Reading Aloud

In the last thirty years, reading aloud has fallen out of general favour as a way of improving language proficiency. Arguments against it centre around the fact that it is a skill in its own right, not particularly useful for the average person, and one that even native speakers tend to do badly without specific training. And it is inadequate as a way of practising what students really have to do with the language for a number of reasons :

  • It doesn’t practise speaking because there is no need to formulate what is being said.
  • Frequently the task of processing meaning and speaking aloud at the same time is too much for the learner, with the consequence that processing meaning gets dropped. Thus, it doesn’t improve reading skills, and neither is it useful for language reinforcement, as the learner is reading without understanding. The depth of cognitive processing is very shallow.
  • This lack of understanding is often evident in the mistakes made in word grouping and intonation – so the exercise is not useful as pronunciation practice either. Other activities, such as repetition practice (1), are more useful.

However, this analysis fails to take into consideration two things

a)  some students, albeit a minority, need to be able to read aloud effectively in English – for example rail, airport and airline staff, politicians or non-native speaker teachers of English. Two one-to-one students that I have taught in the past were :

  • a grandmother, whose daughter had married an American, lived in the US and was about to have a baby - who would be brought up speaking English. My client, at A1 level, wanted to be able to play with her grandchild - and that included reading him/her stories. We therefore worked on the type of books for young children which she might use. like Where's Spot? and others like it
  • a politician at A2 level who needed to give speeches both when welcoming foreign delegations, and when attending EU meetings. The speeches were written for her in English by her assistants, but she needed to understand them and be able to read them aloud.

Similarly, various groups of non-native speaker EFL/CLIL teachers following language development courses needed to :
  • read through instructions, activities etc in the textbooks they used in order to check comprehension
  • read stories to their students - this was particularly important for the primary level teachers

b) reading aloud doesn’t necessarily mean asking students to open their books and read round the class.

How then can reading aloud be used effectively in the classroom?

  • Where possible, keep the purpose of reading aloud authentic by using texts such as speeches, announcements, children’s stories etc that the students might need to read aloud.
  • Keep the texts simple – at a lower level than the students’ silent reading competence – in order to avoid processing problems.
  • Give the students the chance to analyse the text and decide how it should be read before asking them to read it aloud. Build a systematic focus on phonological features into the reading aloud sessions, focusing in turn on word grouping, weak forms, linking etc.
  • Keep the texts short, focusing on quality rather than quality.
  • For each feature start with a recognition activity and move gradually towards production. For example, for word grouping :

    Ask the students to read the text silently and check comprehension.

    The students listen to the teacher reading the first half of the text (or to a taped version of the text) and mark the pauses the points in the text where there's a pause. They then analyse why the pauses came at those points and whether other points would be possible.

    The teacher reads the text, a phrase at a time, and the students repeat, chorally and individually. They then “shadow read” (2) the text. This means reading the text at the same time as the teacher or tape, keeping the same rhythm, intonation and speed.

    The students now look at the second part of the text and predict the pauses. They then listen to the teacher (or tape) and check if they were right.

    In the next lesson, the students work on a new text and, after stage (a), individually mark the pauses they would make. In groups of three they then read the text aloud and compare the results – did they pause at the same points? Were the alternatives equally valid? They try to arrive at a definitive version, while the teacher circulates monitoring and helping. Once all the groups have an acceptable version and each member has had a chance to read it aloud, the text is then used to focus on another phonological feature(4), and stages b-d are repeated.


(1) I discussed the use of repetition practice in this article.

(2) Shadow reading is a technique first suggested by Marion Geddes and Gill Sturtridge. It’s something students can also practise at home using perhaps a graded reader and accompanying tape. They should first read a small section of text silently and at their own speed and make sure they understand it. They then listen to the tape following the text, once or more often if they wish. They then use it for repetition practice, one sentence at a time, and finally for shadow reading.

(3) Click here for another article on
reading aloud, for the views of other teachers, and for a slightly different way of using shadow reading.
(4) The type of phonological features that they will need to master if they are to become proficient in reading aloud (features such as weak forms, elision, catenation etc)were discussed briefly in the article Why don't they understand?)

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Steffe via flickr

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