“Reading aloud”: What it’s really called and why it’s essential to formal language learning

“Reading aloud”: What it’s really called and why it’s essential to formal language learning

It’s an often unchallenged mantra of many ELT writers, methodologists and commentators that ‘reading aloud’ is an ineffective or misguided practice in English language classrooms (e.g., Wilson, 2019; also see this recent Twitter discussion). This mantra is frequently propagated by trainers on generic initial certification courses designed for teachers of adults, such as the Cambridge CELTA, where an increasing number of primary and secondary teachers are often led to believe that what they are doing in their classrooms is wrong, and that they should in fact switch to ‘silent reading’, at least if they want the certificate that they’ve spent up to a year’s salary on (Anderson, 2020a).

But the mantra is not true, at least if it is left unqualified. What is generically called ‘reading aloud’ in ELT is supported by extensive research evidence (Duursma et al., 2008), recommended by leading experts in literacy development (e.g., Wyse et al., 2013), US and UK national policy (e.g., DES, 2006), and was an essential part of the linguistic development of everybody who is able to read fluently today, although many seem to forget this.

In this blog, I will first clarify terminology and evidence with regard to initial literacy development, and then link this to the complexities of different English language learning contexts around the world. I hope to demonstrate that overcoming literacy challenges remains a key component of teaching for the majority of EFL/ESL teachers (i.e., our profession), and that dismissing literacy development practices that involve reading aloud as ineffective or irrelevant to ELT can have potentially deleterious consequences, particularly for the most disadvantaged learners and teachers around the world. By presenting the evidence and arguments below, I do not wish to undermine or dissuade teachers from moving learners towards fluent, independent (i.e., silent) reading, which is always the intended goal. But the end should not be conflated with the means; and this is particularly true when it comes to practices that must be taught, rather than naturally acquired, such as learning to read and write (Pinker, 1994).

The correct terms for ‘reading aloud’

The term ‘reading aloud’ is rarely used in the literature on literacy instruction, yet it is a composite part of many established, evidence-based strategies in classrooms around the world. Practices such as shared reading, paired reading, one-to-one reading and whole class reading (click on links for details) are supported by robust evidence and considered good practice in the development of both early (alphabetic1) and developing (orthographic1) literacy (DES, 2006; Rose, 2006; Wyse et al., 2013), and they all involve reading aloud; both the teacher reading aloud (e.g., whole class and shared reading), and the learners reading aloud (e.g. one-to-one reading and paired reading). Each is a skillful practice that teachers at primary level routinely learn in pre-service education and refine during their practicum (see e.g., Wyse et al., 2013, pp. 150-151). Such strategies are common in ‘first language’ (initial) literacy development mainly at primary level, but may need to continue at secondary and tertiary levels before a learner is able to read silently without miscuing (Meltzer & Hamann, 2005), particularly for more disadvantaged, deprived and vulnerable learners who lack the early exposure to text, or the opportunity for reading as a social practice between parent/caregiver and child (see Shirley Brice Heath’s insightful ethnography; Heath, 1983).

Now the many complexities

However, the above is a simplification of the issue, particularly when we consider the complexities of diverse contexts in which learners begin to read around the world. The reason that I put the phrase ‘first language’ in scare quotes above is because the reality for many learners is that their initial literacy development occurs in a language that isn’t the language of their parents or even their local community (multilingualism is the norm, not the exception, across much of the world). The taught language may be a regional indigenous language (which may or may not be related to theirs), or an exogenous language, such as English or French in many parts of Africa, for example. In such situations the research evidence is consistently clear; it takes much longer to gain initial literacy in an unfamiliar language, and should be avoided whenever possible (see Simpson, 2019). In Teaching English in Africa (Anderson, 2015, pp. 67-68), I explore two hypothetical cases to provide an insight into these challenges, and how they likely combine with other aspects of the child’s background, particularly their parents’ literacy levels and family income, to make a learner’s path to literacy more or less challenging.

