Many years ago I had something of a disagreement with a colleague who, in a class I had watched, had the learners read aloud from a chapter of Roald Dahl’s autobiography “Going Solo”.  Paragraph by paragraph, they went round the room struggling with unknown vocabulary in that stumbling robotic intonation that is particular only to people reading a text that is completely unfamiliar to them.

As I say, we had a slight disagreement over the pedagogical value of such an exercise.  It is not something I would ever do with classes and frankly, it’s something I associate with the prescriptive, repetitive, grammar translation hell of my Latin classes at school.  And in that context I can understand it more, as the only other speakers of Latin I was ever likely to encounter were in that same room and communicative opportunities were somewhat infrequent (not that this was the point) – so if our teacher wanted to know whether we could pronounce our Latin correctly, this was the only avenue open to him.  Which does raise an interesting question – how does anyone know what the correct pronunciation of Latin is? Has it been handed down, speaker to speaker, throughout the millennia?

In any event, the question cropped up again recently and on this occasion I wondered whether I was alone in my distaste for Reading Aloud (or RA), or whether there were lots of good reasons to do RA that I just wasn’t aware of.  In short I asked Twitter what it thought.

The general consensus that there might be reasons to do RA, but that nobody had done RA with their classes – nor was likely to.

Reasons people came up with were:

  • If the teacher reads aloud, the learners can develop sound-spelling relationship awareness
  • To kill time / run out the clock in class
  • Classroom management – a settling and focusing activity for young learners or more active classes
  • As a focus on sentence stress or intonation work
  • Practicing giving speeches or other ‘real world’ reading aloud tasks (e.g. drama / poetry)

But:

  • Teachers often use “it’s good for their pronunciation” as an excuse to justify the activity
  • Roleplay or drama isn’t quite the same thing as reading aloud anyway
  • There is a difference between written and spoken English anyway, so the value is questionable
  • It can be quite stressful for students to be put on the spot like that

For a much fuller rebuttal of RA – Ken Wilson offers his (strongly argued!) views on why “Reading Aloud in class is a complete waste of time“.  Essentially, Ken suggests (a) there’s no evidence students enjoy it, (b) it fails to enliven the reading experience (c) it doesn’t improve the reading skill, if anything it can only improve the “reading aloud skill” (d) it doesn’t necessarily improve pronunciation (e) most reading is a quiet, introspective activity – this is to be welcomed, not feared!

There are indeed several reasons why reading aloud can be disparaged, above and beyond those previously stated.  In the ELT Journal, Sally Gibson (2008) offers these common objections:

  • It is boring, stressful and has no real benefit for the learners, especially for those not actually doing the reading aloud.
  • The speaker uses most of their brainpower in the processes of reading aloud, leaving little for comprehension.
  • Development of reading aloud does not benefit development of other reading strategies and potentially can interfere with more efficient ones.
  • Focusing on each individual word slows reading speed
  • Reading slowly inhibits the ability to make sense groups and understand longer chunks of text.
  • Texts are often “unnatural”, or are written for effect.  As such they don’t reflect valid pronunciation targets for learners.
  • Unfamiliarity with English spelling conventions can cause problems with pronunciation of words learners may already know orally.
  • Reading aloud is a skill with highly limited applicability in the real world
  • Reading aloud is not easy for even polished native speakers, why should we expect this of language learners?

I can attest from my own experience that the ability to read aloud does not denote comprehension of a text – I once saw a Chinese learner read happily from a text (on tanks and explosions – nice useful content!) with absolutely no idea of what the text meant.  The text had come to him from his state school teacher and was probably set at about B2 / C1 level.  He, however, was in my A1 beginner class.

These problems and objections don’t necessarily mean that reading aloud shouldn’t be done.  As noted from the twitter chat, there are as many reasons for as against.

Jeremy Harmer (2009) gives four reasons why RA can be useful.  It does, he argues, help learners make connections between written and spoken forms of language.  It can tell the teacher what problems learners are having with pronunciation.  It can, with the proper preparation, be extremely motivating for learners.  Finally, it does mimic or practice a real life skill – here Harmer cites a colleague whose husband insists on reading snippets from the newspaper at the breakfast table.

In deriving his plus points, Harmer has drawn on Gibson’s article, as well as Gabrielatos (2002) and Mumford (2009), but does not encompass all the points in favour that they propose.  Gibson, for example, also argues that RA, in helping learners make connections between written and spoken forms, can speed word recognition.  It can help with intonation and can help learners develop “an internal voice”, which in turn might help them with their written work.  Gabrielatos proposes a framework for incorporating RA into your teaching and Mumford offers eleven activities that take RA and adapt and develop it away from “pure” RA and into something more “flexible”.

There are some issues that arise here:  problems that learners have with pronunciation during an RA exercise do not necessarily relate to a pronunciation problem per se, but are more likely to result from not having previously encountered the target word.  It seems odd to cite this as a point in RA’s favour, particularly, when Harmer’s article begins by citing a workshop he gave which highlights precisely this problem.  Clearly, if you don’t know a word, you can’t pronounce it properly and of course being able to pronounce it properly does not mean that any concept of meaning has been acquired, as my Chinese student ably demonstrated.  Equally, I’m not sure that RA does help with “intonation”.  It might help with “declamation” though, if delivering a speech in a suitably dramatic style is (a) your aim (b) what the students need.

