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.

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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?

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Riveting stuff.

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.

Further reading

Articles:

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.

Blogs:

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.

Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00EG71K1Q). I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

7 Comments
  • Ilá Coimbra
    Posted at 09:36h, 14 agosto Responder

    I’ve recently read Thorburry’s article on tasks that promote noticing and I’m here wondering if you experience learning Russian is an evidence that reading aloud might help learners to realize the gap between the language they have and the level they should aim. I’m still pretty hesitant about making my students read aloud, but it is indeed food for thought.

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 09:46h, 14 agosto Responder

    Thanks Ilá for dropping by and leaving a comment. Interesting connection you made there, and now I come think of it there was a lot of correction going on while I was reading aloud (proper ‘interrupty’ correction, too 🙂 ), though I’m not sure whether that would really constitute noticing the gap since I didn’t produce my own output first. I’d love to try a restructuring activity like Dictogloss as a language learner though – it’s something I’ve never experienced from that side.

  • Marco Rodrigo Alves Ferreira
    Posted at 12:25h, 14 agosto Responder

    I have been a teacher for nearly 30 years. I have worked both in the classroom and one to one, both face to face and on skype. My experience with reading aloud has been that it works well for most people on individual lessons, possibly because the absence of a large audience means that there is no reason for the student to feel anxious, and also no reason for embarrassment when I make corrections… Actually, I feel that I can correct more in one to one lessons than in classroom situations, also during speaking activities…(not just pronunciation during reading aloud) The absence of a large audience has a tendency to bring the affective filter down and to open the way for the use some techniques that don’t work so well in a group environment… You pointed that out in your post! That is exactly what I have perceived over the years… I use a different methodology for group and individual lessons, and also for face to face and skype lessons…
    The environment really matters… I feel that students working on skype, on a computer screen, are primed by the digital medium to work more on visual tasks with a focus on grammar and text…. Sorry for the digression…

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 12:53h, 14 agosto Responder

    Thanks for your comment, Marco, and you pick up on an aspect of reading aloud that I hadn’t really considered in my post i.e. that of group rather than individual lessons. I think that’s why my Russian teacher got away with such rigidity in our lessons, because it suited the way I like learning and there was no group dynamic to factor. And, as you mention, I don’t think I would have been able to read aloud so confidently in front of a larger audience. Not in my developing Russian, anyway.

    You also raise another interesting point there, about face-to-face v online/Skype lessons. Do you find learners feel more at ease working face-to-face or online?

    • Marco Rodrigo Alves Ferreira
      Posted at 14:08h, 14 agosto Responder

      I would say that they feel more at ease online (on Skype). Some of them even prefer to work with their webcam off (sound only). One aspect that really drew my attention was that I had a few students from my city who worked with me one to one/face to face initially . Later on they started having lessons on skype. They chose to turn their webcam off. They became more talkative on Skype, more at ease on speaking activities. I only had a small number of students from my city , who worked with me face to face and then later on through Skype. They also seemed to become more reflective on grammar and reading comprehension activities. Their behavior really changed significantly online… I suppose mine did too, although I can’t really put my finger on it. The sensation I have is that being alone, in their own environment, in front of a computer screen (although they do interact with me through voice) seems to relax them and allows them to focus more. My students today are mostly from other parts of the world, so I have never interacted with them face to face… But I do get the impression that it does make a difference.

  • Ricardo Sili
    Ricardo Sili
    Posted at 00:14h, 21 agosto Responder

    Great post, Damian. I don’t think I’d ever seen a good reason to ask students to read aloud in class, but your question “How often do we do this naturally in our first language? ” made me realize we actually do quite a lot of reading aloud! I seem to do it almost every day when I’m reading the newspaper and find something interesting I want to share with my partner, so I just read it out to him instead of giving him the paper. I also remember reading bits of emails or other messages to people, or interesting posts such as this very one to colleagues in a staff room, for example. Yes, we do read to people! So after all reading aloud may very well be a skill worth developing for its own sake. I’d have to give it further thought before I can say I really know what I’m talking about, though!

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 10:56h, 21 agosto Responder

    Good point, Ricardo. And I actually thought about that just after I posted this. I also wonder whether there’s something to be said for the fact that even when we read silently to ourselves, it’s almost like we’re reading ‘aloud’ in our heads. I know that when I’m reading a story, for example, and I know that a bit of dialogue is being said by a person with a different accent to mine, I actually mimic that accent in my head while I read. Is that normal?!? 🙂

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