Literacy begins anew for every new script

What is more, this process needs to start largely afresh for every written script that a child or adult has to learn, particularly if it uses a different orthography (Peregoy & Boyle, 2000). So, for example, Malvani speakers in Maharashtra, India studying under the State Board Curriculum begin initial literacy in Marathi (an additional, albeit community language for most), and then begin this process soon after for English, facing the much greater cognitive challenge of attempting to gain literacy in two additional languages with different scripts simultaneously, without having ever done so in their mother tongue. The fact that so many do so successfully is no mean feat, and testament to their, and their teachers’ abilities.

Needless to say, more time is required in such contexts (Anderson, 2015) and such contexts are the norm in many countries. When combined with numerous other challenges (e.g., only a few hours of English per week, an overambitious curriculum, large classes, negative washback of high stakes exams), it is frequently the case that learners in secondary English classes around the world are still progressing through the orthographic phase of literacy, and many such learners can benefit from appropriate use of the practices discussed above.

The specific challenges of English

Even for learners whose first written script is largely the same (i.e. Latin) or similar (e.g., Turkish) to English, progressing through the orthographic phase can present difficulties, due to the fact that English is probably the most orthographically-opaque language in the world (i.e., the sound-spelling relationship is very complex; see, e.g., Marjou, 2019), and learners will need more time to learn to read it (Goswami, 2016), sometimes even needing to return to the alphabetic stage (synthetic phonic strategies, for example, can be useful) temporarily in order to progress; if so, ‘reading aloud’ is essential to progress.

What about adult learners of English?

One might think that these arguments only demonstrate that literacy development practices are useful in either developing countries or younger learner classrooms (where they are), and are of little relevance to adult learners in private language schools or FE/HE contexts, but a little reflection can reveal that, even here, the situation is complex and requires careful assessment.

Particularly – but not only – adult learners of English whose prior written scripts are non-Latin (e.g., Arabic, Chinese or Thai) may remain at the orthographic stage of English literacy until intermediate or advanced levels of spoken proficiency in English. Whether they do so or not will depend on the length and quality of their prior literacy instruction, where they are learning, and their need for different skills in their use of English. Compare, for example, an immigrant to Australia who only gained basic L1-literacy before leaving their home country but has worked in a restaurant for several years with a university undergraduate of wealthy, literate parents who studied in English-medium classes in secondary school, but has never left their home country. The former may have very good communicative competence in spoken English, but little or none in written English, while the latter may be capable of reading and interpreting complex written texts in English, but have little spoken fluency. No one mantra can apply to these two learners, as most teachers of ESOL in the UK are aware. Judith Kirsh provides some useful guidance for ESOL teachers of adults with lower literacy levels here, including ‘reading aloud’.   

Potential appropriate ‘reading aloud’ strategies in secondary ELT

Comparatively little exploration has been conducted by the ELT/SLA communities into appropriate strategies for developing learner literacy in primary and secondary EFL classrooms around the world; the majority of research tends to come from ELL (English language learners) contexts in mainstream US education (e.g., Daniel & Pray, 2016; Meltzer & Hamann, 2005), research that may only have limited contextual relevance for EFL worldwide. This void has sometimes been filled by mainstream educational support agencies. See, for example, this resource on shared reading from TESS India, who tend to promote strategies known to be effective in the UK, but are under-researched in developing countries, such as India.     

My recent research in Indian secondary English classrooms (forthcoming) indicates firstly that practices that involve reading aloud are common, but differ between more and less effective teachers. Less effective teachers more often engage in decontextualised choral reading of texts, which is likely to be less useful (although, it may help less proficient learners, especially if followed by individual or paired reading, as Kirsh recommends). More effective teachers were found to engage in more scaffolded, supportive practices: reading aloud while ‘interpreting’ the text translingually themselves (see this webinar; Anderson, 2020b); scaffolding learners gradually towards silent independent reading (i.e., a gradual transition); paired reading (which was observed to work well in one teacher’s classroom) and allowing learners who have become habituated to reading aloud to read out short bits of text, such as instructions for activities, or questions from the textbook. In one context, learners regularly requested that the teacher read aloud before they felt ready to read challenging texts silently (age 13-14).

