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.
- My students' reading habits
- Reading for pronunciation
- Getting students motivated
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 the script which I found at Movie-Page.com. 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.
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.
A version of this article first appeared in: 'In English' Spring 2004. The British Council magazine for teachers of English in Portugal.
James Houltby, Teacher, British Council, Portugal
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