As a teacher I had always perceived 'reading aloud' as a 'taboo' in the EFL classroom since it focuses specifically on a 'bottom-up' approach where learners can fall into traps of worrying about 100% comprehension or simply read aloud without understanding the text.

That coupled with my own negative experiences from school meant that I never did it in my own classes, but this year that changed.

  • Context
  • My students' reading habits
  • Reading for pronunciation
  • Getting students motivated
  • Conclusion


Context
I was teaching three groups of young learners, ten to fourteen year-olds and the syllabus included a component using a video with an accompanying reader. Students generally respond well to video, probably because of the associations with pleasure and the visual excitement, but what about the reader? I had never had the option of using the reader alongside the video, so I really wanted to experiment with it and find out how the students would respond to different activities based on the two media, and in particular to the reader.

My students' reading habits

My first step was to ask students if they read for pleasure, making sure I did this in small groups or individually so as to eliminate the influence of peer pressure. After all, I thought, there might be students who really loved reading but didn't want to say in front of their classmates. However, the only reading these groups of teenagers seemed to do was for schoolwork and preparation for tests and more tests. Reading at home, going to libraries, or swapping books with friends was definitely not part of their daily life.

We constantly hear about a new reading culture in the UK, brought about by the Harry Potter books and the wealth of other equally good books and authors for the young at heart. However, the fact that it is cool to read and to be seen reading seems to have had little impact on youngsters in many other countries.

Reading for pronunciation
So, what was I going to do in class? Ideas for in-class reading seemed limited to reading alone or reading out loud. I decided to experiment as I knew my students certainly needed pronunciation input, specifically intonation. Dialogue both in the reader and the film seemed to hold lots of potential. Would it be possible to make reading aloud a 'learning experience'?

  • I decided to show the first few scenes of the video before dividing the class into small groups of 4 or 5 and asking them to read aloud together and notice any differences. A comparison with the video and book is a good strategy to keep interest going and motivates them to read. It does take planning though, as both the book and the film need to be divided into suitable time frames and themes.
  • Once a suitable part was selected, the students watched the film for 15 minutes. Afterwards they wrote their own sequenced list of events, observed in the film clip. When they went onto read the book aloud, the students were given the task of listening for when the events happen in the book.
  • I found that students were very good at noticing quite detailed differences. After I had given a few example exercises they preferred to write their own questions and statements.


Getting students motivated
Acting out parts was another strategy for motivating them to read out loud from the dialogues in the book and from a transcript of the film clip. I knew my students needed oral practice and help with pronunciation and so this really helped them.

  • I was astounded by the participation and how motivated my students were. Students started off reading the text with the video running so they could practise accents and notice stress and intonation.
  • It helped with turn taking and listening in greater detail too. The classroom became so lively at one point that I needed to calm things down. So I decided spontaneously to stop everyone and I started to read the book out loud to them.
  • Whilst reading I noticed that everyone was following every word. They were listening to me, which at 7pm on a Friday night is not a common occurrence.
  • Suddenly a hand went up and one student asked if he could continue. Feeling very surprised, I nodded and after a while we all talked about what we had just read, drawing maps on the board, asking comprehension question and talking about the background to the story. And so it went on, student after student volunteering to read out loud.

 

Conclusion
Despite my school experience and taboo factor I decided to go with the enthusiasm and spontaneity. I was sensitive to the fact that not every student volunteered. However, I encouraged everyone to participate in the post-reading comprehension discussion. The subsequent planned reading slots were never more than 15 minutes long compared to the one-hour marathons I remember from my school days. I also took turns at reading out loud in order to keep the momentum and interest going.

Due to the positive response from both students and teachers, a reader has been proposed for each term next year. So if you are ever in the enviable position of having at your disposal a set of readers, ask your students to get them out - for reading out loud.