Personal reflections and a quick experiment

As well as having studied—and largely forgotten—more languages than I care to admit, I have learnt to read four additional written scripts as an adult (Cyrillic, Ge’ez, Devanagari, phonemic). I can confirm that in my second most enabled language (Russian), despite being a fluent speaker for over 20 years (C2 once, now C1), my reading is still fairly slow, and I find myself mouthing and even reading aloud longer words until I recognise them (i.e., I’m still in the late orthographic stage). This despite the fact that I can read newspapers and novels in Russian, just rather slowly. For all my other scripts, I often find it useful to read aloud, even though I can read silently; I often do both for each sentence – aloud first, then silently/mouthed, sometimes a couple of times, until I grasp the meaning. If I were in a Hindi or Tigrinya class as a learner, I would be very happy to engage in any of the literacy development practices discussed above.

If you have never learnt to read a foreign language script (which is, I suspect, true of many who espouse the mantra), but can read UK phonemic script and would like to conduct a brief experiment, try reading two texts from this book, one silently and one aloud. Do you find reading aloud useful? How does it help? Can you read silently more quickly? Do you sometimes miscue when reading silently? Answers to all of these questions will depend on your literacy level in this script, not simply your knowledge of the spoken language (UK ‘RP’ English). Note that speakers of other varieties of English are likely to find it more challenging to read these texts silently – their spoken language(s) differ from RP, and reading aloud will help to notice and reduce miscues – an experiment to try with a colleague, perhaps. The answers will also depend on personal preferences, aptitude and specific educational needs – we’re all different, and so are your learners, another reason why mantras are problematic.

The danger of mantras in a world of complexity… think before you tweet

In order to understand why the continued propagation of this mistaken belief is damaging, it is important to reflect on the range of contexts worldwide in which English is being taught today; an ever increasing majority happens in primary and secondary classrooms (Graddol, 2006, 2014), where appropriate literacy development strategies that happen to involve ‘reading aloud’ are likely to be useful. Despite this, the mantra is regurgitated by generations of (often) BANA2 writers, methodologists and social media commentators who typically command the discourse on appropriate practice despite frequently having little or no experience in such contexts, nor of having studied new scripts themselves in many cases.

Thus, the often generically-framed invocation of ‘reading aloud’ as wrong/bad/archaic/traditional actually constitutes something far deeper in the fabric of current ELT discourse dominated by such BANA writers and commentators, whose own teaching experience was frequently (not always) gained in privileged private language education or higher education, where learners can often be expected to have mastered the numerous challenges above, and where it is often possible to focus primarily on independent reading. The assumption, within such communities seems to be ‘that’s where we start’.

Yet, this assumption needs to be reappraised, consistent with the move of English into ever younger mainstream classrooms in state-sponsored education. The reality of discourse communities, particularly on social media in this interconnected world, is that they are unbounded. The teacher reading a book, tweet, post, article or blog could work in a context where almost none of the relevant variables are shared with the writer. And the implications of them adopting what is recommended uncritically could be significant. See Paula Rebolledo’s recent discussion of the dangers of adopting, rather than adapting, what “ELT Gurus” recommend (Rebolledo, 2020), and her emphasis on the need for empowering teachers to explore and research their own contexts.

Conclusion

In this post I have touched on numerous issues of relevance to a topic that ultimately needs more extensive research and careful reappraisal in ‘ELT’. But I hope I have raised some readers’ awareness of the complexity of the issues involved, and the dissonance between shared assumptions of best/appropriate practice in mainstream literacy and ELT communities.

Alas, I haven’t had time to mention the role of reading aloud either in pronunciation teaching (see Adrian, 2014, Hancock, 2003, p. 92, and this interesting BC blog by James Houltby). Nor have I mentioned its role in English literature teaching (see Goodwyn, 2011), although I still, to this day, remember Mrs Ratcliffe’s lessons from my secondary years. Despite my continued desire to cause mischief in her classes, the expression and drama in her voice as she read aloud from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, or ‘Great Expectations’ drew me in with such conviction that I often forgot my personal aims for the lesson, yet have never forgotten the two stories.

