Reading Allowed?

My son is learning to read. I sit with him as he tackles a short text. He approaches each word warily, vocalizes each individual letter, and then connects all the sounds together to pronounce the word. It’s a slow process. He stumbles over the words; his intonation is out of sync; and he sometimes gets it wrong. He has particular problems with consonant clusters (tr, fl, sp, etc). It has again made me realize how difficult it is to pronounce a word from its written form, whilst trying to maintain a suitable rhythm. It has also made me think again about reading aloud. Because that is what I get him to do. Read aloud. It´s the only way that I can check he is pronouncing the words correctly.

It brought to mind a heated discussion I had with some colleagues a few years ago about the merits of getting students to read aloud. At the time, I was firmly in the ‘anti-reading aloud’ camp. In my mind, it was taboo. I think my staunch opposition was a reflection of the fact that I hated reading aloud at school, and how I was trained as a teacher back in 1992. I argued that as most people read silently, forcing learners to read aloud was not a useful skill, unless you were teaching a group of aspiring politicians who would need to read a speech from an autocue. Worse still, it forced learners to focus on form rather than meaning, and was no guarantee that the learner had understood the text. Also, it compelled students to decode every single word, which is not what we should be doing when we read, and thereby not something we should be promoting in the classroom. Furthermore, it was not an efficient use of class time, as normally only one student was reading at any one time. To finish off, I think I said that I couldn´t think of anything more agonizing than listening to learners flounder through a text.

However, over the last few years, my hostility to reading aloud has softened somewhat. Indeed, reading aloud has a long, and controversial, history. The first texts were meant to be read aloud to a largely illiterate populous. Those people who could read aloud were held in high esteem. Interestingly, the fact that texts were designed to be read aloud, was one of the reasons behind the development of the punctuation system. Punctuation was meant to aid the reader. A number of writers in the 1500s even advised their readers to recognize a comma as the shortest pause, a colon as twice as long and a full stop as a ´full pause´.  It is amazing how long these recommendations remained current, even though the formula was almost impossible to follow.

I now believe that there are occasions when reading aloud might be pedagogically justifiable, and might be beneficial for students. In my opinion, the main justification is to help students with pronunciation at word and sentence level. Getting learners (my son included) to read allows us to check a student´s pronunciation and to diagnose the problems they are having. However, it is definitely not just a case of saying, ´read the first sentence, please´. The actual reading aloud should be the culmination of a process that can take up the duration of the lesson. Firstly, the text needs to be carefully selected. It shouldn´t be too dense or complicated in terms of language and information, and the students´ understanding of the text needs to be checked before they are asked to read (I don´t see the benefit of getting learners to read something they don´t understand). Once we are sure that the learners have understood the meaning of the text, they need to be provided with a model of how the text should be read. More often than not one reading is not sufficient. It is also a good idea to help students to annotate the text by, for example, indicating word and sentence stresses, dividing it up into sense units and showing intonation patterns. I think that the students should then be allowed time to rehearse their reading individually, in pairs or groups. When it comes to reading aloud in open class, the teacher should first ask for volunteers. If none is forthcoming then a student who can provide a good model should be nominated. After the reading, the teacher needs to provide feedback on specific problem areas, maybe involving some micro-teaching and task repetition.

I must emphasize that my change of heart with regards to reading aloud is strictly qualified. I certainly do not think that reading aloud is an effective means of developing efficient readers. However, it does have a place in the classroom, just as my ex-colleagues argued.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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