James Houltby, Teacher, British Council, Portugal
 

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Comments

Perhaps the best reason for doing any kind of language task is because it motivates the students, and they like it. In my experience, generations of students attach great importance to the skill of reading aloud, despite all the oohs and aahs from professional linguists. Therefore, I do agree that there is a place for reading aloud in class. However, as I am sure Jame knows, there is a difference in pronunciation between speaking and reading a dialogue, or speaking anything and reading. I think it is important for students to know this difference. Reading a news bulletin from a prepared text, for example, is not the same as conducting an interview. There are many instances in which we naturally read aloud. Reading stories is one. Reading an article from a newspaper for someone to notice is another, not to mention reading instructions for someone to follow, or reading a text for others to share, with the aim of group comprehension, and sharing views. For me, the most important thing about reading aloud, like any other language skill, is that its aim is communicative. To be able to communicate, you need to pronounce language well enough for other people to understand. Thus, it is important to point out and practice those features of pronunciation which change when we read a written script as opposed to speaking naturally, or spontaneously. As meaning is conveyed through stress, rhythm and intonation in English, it is also important to point this out, for you cannot communicate well, if you your meaning is masked by the wrong stress or intonation. So by all means let students read..anything from labels on bottles to novels, or dialogues in course books to stories for children, once you point out how and when difference in pronunciation occur.  

It's true 'loud reading' has its place in teaching. However, we need to be clear about our objectives. Why do we want to have 'loud reading' in class? Is it for helping students to gain some confidence in using English in its oral form or is it for exposing students' inabilities? In short, do we have a positive attitude or a negative attitude? In the final analysis, it's the 'attitude' that matters. If teachers take a positive attitude any language activity can prove to be useful. The other thing is to know when students can be asked to do 'loud reading', that is, at what stage of learning? My experience tells me that it can be effectively used only after students have already comprehended the content. We can not forget and ignore the fact that when teachers do loud reading it's quite different. Firstly, because they have some experience of loud reading, secondly, they may have already read the text, thirdly they are in a privileged position of a 'teacher'. In short, we need to make a clear difference between the student's loud reading and the teacher's loud reading. We also need to take into consideration the 'context' of teaching. What may work in the first language learning context may not necessarily work in the second language learning context. In countries such as India where English is a second language, 'teaching' has been equated with 'loud reading' by the teacher. Students may be asked to do loud reading, but in most cases it is done with no clear objectives. In spite of the various efforts of introducing changes, we still confront problems. May be it's because it's very difficult to change the 'culture' of classrooms, the conventional roles of teachers and students.     

You have pointed out the vital aspects of using loud reading in the class. I think a combination of all these can be worked out during any course. Reading by students can be used for specific objectives on given days : for pronunciation, revision or as a prelude to independent speaking.

It is interesting how our own perceptions of things can change as time goes on. I think that reading a loud can be a great way to see if someone is really reading or if they are just repeating the words.  

Hi James! I found your article interesting because I did something similar last year.  However, I was the one who read out loud to 2 groups of lower intermediate 11-12-year olds with the idea of stimulating reading for pleasure.  We did no "TEFL" type activities nor did I ask them to record vocabulary - the only activity I asked them to do was draw mind maps to see if they had followed the story, in this case Treasure Island.  It worked up to a point and most students did enjoy the quiet time at the end of the class (like you 15 minutes) while we read but I'm not sure it got students reading at home. This year I plan to use readers again and may try out some of your ideas.  It would be interesting to hear if the idea has developed or not and in which way.
Ana 

As teachers, it is always a good thing to experiment. It is only through experimenting that we will be able to discover the best strategies to help our students overcome their challenges. Wastholm once said, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained – but if everything is ventured, and still nothing gained, give up and venture elsewhere”. This quotation should be the philosophy of every teacher, as this will empower them to explore in order to discover new things. Read aloud has many advantages, and I am happy that Mr. James Houltby tried this strategy that led to a change in his perception and also the perception of his students towards reading.
Some of the many advantages of reading aloud are that it will help to develop the child’s skills of reading, to build vocabulary, and to enhance creative play. Read aloud also establishes a physical closeness and bond between the reader and listener, it increases attention span and listening skills and it will also help the child with correct pronunciation of words as well as fluency and many others. I hope you learn something from my comment and I hope we will continue to explore in order to help our students to achieve at their optimum level.

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