SHOULD LANGUAGE LEARNERS EVER BE ASKED TO READ ALOUD IN CLASS?

The Persistence of Reading Aloud in Turns

Practically every language learner has experienced a lesson where members of the class take turns to read aloud from a text (RAT). Many of them see this approach to the teaching of reading as normal and logical, being able to give what they see as good reasons for its use. Most language-teaching methodologists and teacher trainers, on the other hand, criticise or proscribe RAT, causing great surprise to those of their trainees for whom it has been a norm. The arguments that can be made against RAT are indeed powerful and persuasive.  Nevertheless, given the strength of learner belief in it, it has to be asked whether RAT might have some value that has hitherto been insufficiently recognised.

Such a question echoes the debate about another notorious learner practice: clinging on to bilingual dictionaries when teachers advocate monolingual ones. Learners’ stubbornness here has eventually highlighted some real benefit that monolingual dictionaries are unable to bring, and this is now recognised alongside the potential pitfalls.  In the same way, it has to be asked what it is about RAT that might justify its continuation or adaptation in language classrooms.

Criticisms of Reading Aloud in Turns

At a non-theoretical level, one might argue that extensive RAT cannot be a quality approach because it requires so little preparation on the part of the teacher. However, there is no certainty that good lessons have to be well-prepared, any more than that well-prepared lessons have to be good, and one might also argue that pedagogy requiring minimal preparation expertise is useful in areas where well-trained teachers are scarce.

The main theoretical arguments against RAT mostly derive from the communicative approach to language teaching, with which RAT is held to clash.  The following observations are easily made:

1.         RAT has no “genuine communicative purpose”.  For there to be such a purpose, (a) the listeners must be seeking to discover the content of the text, (b) they must depend on the reader for the information that they require, and (c) the reader must be trying to communicate that information through the reading aloud.  There is no guarantee that any of these conditions are met by RAT, and (b) in particular will normally be ruled out because the class as a whole usually has a copy of the text, which they are expected to read at the same time as listening.

2.         The amount of relevant learner practice generated is inefficient.  Typically, only one learner reads aloud at a time.  While it is true that the others are expected to read the same words quietly at the same time, two problems are that (a) there is no guarantee that quiet reading is actually taking place, and (b) quiet reading is not the same as reading aloud, requiring different skills, so that the other learners will not be achieving the same objectives as the reader, leaving the objectives of reading aloud to be addressed by only one learner at a time.

3.         There is little task authenticity.  By this I mean that the purpose of communicating the text content (genuinely or otherwise) hardly matches any real-world purpose of doing so, such a match being theoretically necessary, according to the communicative approach, for learning to be at its most effective (Rogers & Medley, 1988).  There are two ways to solve this mismatch.  If the actual purpose of RAT is mainly to develop the learners’ target language reading skills and more general facility with grammar and vocabulary, then a more authentic (but by no means fully authentic) way of proceeding would be through silent reading, which, after all, is the default way to read.  If, on the other hand, some specific property of reading aloud, such as pronunciation, is a clear target, then real-world contexts and purposes of reading aloud should also be arranged, at least through roleplay. Possible contexts include religious services, news broadcasts, and some telephone transactions (e.g. involving transfer of written information from one speaker to the other).  Even a single reader communicating written literary content to a group of listeners has a real-world equivalent (in infant classrooms, or BBC Radio’s “A Book at Bedtime”), though in these cases the reader stays the same, without turn-taking.

4.         Negative emotions will affect many of the learners for much of the time.  A link between emotions (the “affective filter”) and language learning success is one of the more widely-accepted ideas associated with Stephen Krashen’s (1981) Monitor Model.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that both anxiety and boredom are significant during RAT.  Many learners experience anxiety up to and during their turn to read, fearing ridicule or worse from peers and/or the teacher over their performance.  Although being the main performer in the room may stimulate positive emotions in some learners, these can be outweighed by the negative ones in others. Boredom, on the other hand, is common when other learners are reading.  It is not just that silently reading in parallel with somebody else who is reading aloud is inherently boring when done for the whole of a lesson; in addition there will often be a disincentive to concentrate on listening because the main readers’ (and the listeners’) level of English will usually be insufficient to achieve a listener-friendly accuracy and flow of language.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most RAT is not rehearsed.  Even after rehearsal, a few reader hesitations and faulty pronunciations are inevitable; without it, the listener’s task is horrendous.

