TESOL teaching mistakes to avoid 2: Asking students to read texts out loud.
In this series of articles, we are looking at some common teaching actions which more often than not simply don’t work. If you find yourself doing this in the classroom, think about why you are doing it - if you don’t have a clear reason, or evidence that it helps students to improve their language in practice, it may not be the most effective way…
What does reading out loud actually achieve?
When working with any kind of text in class, a common technique to get students engaged with what they are reading is to have then read it out loud paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence. However, if we think about the cognitive activity that goes on when we read out loud, it may not actually achieve the language goals that you want it to.
First, think about the last time you read something out loud outside of the classroom. What did you read out? Why? Who was listening, and why? There are very few situations when we actually read texts out loud in life. We might read out prepared speeches and readings that we want to speak out exactly word for word to a large audience (usually because we can’t remember the message perfectly). We might read out part of an interesting article that we find in a newspaper or online. Other than that, I can’t think of many instances where this happens, so as a communicative event, it is not particularly authentic to real-life language use.
In the language classroom, however, a teacher may have a developmental purpose for asking students to read texts out loud, but what is that purpose? Does it help students to process meaning? Is it pronunciation practice? Is it both? Written English is actually very challenging for second-language speakers to sound out due to irregular spellings, silent letters, the risk of meeting new words whose pronunciation is difficult to guess, and the application of word and sentence stress to a message which the speaker is not producing for themselves. This means that so much effort is generally devoted to pronouncing the words on the page correctly, that much less brain space is available to process meaning, especially across longer stretches of text.
In fact, when reading something out loud in a second language, very little meaning is actually processed as compared to reading and processing text internally to yourself, so if you are asking students to read out loud in order to answer comprehension questions, you are likely to be preventing them from answering the questions, rather than enabling them to do so.
The only reason to ask students to read out loud is to work with exactly what makes it such a challenging activity: recognising and sounding out words - in other words, developing literacy. This is the reason that we find primary school students reading sentences out loud: the teacher is working with their recognition of the written word, and teaching them to recognise words. Outside of very low-level classes with learners who come from language backgrounds which do not use the Roman alphabet, reading out loud probably does not serve the purpose that you are trying to achieve.
Is it always a bad idea to have students read things out in class?
As with most questionable teaching choices, there is a time and a place for reading out loud. For example, in a reading comprehension task where learners are answering questions about a text, it is a good idea to get students telling you (and each other) the answers that they have found, and justifying their answers choices from the text. Once a learner gives an answer in feedback to a reading task, a useful extension question form the teacher is: ‘Where did you find that answer?’ Or ‘what does the writer say to make you think that?’. In this case, it is effective to have the student read back the sentence or section of text where they found their answer, both for justification and for reference to the rest of the class. Remember, though, this form of reading out loud comes after the first meeting with the ideas in the text, and is a way of thinking back and reflecting on the quality of answers chosen.
Another reason to read out loud is to get students putting language items into context, for example in free practice tasks. Here, learners might be writing their own sentences, or completing sentences based on short prompts. In this case, again in a post-task feedback stage, it may be helpful for a learner to read back the complete response to hear how the new grammar or vocabulary item that they are practising fits into the rest of the sentence. Again, the learner has already processed the sentence quite deeply to complete the practice task in the first place, so will be ready to read it out to connect the new language with the task prompt and test it out.
Finally, reading specifically designed sentences out loud can help students to practice specific pronunciation features. A sentence which contains a connected speech feature, for example, or several instances of a silent letter, can help students to apply that feature of pronunciation in a restricted way, based on the purposefully teacher-prepared sentence. For example, in the following sentence:
If a salmon could learn to talk, would it also learn to walk?
learners haver to control the production of letter ‘l’ to sound it out or not. The only way to do this is to read out the sentence and listen carefully to where the letter ‘l’ is pronounced.
Overall, then, there is a place for students reading out loud, though only with a specific purpose: having them pronounce or revisit sentences that have been selected or designed for that purpose. Getting students to read out long stretches of text for comprehension, or to retain information from a text, is likely not to work.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.