Now, where’s my latest audiobook?

(Originally published 11 Nov 2020)

Postscript 14/11/20

Since writing this blog, several relevant sources that I initially missed regarding reading aloud have been shared with me. Thanks firstly to Paulina Clarke, who shared this BBC Future post.

Two MFL (modern foreign languages) teacher educators and authors, Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith both discuss research evidence and potential advantages of reading aloud in their blogs. See Smith (2020) and Conti (2018). Conti cites 10 potential benefits of reading aloud, linking each to research findings, including benefits to listening ability, silent reading ‘rate’ and ‘performance’, confidence, oral fluency, recall and aspects of phonology. Smith discusses the ‘production effect’ (also discussed in the BBC Future post), and evidence that reading aloud (‘production’) increases our ability to remember words when compared with silent reading. Both Smith and Conti provide practical, experientially-developed suggestions that are likely to be of use to EFL teachers working in secondary contexts (MFL research and theory originates mainly in secondary and primary classrooms;  EFL/ESL research varies much more). Thanks Steve and Gianfranco for sharing these pieces.

The term ‘production effect’ was coined by MacLeod et al. (2010, here). Their study involved laboratory research, not L2 classroom research (always be cautious of lab. studies). However, the effect was found to be strong both for meaningful words (i.e., in participants’ L1) and ‘nonwords’, evidence that it is likely to hold with L2 items. Interestingly, silent ‘mouthing’ of the words was also found to be beneficial – a useful tip if excessive classroom noise is likely to be an issue for teachers of large classes, or in schools where such noise is frowned upon.

Notes

1. Here I refer to Frith’s well-referenced stages of literacy development (1985): logographic, alphabetic, orthographic. I adapted these for EFL contexts in Teaching English in Africa (Anderson, 2015) as: Pre-alphabet, Alphabet and Sight word phases. Part B of this book aims to simplify the complex stages of literacy instructions for teachers working with L2+ learners of English with little prior training working in challenging contexts. Download it for free here.

2. BANA: British, Australasian and North American. Holliday (1994) introduces this term to refer to specific curricular contexts of privilege, arguing that it cannot be presumed that what is evaluated as appropriate practices in such contexts will work in other contexts, that he refers to as TESEP (Tertiary, Secondary and Primary). Here I use it as a shorthand to refer to English teaching professionals working in such contexts, many of whom learnt English in early childhood (more often called NESTs – Native English-speaking teachers) and may lack the lived experiences of English language learners around the world, and therefore the ability to appreciate their challenges and journeys. I recognise that there are plenty of exceptions to this generalisation (including me), as Copland et al. (2020) point out.

I’ve tried to use open access sources where possible, but if you find a paywall preventing you from accessing a paper, drop me a message here: www.jasonanderson.org.uk

References

Adrian, M. M. (2014). The efficacy of a reading aloud task in the teaching of pronunciation. Journal of English Studies, 12, 95-112. https://publicaciones.unirioja.es/ojs/index.php/jes/article/view/2825/2581  

Anderson, J. (2015). Teaching English in Africa. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers. http://www.jasonanderson.org.uk/downloads/Anderson_2015_Teaching_English_in_Africa.pdf

Anderson, J. (2020a). ‘Buying in’ to communicative language teaching: the impact of ‘initial’ certification courses on the classroom practices of experienced teachers of English. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 14, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/17501229.2018.1471082 Available here.

