In Defense of Reading Aloud to Students

Sitting back and listening to a story is wonderful. Not only is it an enjoyable experience, but it’s also good for language acquisition. We know that students need to listen to a lot of oral input in order to acquire a new language, and listening to the teacher read aloud is a great way to provide that input.

But when there is an article or a story or any kind of written text to use in class, students are often expected to read it aloud in front of the class. There are probably many reasons for this common classroom practice, but I think one reason may simply be tradition: many of us teachers were required to read aloud in class when we were students in school, so we continue the practice. Also, I think we often feel like we need to make sure students are “active” and “doing something” all the time in class, and it feels like we are creating a more active environment if students are reading aloud rather than listening to us read. Or, we think that reading aloud stories is only something we should do with young children who can’t read yet and that older students who can do at least some independent reading don’t need it anymore.

These ideas seem so pervasive that the prospect of reading aloud to students can seem scary. In a recent article on Three Teachers Talk, Maggie Lopez, a high school teacher, wrote that she wanted to read aloud a book to her students in class, but she initially “chickened out” because she worried that students might not like it and that maybe her “pedagogical reasoning would be questioned.”

And I know that she is not alone. I think a lot of teachers—myself included—worry about the same things when considering reading aloud to students. Will my students pay attention, or will they just sit and zone out? Will my administrator walk in the room and think my classroom is too “teacher-centered”? Am I “letting my students off the hook” by just having them listen?

But, despite all of our concerns as teachers, many of the researchers who study reading instruction strongly support the idea of teachers reading aloud to students. For example, Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel list teacher read-alouds as one of the six elements of effective literacy instruction. They write: “Listening to an adult model fluent reading increases students’ own fluency and comprehension skills (Trelease, 2001), as well as expanding their vocabulary, background knowledge, sense of story, awareness of genre and text structure, and comprehension of the texts read (Wu & Samuels, 2004).”

And here are just a few other articles and resources about the benefits of reading aloud to students:

Not only do the experts recommend teacher read-alouds, but many of them also discourage teachers from having students do a lot of reading aloud in class. One of the most-criticized strategies is “round robin” reading, where students take turns reading sections of a text aloud. It has been a common classroom activity for a long time, but, as many researchers and teachers have pointed out, a lot of students dislike it. Students get embarrassed if they can’t pronounce a word correctly in front of their classmates, and they are often so focused on saying the words correctly that they do not comprehend the meaning of what they are reading. Even when their classmates are reading, they often are not paying attention but instead are looking ahead to the part of the text that they’ll need to read and are rehearsing the words silently.

In Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen’s article, “Why So Much Oral Reading?”, they argue that having students do silent, independent reading is more effective than having students do a lot of reading aloud in class. They summarize a study from Melanie Kuhn: “We now know that expanding the volume of independent reading that poor readers do is more likely to foster fluency, vocabulary growth, and comprehension than round robin oral reading or even repeated readings of texts (Kuhn, 2005)” (p. 51). And they also challenge the idea that having students read aloud is somehow more active or engaging than having them read silently. They say: “Silent reading requires engagement and understanding, while oral reading is less demanding in both regards” (p. 53). Just because a student’s mouth is moving as they read something aloud does not mean that they are thinking about what they’re reading—in fact, in many cases, students are less likely to be thinking about the meaning of the text when reading aloud in front of their peers.

Our lower-level language learners are not yet ready to do a lot of independent, silent reading, but they can listen (assuming our language is at an appropriate level for them). When we read aloud to our students, they don’t have to worry about embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates, which means they are free to focus on comprehending the meaning of the text. It also gives them a chance to hear a fluent model of the language. When our students are reading, they will likely encounter new words they have never seen or heard before or perhaps that they have only heard a few times. Of course they are going to have trouble reading the words out loud if the words are new to them. Why put pressure on students to read aloud in front of the class words that they have never heard spoken aloud before? And what benefit does that give the student—or the other students listening—for the student to be stumbling over unfamiliar words?  

In addition, having a skilled reader read the text while students listen makes the words “come alive” better. This is especially important when telling a story. The teacher’s use of inflection, rhythm, and correct pronunciation makes a story much more engaging for students than if they are listening to a fellow student struggle through it.

This doesn’t mean that we should never have students read aloud. Having students read aloud occasionally can be a useful way to assess them, and there are times when it makes sense to have students read aloud short excerpts of a text during a class discussion or for other reasons. And I have some students who like reading aloud and even request it! But I think it’s important to remember that having students read aloud is not a necessity in class (despite tradition!) and, in fact, the research evidence indicates that it is a less effective strategy than having students read silently or having the teacher read aloud to students.

Of course, we don’t always have to be the ones reading aloud to students. Sometimes our voices get tired, and we need a break! Plus, it’s good for our students to hear a variety of different speakers. Audiobooks of graded readers can be a good source of input for students. And podcasts are helpful for higher-level students (or lower-level students, if you can find ones at their level).

So don’t be afraid to read aloud to your students. Students usually enjoy it, and it helps develop both their oral language and literacy skills.

I’ll end with this quotation from Jim Trelease, which I think applies to students of all ages: “No player in the NBA was born wanting to play basketball. The desire to play ball or to read must be planted. The last 25 years of research show that reading aloud to a child is the oldest, cheapest and most successful method of instilling that desire. Shooting baskets with a child creates a basketball player; reading to a child creates a reader.”

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