I gave a talk called ‘Ten things I think I know about teaching and learning’ at IATEFL Hungary in the former pioneer camp at Zánka a while ago. It was the first time I’d given the talk, which I also plan to give at TESOL France next month and wherever I get the chance in 2011.
It was my first time in Hungary since 2005, and it was great to be back. Between 1992 and 2005, I think I made about 30 working visits to this fabulous country, including ten summer courses called Drama Plus which my wife Dede and I did in the middle of nowhere on the Hungarian Plain.
My IATEFL-H ‘Ten things’ talk went down reasonably well, and I think I can say that with nine of the items, I was pushing against an open door. In other words, I was saying things that most of the teachers in the room, non-NESTs working in state education, agreed with.
The one exception was item 5 – Reading aloud in class is a complete waste of time.
Let me explain first that the reading aloud I’m talking about is when students are asked to read a text in a coursebook line by line. There are lots of types of reading aloud in class that work – reading instructions that other students have to carry out (cooking recipes, for example). I’m not going to talk about these – but if you want to mention activities like this that work, please do so in the comments.
At IATEFL Zánka, several teachers, including the one pictured below who bravely took me on in a vehement argument in the bar in the evening, told me that reading aloud was a vital ingredient in their teaching method.
Here are some of the arguments that they used:
1 Students love reading aloud
2 Reading aloud brings the text to life
3 I have 35 students in my class. If they didn’t read aloud, they wouldn’t get any speaking practice at all
4 It’s good for their pronunciation
5 If they don’t read aloud, the class goes very quiet when we’re doing a reading text
So why am I opposed to it?
I get to observe a lot of classes when I’m researching a new book, and I reiterate my absolute admiration for the courage teachers show in allowing a native speaker ‘expert’ like me to come and watch them at work. Particularly non-NEST teachers.
When I’m observing a class, I normally sit at the back, and hope that the students will forget that I’m there. And herein lies the first problem…
In state schools all over the world, whether in Beijing, Bratislava or Buenos Aires, the students sit in rows facing the teacher. Everyone apart from the students on the front row are facing the back of other people’s heads. This is a classroom reality which is fundamental to the following remarks.
Reading texts are often the most dominant features of most coursebook material. And the most common thing teachers seem to do when they reach a reading text is ask their students to read it aloud.
The teacher asks a student near the front to read the first sentence. The student reads it, the teacher thanks her and asks another student to read the second sentence. And so on, and so on…
From the back, it sounds like this.
Teacher: Will you read the first sentence, please?
Student: Mount Everest is … mmmmmmm…Himalayaaa…. mmmmm
Teacher: Thank you. Will you read the next sentence, please?
Student: It’s more than eight thous …….. mmmmmm.
At the back, and usually without a book, I struggle to hear what is being said. The students in front of me are not suffering in the same way. Because they aren’t listening. They have their noses in their book and they are reading the text. Or they’re day-dreaming.
Based on numerous experiences like the one I described, here’s my response to the five main arguments used.
1 I have never seen any evidence that students enjoy this part of the lesson. In fact, if a teacher says ‘My students really enjoy X’, you can usually interpret this as ‘I like X, and I ask my students to do it a lot’. Which CAN be a good thing. But not with reading aloud.
2 Reading aloud, in the manner described above, does not bring the text to life. In fact, it has completely the opposite effect, as it usually sends most students to sleep.
3 The idea that this kind of reading aloud is good speaking practice is patently absurd. It isn’t real speaking at all, it’s reading aloud, a sub-skill that very few people have in their own language, let alone in one that they are learning.
4 Good for their pronunciation? Not in my experience. In fact, when I’ve had to the chance to talk to students afterwards, I discovered that their speaking was markedly better than I might have imagined if I had only heard them struggling through the text.
5 The class goes quiet if they aren’t reading aloud, eh? Well, there’s a surprise. They’re reading – it makes SENSE that it goes quiet.
The most obvious change that would make things better would be for the desks to be taken away, and for the students to sit in a circle, or maybe two circles if there are more than 20 students in the class. But when I’ve suggested this, teachers generally say that they are not allowed to do it. Interestingly, teachers in private schools usually ARE allowed to do it.
But that still wouldn’t solve the problem 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.
All right then, say the teachers who, like the one photographed, are brave enough to challenge me about this: what are we supposed to do with a course book reading text?
Here are a couple of ideas. And they’re easy to organise.
1 Choose a book where the reading texts are recorded. Play the tape as the students read. Maybe turn the volume up and down so the class have to find where they are in the text when they start hearing it again.
2 Read the text aloud to the class yourself. And make a few mistakes. Occasionally change a word in the text, or add an extra word. Tell the students to make a note when they hear something different.
3 Ask the best reader in the class to stand up and face the class and read the text to the rest of the class. Tell the rest of the students to close their books and listen. If you like, divide the reading between your three best students. Encourage the students who are listening to ask for repetition of any words or phrases they didn’t hear or understand. Build up an atmosphere of trust and understanding, so none of the students – readers or listeners – feel stressed about what happens.
When I suggest this last idea, teachers argue that this turns it into a LISTENING activity, not a reading activity. To which I reply, well, yes it does, but YOU were the one who wanted to read it aloud!
Here’s another idea that takes a bit of organising, but increases student responsibility and engagement. And, if you’ve read my blogs before, you’ll know that I believe implicitly that these things are strong motivating factors.
Divide the class into groups of three if you have 24+ students, or pairs if you have fewer. Let’s say this gives you ten groups or pairs. Choose ten reading texts in the book and assign one to each group/pair.
The group is now responsible for the presentation of that text. Tell them that they will have fifteen minutes to present when you get to that page in the book (which of course could be months from now).
They can, if they wish, merely read the text to the class (books closed). They can talk about the topic of the text and/or about any new words that they have found. If you have the right technology in the classroom, they can make a powerpoint or other kind of presentation for the class. Bring back show and tell!
Teachers should promise that they will be available to them for any preparation work they may need. It doesn’t mean extra work. You can build in a few minutes at the end of each lesson when you can do this.
Your students may get quite nervous, even stressed, as the day approaches when they have to present the text. But the experience will be memorable and exciting for them, and may even improve their English. Always a nice side-effect.
If you have access to a copy of the November 2009 issue of English Teaching Professional (Issue 65), you may want to read Jeremy Harmer’s article Is Reading Aloud Allowed? Jeremy offers some appealing arguments, some of which are quite contrary to mine.
PLEASE comment if you agree or disagree. The debate starts here.