Anderson, J. (2020b). Text interpretation: India’s hidden pedagogy. Paper presented at the KAASH Foundation/ELT@I 3rd International Faculty Development Program (Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76_j1IHQqg&feature=youtu.be&t=622)

Conti, G. (2018). My favourite read-aloud tasks and how I use them. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://gianfrancoconti.com/2018/03/16/my-favourite-read-aloud-task-and-how-i-use-them/

Copland, F., Mann, S. & Garton, S. (2020). Native‐English‐Speaking Teachers: Disconnections Between Theory, Research, and Practice. TESOL Quarterly, 54, 348-374. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.548

Daniel, S. M. & Pray, L. (2016). Learning to Teach English Language Learners: A Study of Elementary School Teachers’ Sense‐Making in an ELL Endorsement Program. TESOL Quarterly, 51, 787-819.

Department for Education and Skill (DES) (2006). Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics. London, UK: DES. http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/pdfs/2006-primary-national-strategy.pdf 

Duursma , E., Augustyn, M. & Zuckerman, B. (2008). Reading aloud to children: The evidence. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/adc.2006.106336

Frith, U. (1985). Beneath the surface of developmental dyslexia. In K. E. Patterson, M. Coltheart, and J. Marshall (eds) Surface Dyslexia. London: LEA. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/245583604_Beneath_the_surface_of_developmental_dyslexia

Goodwyn, A. (2011). The Expert Teacher of English. Abingdon: Routledge.

Goshwami, U. (2016). Orthography, Phonology, and Reading Development: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective. In R. Malatesha Joshi and P. G. Aaron (Eds). Handbook of orthography and literacy. Routledge. pp. 463–480.

Graddol, D. (2006). English Next. London: British Council. https://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/attachments/books-english-next.pdf  

Graddol, D. (2014). English and economic development. Paper presented at IATEFL 2014, Harrogate, UK. https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/plenary-session-david-graddol

Hancock, M. (2003). English Pronunciation in Use, Cambridge, CUP.

Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, CUP.

Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: CUP. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2V436wj18iQC&lpg=PR8&ots=jFvc4Ppkah&dq=holliday%20appropriate%20methodology&lr&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

MacLeod, C. M., Gopie, N., Hourihan, K. L., Neary, K. R., & Ozubko, J. D. (2010). The production effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(3), 671–685. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018785 Available without paywall here.

Marjou, X (2019). Estimating the transparency of orthographies with an artificial neural network. Computation and Language, ArXiv preprint arXiv:1912.13321, 1-8. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1912.13321.pdf

Meltzer, J. & Hamann, E. T. (2005). Meeting the literacy development needs of adolescent English language learners through content-area learning – Part two: Focus on classroom teaching and learning strategies. Faculty Publications: Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education. 53.  https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/teachlearnfacpub/53

Peregoy, S. F. & Boyle, O. F. (2000). English learners reading English: What we know, what we need to know. Theory into Practice, 39, 237-247.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin.

Rebolledo, P. (2020). Guruism can be detrimental to your professional health. EL Gazette, November 2020, 34-35. https://www.elgazette.com/elg_archive/ELG2011/mobile/index.html

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. London, UK: DES. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100512233640/http://publications.teachernet.gov.uk/eOrderingDownload/0201-2006PDF-EN-01.pdf

Simpson, J. (2019). English language and medium of instruction in basic education in low- and middle-income countries: A British Council perspective. London: British Council. https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/K068_EMI_position_low-and_middle-income_countries_Final.pdf

Smith, S. (2020).  Reading aloud, the production effect and memory. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://frenchteachernet.blogspot.com/2020/02/reading-production-effect-and-memory.html

Wilson, K. (2019, September 7). Reading aloud is a complete waste of time. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://kenwilsonelt.wordpress.com/2019/09/07/reading-aloud-is-a-complete-waste-of-time/

Wyse, D., Jones, R., Bradford, H. & Wolpert, M. A. (2013). Teaching English, language and literacy, Third edition. Abingdon: Routledge.


One thought on ““Reading aloud”: What it’s really called and why it’s essential to formal language learning

  1. I learned Arabic when I was at university. I didn’t get very far, but even today, when I see the script, I automatically orally sound out the words letter by letter. Definitely agree that for a language teacher, it’s really enlightening to learn a language with a different alphabet/script.

    Liked by 1 person

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