5.         Learners probably acquire a great deal of faulty pronunciation.  RAT is commonly held to help pronunciation, but may in fact harm it.  Both the production of pronunciation errors (when reading) and the reception (when/if listening) are likely to ingrain faulty speech production.  It is true that silent reading might also be bad for pronunciation, and that listening to other readers can sometimes improve pronunciation by highlighting the listener’s own misapprehensions.  Nevertheless, RAT must on balance be undesirable because it will more firmly establish the many mispronunciations that are shared with the other learners (particularly in monolingual classrooms), and any improvements caused by noticing fellow learners’ better pronunciations are likely to be cancelled out by changes for the worse when the different pronunciations of fellow learners are wrong rather than right.  Some teachers believe that correcting and drilling mispronunciations as they arise can counter these shortcomings.  The problem with this, of course, that it can disrupt the flow and interest of the reading. It might also be the case that waiting for errors to be made before correcting them is much less likely to prevent their repetition than anticipating them before they have occurred at all.

6.         The paralinguistic demands of reading aloud are usually ignored.  Effective reading aloud in fact requires the specialist skills of an actor.  This is evident from the fact that most newsreaders, even if they are native speakers of a language, still need to be trained.  There are a surprising number of paralinguistic factors to consider: the need to appropriate rather than just comprehend the content, pacing, volume, pausing (for dramatic reasons as well as grammatical ones), intonation and emphasis, and issues of accent and formality.  Without consideration of such factors, listening is likely to be more difficult and tedious.

Benefits of Reading Aloud in Turns

RAT is not totally without benefits.  The main ones seem to be learner motivation, opportunities to teach pronunciation, and a guarantee that a text is actually being read by the class.  Some would argue that the acting skills are a further worthwhile learning outcome.

1.         Learner motivation may occur because of the possibility mentioned above that learners can enjoy reading aloud.  The enjoyment may come from the opportunity, absent during silent reading, to gain sympathetic teacher feedback on pronunciation skills, and even to show these off to the teacher and other learners.  There may also be an unconscious appreciation of the dramatic possibilities of reading aloud, drama being a well-known motivator of linguistic performance.  The problem, of course, is how to prevent the negative emotions that can block these desirable outcomes.

2.         Reading aloud is an undoubtedly promising way of teaching accurate and fluent pronunciation.  In particular, it provides authentic, controlled and predictable input, as well as opportunities for error correction and teacher instruction, all within a meaningful context.  The main alternative ways of stimulating speech – spontaneous or semi-spontaneous spoken monologues and dialogues, and formal drills – lack one or more of these elements: spontaneous speech is unpredictable, and drills are rarely authentic or contextualised.  Reading aloud also ensures that many of the pronunciation needs of learners (specific problem phonemes and consonant clusters, intonation, weak forms, sound changes in connected speech, sound-spelling rules, etc) will be addressed in a fairly short span of text.  Even difficulties of a more word-specific kind, such as word stress and individual sound-spelling mismatches, as in words like women or iron, can be generalised to some extent (women exemplifies “illogical vowels” and iron a “silent consonant”), examples of each such generalization being quite likely in every text.

3.         RAT is believed by many teachers to give a greater guarantee than silent reading tasks that learners are actually reading all that they should, since the reading of every word is observable and verifiable.  Even if there are problems with such a belief – it assumes that learners cannot be organized or trusted enough to read all they should through silent reading alone, and that the rest of the class are reading along with the main reader – nevertheless, there is a certain security in having a clearly allocated opportunity and enough time for everyone in the class to read what is required.

Reading Aloud without RAT

Closer inspection of the above benefits of RAT suggests that they are associated more with the RA part of RAT than the T.  In other words, classroom reading aloud may have some benefits, but asking learners to do it in turns seems to have no special merit at all.  The question is whether the benefits of RA can be achieved without its disadvantages.  I believe that they can, by means of the
following stages.

1.         Authentication.  If reading aloud needs to be placed into a real-world context in order to maximise learner motivation and memory retention, every effort must be made to identify and simulate such contexts.  The familiar context of newsreading has in this writer’s experience proved both possible and exciting for all concerned to organize.  Learners can be informed that they are going to produce a video-recorded news programme, with each allocated the role of either anchor reader, reporter, interviewer or interviewee.  Short newspaper reports can then be collected and edited for reading aloud during the programme.  In this way every learner is reading their extract not just in order to read it, but also to contribute to a common goal and to experience acting in an exotic real-world role.  It is also likely that each learner’s text will be complete, and not just an extract.

