14 ago 2014 Revisiting ELT Mantras #6: Reading aloud
Picture the scene: There I was, a shy 13-year-old boy, dressed in an itchy, ill-fitting school uniform in the middle of a German language class. Our teacher, Mrs. Dawson, a strict woman who ruled the classroom with an iron fist, is going round the class calling out people to read chunks of a text out loud, in German. Nothing could be more embarrassing for a nervous teenager in the throes of adolescence than having to read out a short passage (badly) in another language to a room full of his peers. Except for the fact that my voice at this stage of my development had a mind of its own. I never knew until the point of speaking whether I was going to sound like Mickey Mouse, Barry White or a raspy chainsaw. It was usually a combination of all three, toing and froing unpredictably on a whim. I can still vividly remember that day, the sheer terror of anticipation as my turn grew nearer, and the sheer relief (or anguish) when it was over. I can even remember the frosty stare on my German teacher’s face as she said my name. What I couldn’t tell you, neither now nor at the time, was what I had actually read aloud.
It all went downhill from here.
It’s this situation that I often recount when training new teachers, when they ask learners to read a text aloud in class. Although some learners don’t mind reading text aloud (and some seem to positively enjoy it), it’s important to look at the reasons why we avoid getting learners to do this in class.
Firstly, it can be quite a big thing to speak out in front of a group of people, especially if you’re not a naturally gregarious person. Doing that in another language makes it an even bigger thing. But perhaps more importantly, it’s worth considering what the aim might be when asking learners to read aloud. How often do we do this naturally in our first language? Giving a speech, or reciting poetry, perhaps? I’ve often seen learners asked to read texts aloud when they’ve been asked to write something (a short story, perhaps) by their teacher, the idea being that they read out what they’ve written during the feedback stage. To me it would seem much more natural for students to swap texts and read them, rather than listen to them though. Unless it’s a dialogue/conversation – but then how often do we write these in our L1 (compared to how often we ask students to write them)?
So as you can probably tell, I’m not really in favour of asking learners to read aloud, whatever the perceived aim is. However, whenever I think about this, I always remember how I learnt Russian. My first teaching gig was in the south of Russia, and once a week I had a private class. The lesson always followed the same procedure, fairly rigidly following the book. I would start by reading aloud a text in Cyrillic, not understanding it fully, then we would look at the language in the text and do some exercises to practise the grammar point it was demonstrating. Awful as it sounds, it was incredibly effective for me at that time. I also really enjoyed being able to produce a level of Russian that was ‘above’ my level at the time. Even if I didn’t understand it all, it gave me a glimpse and feel of how I could sound when I got better. In fact, even though I’ve learnt other languages since, I can still read and understand Russian without too much effort (or at least I can do a pretty good job of pretending that I can). Because I did so much reading aloud of texts, whenever I encounter Russian text nowadays I find myself instinctively mouthing the words and sounding them out silently in my head. So perhaps there is some value to reading aloud after all? Especially if in a different alphabet, as well as a different language?
This is one of those tricky areas I guess where there doesn’t appear to be any rational or logical reason for getting learners to read aloud in a foreign language. But sometimes, I have to admit, it does feel like the right thing to do, and some learners (and I include myself in that ‘some’) enjoy it. What about you? Do you ever ask learners to read aloud in class? For what purpose? Or perhaps it’s something you like to do as a language learner yourself? Either way, I’d love to hear your opinion.
Gibson, S. 2008 Reading aloud: a useful learning tool? ELTJ (2008) 62 (1): 29-36
Gabrielatos, C. 2002 Reading loud and clear: Reading aloud in ELT. ERIC, ED477572.
AN #ELTchat summary with more useful links here.
Scott Thornbury’s old A-Z of ELT has a post on reading aloud here.
Sue Swift’s post has some really useful; practical advice and links to other articles here.