understand what they are reading (i.e. comprehension) before I work on anything else. So pronunciation work is valid as long as they understand the meaning of the things they are trying to say. This logically means that I must ensure they understand (comprehension) the text before I do anything else. Later, I can work on pronunciation.I personally feel it is best to restrict the quantity of text that I ask them to read aloud if my aim is pronunciation. This helps me make my pronunciation work more targeted. However, for some teachers in some situations the only way to get the learners to say something in English is by asking them to read aloud. Have you tried pairwork reading aloud? Student A reads the first sentence and student B reads the second sentence, and so on.
          I hope to hear from you again.

          • I had lost track of this thread, but I just came across it and read your reply. The students that I was talking about before have all been accepted into Universities now. One that I kept in touch with just got a 107 on the TOEFL and is going to U of Washington. We had continued with the reading for some time, but then we got into writing. Having good students makes a difference, even more when you can watch them improve over 4 years. Recently I have been working with a wider variety of students. I have been using a practice based approach based on specific grammar points relating to the 4 types of sentences and two kinds of clauses, with conjunctions, subordinators and connectors as the focus. Once the type of sentence is established and the type of conj/sub or connector is chosen then I give them practice sentences one after another in ppt’s. I’ve had good feedback so far. The goal here is a strong foundation in the basic structures used in English sentences and a resonable ability to discuss the stuctures in English, not the first language only.

  16. Pingback: Reading, not drowning! « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching Global Blog @OUPELTGlobal

  17. Well.. I still don´t know why but my pupils LOVE reading aloud even when there is a lot of correction going on!!.
    We focus on diction, entonation, punctuation. (Of course we will no correct all the time and as Joel said before we will guide them into difficult clusters or unknown words)
    I believe reading aloud helps them a lot to predict what comes next ,whether it is a full stop or a clause. (visual perception) .
    When reading becomes more dynamic it will also help develop speed as well as comprehension. Some students can become more “expressive” if they are trained in reading aloud.
    Another aspect that can be considered is concentration. It is difficult for some pupils to listen or follow what is being read. Then, their time “to read aloud” forces them to be concentrated on their texts .(YOu may say that does not imply understanding, which might be true;) I am just trying to say that concentration is also a crucial factor to be developed when we are working in the reading skill.

    • hello Maria Alejandra, thank you very much your comments. From what you say I get the impression that you feel reading aloud is beneficial for your pupils so thank you for taking the time to respond and entering into this discussion.

      I think that the main benefits you describe are more to do with language accuracy either spoken (dictation, intonation, clusters), or written ( punctuation,clause). My feeling is that the work I do will be more effective and targeted if I don’t mix my aims together. At least not in the case I describe. The aim is reading and I want my learners to be fluent readers in English. I think my teaching and their learning is more targeted and effective when I don’t mix speaking and reading together. The argument that what they enjoy doing they will learn from is very attractive. But I need to be able to describe what they are learning or practising. Being able to describe the learning outcome (aim) of what they do will help my teaching to be more focused. Are they practising reading or are they in fact practising a component of the speaking skill or the writing skill? As I said, reading aloud blends speaking and reading and I need to be aware of that. what do you think?

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  19. Pingback: ‘Reading, not drowning!’ – OUP ELT Global Blog - English Teaching Daily

  20. I would like to answer the question about the purpose of listening the CD and reading at the same time.
    From my point of view this can be of a great help for Slovak students. In their mother tongue they can hear each sound for each letter within a word. It is easy to identify the meaning. In English they have problems to overcome this obstacle especially when reading.
    They learn new language by connecting meaning to both written and spoken form of the language in their brains. It means – hearing the spoken language and reading it in written form at the same time can help them to understand. E.g. audio recors for OUP graded readers are very clear, understandable. They do not aim to improve listening skills. This audio support helps to understand the written text.

    • Hi Eva, thank you for taking the time to transfer your comments to this blog post. I think that if there is a value in listening to the CD at the same time as reading it is this: they get a “ feeling” for how the language looks and sounds. This for me is an aspect of fluency. (I’m using the word fluency here with its language teaching meaning – it is opposed to accuracy). I’m not so sure that they will learn new language when they are reading and listening to a CD. If they follow with the CD, they don’t have enough time to work out the meaning of new language which they encounter, before the CD has moved on and they are forced to follow it. In fact, they are better able to do this if they can stop when they encounter a new word and try to work out its meaning rather than be hurried along by the CD. I think the CD is a straitjacket if they listen to it as soon as they try to read the text. The picture changes if they listen to the CD as the final stage of a reading lesson. But as soon as I play the CD I think my lesson aims are starting to move away from reading.

  21. Dear Andrea, thanks for responding and I’m glad it made sense to you. I’ve got another blog post on the OUP blog. It’s called, “Reading, not drowning”. If you have time to read it I would value your comments. I hope to hear from you. Peter

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