And it might just be that it is what they need – two recent articles from Japan approach RA from very different viewpoints.  In the traditionalist corner, representing the ancients, is Porcaro’s (2012) article for ETP where he discusses the importance of a story telling culture in Japan, in particular the telling and re-telling of folktales and how he has used this with his classes.  In the modernist corner, representing the scientists are Takeuchi, Ikeda & Mizumoto (2012) whose recent research into cerebral activity during readin aloud exercises has thrown up some very interesting results.

In a nutshell (and with the full awareness that I’m summarising a quite complicated research paper in quite a limited space), what they found was that reading aloud in L2 requires a greater degree of cerebral activity than doing so in L1.  Not surprising perhaps, but they think this is probably because there is a greater degree of processing going on in terms of meaning as well as pronunciation.  This is because when you read aloud in L1, you don’t necessarily need to process the meaning of the words, because ultimately that’s not the point of reading aloud – parents who’ve drifted off in the middle of reading a story to their kids, but have kept reading will identify here!  The point of reading aloud is delivering the text, not understanding it.  Except in L2 where the reader apparently does both.  This theory is supported as when they asked people to read texts that were “too difficult”, the level of cerebral activity decreased – the readers stopped focusing on meaning and instead concentrated on delivery only.  Similarly, repetition of the task led to a decrease in activity as having processed the meaning initially, it wasn’t necessary to do so on subsequent attempts.

It seems then, that there may well be a value in Reading Aloud.  It also seems to me that those people who have recently argued in favour of RA have done so from a slightly odd position.  It is almost as if these writers have become aware that Reading Aloud has it’s adherents no matter what, and if that is going to be the case then it is far better that teachers incorporate RA into their classes from a position of principle – and have set out to describe what those principles might be.  In general recent articles on RA basically say that just doing RA isn’t really the done thing anymore and that if you are going to do RA, here are a number of ways that you can do RA without actually doing…. RA.  Or as Jeremy Harmer says “What we need to do then, is find ways to make reading aloud a positive and useful experience”  because more often than not, as Ken Wilson says, “the problem (is) that nothing is really happening in a classroom event where different students are struggling to read a dense text on the page in front of them.”

From a personal point of view, when I sent out the twitter cri-de-coeur it was because I thought I was watching an activity that had no benefit for the students and because I could see absolutely no point in what was taking place in the classroom.  I no longer view Reading aloud in those terms, after all, as Gibson says “It would be a pity if an activity that has some value in language learning … continues to be shunned … because of its careless use.”

Acknowledgments, further reading and references:

Thanks to @teflerinha, @MrChrisJWilson, @louisealix68, @hannahpinkham, @fielsted, @muranava and @kenwilsonlondon for getting into the debate on twitter!

Thanks in particular to: @teflerinha for remembering about Jeremy Harmer’s article, @MrChrisJWilson for remembering Ken Wilson’s and to @kenwilsonlondon for providing it, to @muranava for the Wolsey reference (as below) and to @fielsted for both the Gabrielatos and Gibson articles!

For more a more detailed look at the subject, there’s plenty to check out below:

Ferlazzo, L.  2011.  “The Best Posts On Students Reading Aloud Individually In ESL Class — But I Need Your Help Finding Research On The Topic” Retrieved 9th November 2012 from http://www.larryferlazzo.edublogs.org

Gabrielatos, C. 2002.  “Reading Loud and Clear: reading aloud in ELT“, ERIC, ED477572

Gibson, S.  2008.  “Reading aloud: a useful learning tool?“, ELT Journal 62/1.

Harmer, J.  2009.  “Is reading aloud allowed?“, English Teaching Professional 65/4.

Mumford, S. 2009.  “Rethinking Reading Aloud.”  Modern English Teacher 18/3 (Retrieved 9th November 2012 from http://www.hltmag.co.uk)

Paduraru, M. 2010. “Yes, we DO read aloud in class.” Retrieved 9th November 2012 from http://www.mellaniep.wordpress.com

Porcaro, J.W. 2012. “Reading Aloud“, English Teaching Professional 80/2.

Redpath, P. 2011.  “Reading Aloud Allowed?” Retrieved 9th November 2012 from http://www.oupeltglobalblog.com

Takeuchi, O., Ikeda, M. and Mizumoto, A.  2012.  “Reading Aloud Activity in L2 and Cerebral Activation“, RELC Journal, 43/2

Wilson, K.  2010. “Reading aloud in class is a complete waste of time – discuss.” Retrieved 9th November 2012 from http://www.kenwilsonelt.wordpress.com

Wolsey, T, 2010.  “Popcorn and Round-Robin Reading” Retrieved 9th November 2012 from http://www.suite101.com

 Postscript

I’m aware that the title of this piece is uncomfortably similar to that of Jeremy Harmer’s and indeed to Peter Redpath’s!  In my defence, it was originally exactly the same as Jeremy Harmer’s as I had already started writing this post and thought I was being creative and original – ah well.  There are no new ideas in TEFL as they say….  And it is too good a title to go to waste…

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