Friday, January 8, 2010

To Read or Not To Read

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Getting students to read aloud is something I had often done as a teacher without giving it much critical thought. After all, if the students are reading, it means that I am not. And that means a reduction in teacher talk time — something we all strive for, right? However, in the past year, I have had two personal experiences that have shaped the way I approach reading aloud in my own ESL classes.

I have no idea what I just read.

About a year ago, my former supervisor convened a study group with the goal of learning more about how students learn to read. The teachers who participated were given several academic articles to read, and we met after reading each one and discussed it. One article was particularly dense and difficult to understand, even for educated native speakers. The study group was focused on one specific paragraph. In order to get a clearer grasp of the information, the group leader asked me to read it aloud. As I did, I noticed something fascinating happening. I was concentrating so hard on correctly pronouncing the words and getting the phrase groups right, that I had no idea what I had read when I was done.

If this can happen to a person reading in her own language, what happens when students read in a language that is not their first? As a result of this experience, I tried to avoid having students read aloud at all. I read everything, from the course syllabus on the first day of class, to the instructions for each activity, to the reading passages that I didn’t have them read silently. I wanted to make sure that they never read something aloud with no idea of what they were reading. However, I was often left with a tired voice and the nagging feeling that I was cheating my students of valuable practice.

Read after me.

It wasn’t until I joined my French class that I experienced the joys (or at least the benefits) of reading aloud for myself. When she gives us a text to read, my teacher, Sandy, reads it aloud or plays a recording of it first. That gives us a chance to note the pronunciation of key words, mark down the liaisons, and figure out what the text was actually about. Then, she assigns pieces of the dialogue or text for each of us to read aloud. We each read our bit and then listen as the other students read theirs. We recycle the same text over and over until every student has had a chance to read. Sandy interrupts our reading to correct our pronunciation as necessary. As a student, I feel quite comfortable with this activity. I feel well prepared for the phonological aspect of the task, and I already understand what I am reading, so I don’t feel stressed out in the slightest when I am asked to read aloud.

The consequence of this experience has been a limited return to reading aloud in my own classes. When we come across a dialogue or text in our course materials, I read it first and then the students take turns reading one or two sentences each. Sometimes I call on students randomly, and sometimes we go around the room. It gives me a chance to hear students’ pronunciation and address any issues they have, and it appears to increase their confidence as well.

“Is Reading Aloud Allowed?”

However, this evolution of my teaching practice had all been more or less subconscious until I read an article in the latest edition of English Teaching Professional by Jeremy Harmer called, “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” In it, he debates the pros and cons of reading aloud and ultimately argues that there are many benefits to incorporating this activity into the ESL lesson plan. He makes the case for reading aloud as a diagnostic instrument (back to having students read bits of my syllabus on the first day, then) and as a tool for helping students to make connections between words and phrases and the sounds associated with them.

In addition, he also contends that reading is an actual real-life skill. As a PhD student, I use reading aloud when I have to read a dense academic text. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times and rely on the pausing to help me decipher the message of the text. In my experience, this is also a useful strategy for students who face the difficult academic texts from standardized tests. Being able to chunk the texts into manageable bits can help students to more quickly and easily understand what it is they are reading.

I am convinced that reading aloud has an important place in our classrooms. When done carefully, it can be a powerful tool and can help students hone reading and pronunciation skills they otherwise might not be able to. However, Harmer insists that the text that students read aloud has to be carefully chosen, they need to understand what it is they are reading, and they need time to listen and/or rehearse before being asked to do it in front of the class.

Harner, J. (2009) “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” English Teaching Professional, 65.


Comment from Anonymous
January 8, 2010 at 3:31 pm

After much soul-searching over the years on this issue, I began to incorporate reading aloud thus: first, students read silently in a proscribed amount of time. Second, I read the entire passage, asking students to underline, circle or highlight confusing bits as they hear them. Third, I ask students to close their books, or flip over their papers and they "read after me," while I prowl the classroom, pouncing gently on mispronunciations. Finally, each student is asked to read a passage within the text.
It may seem tedious at first, but the students assure me that it is an excellent, non-threatening way for them to gain confidence in speaking and reading comprehension.

Comment from Ismael Tohari
January 12, 2010 at 9:41 am

Very intersting! Thanks a lot.

Comment from sureshniranam
January 13, 2010 at 5:47 am

Reading is an important skill that the child should acquire in the beginning. I feel that it should be followed by other skills. I agree with you when you said that it should be done under the guidance of the teacher. Again the teacher should play a greater role in making the reading more interesting. He can choose plays,wherein he can modulate his voice and read out the dialogues for the children. The children really enjoy it. Moreover, loud reading also helps the child to gain a lot of confidence. We can also do this practice of loud reading as a peer group activity. The children can be divided into small groups where they can practice this activity with their friends

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