2.         Preparation.  The success of reading aloud is greatly endangered if the text is approached “cold”.  Two major causes of reading aloud error that can arise when preparation is absent are incomplete comprehension of the text content, and unfamiliar or hidden pronunciation difficulties.  Full comprehension is essential in order to optimise the dramatic effect and avoid understanding-related misreadings of the kind found in comedy sketches (as well as in RAT).  The only way to avoid a cold approach to a text is by first reading it silently.  The idea that reading aloud is a way of “killing two birds with one stone” (reading and pronunciation) is thus wholly misguided.

Identifying pronunciation difficulties means finding not just obviously challenging words but also the more hidden traps like weak forms.  It makes much greater pedagogical sense to find these before rehearsing and performing than during, in order to prevent error reinforcement. One way to discover unknown or hidden pronunciations is through listening to a model reading of the same text.  However, since that approach requires noticing (Schmidt, 1990), by no means an inevitable outcome for every problem in the text (Sharwood-Smith, 1993), an alternative is for the teacher to highlight some or all of the problems.  For example, after a lesson on weak forms the learners could be asked to work in pairs identifying weak forms in the target text, and then to check their
answers by listening to a model reading.

3.         Rehearsal.  No actor would perform before an audience without rehearsing. I have already indicated the importance of acting skills in reading aloud.  Rehearsal of reading aloud is thus desirable for dramatic purposes.  For language learning too it has value.  In itself it provides repetition, and hence reinforcement of the linguistic learning points in the text.  Additionally, it facilitates later recall (when the text comes to be read aloud “for real” during the actual simulation), through which the new language points are further reinforced.

In a way, the rehearsal stage is more like the reading aloud in RAT than is the subsequent performance stage, since it is where the focus is more on how the words are said than what they mean.  The above-mentioned RAT problems of inefficiency and dullness can be reduced if the rehearsal is done with a partner or a group instead of before the whole class, so that a number of students are reading simultaneously.  Ideally the listeners will not themselves have read the text or have access to it, with the result that they have to rely entirely on what they hear.  Their interest in understanding will be further strengthened through the relevance of what they are hearing to the communal task.  In this situation they might be encouraged to stop the reader and request a repeat when they do not understand, thus providing indirect negative feedback on the performance.

4.         Performance.  In a newscast simulation, it is true that this stage will involve a single reader reading to the rest of the class, just as in RAT.  The difference, however, is that the reader will be repeating at least two earlier readings of the same text, with all the resultant payback in linguistic acquisition, and will be reading a complete rather than excerpted text.  Moreover, the other learners in the class will hopefully have more of an interest in listening, partly because they will not have a copy of the text themselves, and partly because they will have a stake in the accuracy, interest and relevance of what they hear.

5.         Revision.  It is unlikely with RAT that learners will revisit the extracts they have read or heard in order to reinforce any learning that has occurred.  With a simulated recorded news programme, however, there is a natural incentive for the learners to hear everything again because they will want to sit down and see from the recording how they and others in the class performed.  They may indeed want to watch more than once, for example by showing the video to friends and family.

Conclusion

The above procedure seeks to achieve the advantages of having learners read aloud in class without the disadvantages, or indeed to turn the disadvantages into further advantages.  The advantages may be summarised as follows:

1.         Learner motivation and solidarity

2.         Pronunciation teaching and practice in a meaningful and controlled context

3.         Certainty that every learner is engaging with text

4.         Task authenticity

5.         Increased classroom efficiency (through groupwork)

6.         Minimisation of errors and error reinforcement

7.         Repetition and recall of teacher input, thus aiding knowledge acquisition

8.         Repetition of task performance, thus aiding fluency

Readingaloud has traditionally been recognised by teachers as an invaluable language teaching tool.  Its contemporary Cinderella status, at least in some parts of the world, can be overturned by recognising that its problems are not terminal but easily remedied.

References

KRASHEN, S.  (1981).   Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning.  Oxford: Pergamon.

ROGERS, C., & MEDLEY, F., JR. (1988). Language with a purpose: using authentic materials in the foreign language classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 21, 467–478.

SCHMIDT, R.  (1990).  The role of consciousness in second language learning.  Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-58.

SHARWOOD-SMITH, M.  (1993).  Input enhancement in instructed SLA: Theoretical bases.  Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15(2), 165-6

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