Reading aloud is a complete waste of time.

This is a re-write of a blog I did eons ago. I got into a discussion about the subject more recently with a bunch of teachers, so I thought I would revisit/revise/refresh/rehash/regurgitate (TICK APPROPRIATE VERB AFTER READING) my original post. 

I used to do a talk called Ten Things I Think I Know About Teaching. Most of the time, I got nods of agreement for the first few ‘Things’ but when I reached number six – Reading aloud is a complete waste of time, there was, to say the least, a less positive attitude from the audience. 

After giving the talk at a conference in Hungary, one of the teachers (pictured below) had quite a heated argument with me about it. She told me that reading aloud was a vital ingredient in her teaching method.

She wasn’t the only one to disagree with me. Here are some of the arguments that teachers use to justify reading aloud:

1          Students love it

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?

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.

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 an ‘expert’ like me to come and watch them at work. 

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.

The View From The Back Row, by Magritte

Reading texts are often the most dominant features of 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 A: Mount Everest is … mmmmmmm…Himalayaaa…. mmmmm

Teacher: Thank you. Will you read the next sentence, please?

Student B: 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. If you think about the most competent television newsreaders that you know, you realise what an extraordinary skill it is to read aloud, in their case from an auto-cue. It’s a talent that a small number of people will need in their working life, and they’re not going to learn it mumbling though a reading text, sentence by sentence.

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, but deviate from the text. Change a word in the text occasionally, 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 it 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 the groups while they are preparing for their presentation. This doesn’t have to mean extra work for the teacher. 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.

10 thoughts on “Reading aloud is a complete waste of time.

  1. I have railed against reading aloud around the class for decades. A short quote from my article on “Language Learning in Britain Past” (https://peterviney.wordpress.com/about/elt-articles/language-learning-in-britain-past/) which mentions reading aloud at greater length:
    “Reading aloud is a specialist high level skill. Students need it before tertiary education where they will have to read their essays aloud in seminars. When my son started at an American university, they spent a term on presentation skills for seminars focussing on reading aloud … projection, eye contact, pausing, emphasis, breath control (and PowerPoint). That’s the time to do it.”

    1. Hi Peter,

      there are several situations where the skill of reading aloud has to be taught. I reiterate my main premise, which is that students reading a text aloud line by line in the way I have described has absolutely no pedagogic value and causes students to be either bored or terrified.

      1. Usually both bored and terrified at line by line reading around the class. I’ll add that when I’ve seen it, it’s not even done at random, but in plodding sequence along the row. Which means that if you’re a fair way from the current victim, you just switch off. Our French teacher liked to start alphabetically at A every time which means that he rarely got as far as me, but poor Adams and Allin did an awful lot of it, so I didn’t bother to even keep the place in the book. I agree on mainstream classes, and if you unfortunately have to do it for an exam (as happens in some school systems), add in all that American University presentation skills stuff and make that the focus because it rolls over into other subjects. We were tyrants in the ACSE Elementary Department and actually banned teachers from having students reading aloud around the class. I know that’s extreme, but hey, it was the 70s and we were committed and undemocratic. The late Bernard Hartley used to have smoke and steam coming from every orifice at the very mention of it.

  2. Hi Ken
    Really interesting read and I must say I pretty much agree with you. I have been a secondary school teacher of MFL and more recently EFL mostly 1:1 or very small groups. I carry much the same memories as you describe of being in a class room as a teenager and going through the torture of a) listening and not hearing or bothering with what was being read or b) terrified of being asked.
    I rarely used it in my own practice in class rooms but for some reason thought it was a good thing in my private lessons of English. More and more I too realised it is an art in itself – which on occasion I use as an end in itself; teaching eye contact and smiling etc – some of my French “prepa” students do need this skill in their oral “colles”. Plus for work related presentation style tasks. Just this year I asked one of my advanced students if they would rather I read aloud to them as they followed the text to see if it helped with understanding. It did. I started asking more and more of my adult students if they preferred this and they did as well.
    One thing I have used with older students is getting them to read passages from children’s stories as if reading to a child – Mr Men are my favourite. If slightly exaggerated it can help with our very English intonation and word stress (as well as some pronunciation), which helps them be understood better in normal speech.

    1. Hi Rachel,

      thank you for the great ideas you’ve written here. I didn’t say much about teachers reading aloud in the blog, but I think there’s much to be said for it, especially if the students like the sound of the teacher’s voice. And, as you point out, reading aloud is a requirement of the oral component of tests in many places. So it has to be practised. However, this is yet another example of classroom teaching being shaped by the requirements of an exam – ‘teaching for the test’ – which isn’t always the best motivation for a lesson plan.

  3. Great thought provocation…. I very much like the idea of students practising for as long as it takes, with help from the teacher, before presenting a text to the class. Also the use of drama of course. In language lessons at school (Latin, French) the teacher always started with the same student and i was usually number 8 or 9, so could daydream / sleep while other students mumbled their texts, and only come to attention when the task reached me. Total waste of time. HOWEVER I do remember how valuable reading aloud was when we were introduced to a new fangled ‘language lab’ and repeated passages of literary French (Flaubert) … this really helped my pronunciation I think, but this was a ‘private’ matter to oneself with headphones with occasional eavesdropping/help from the teacher – no public embarrassment.

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