To read out loud or to read to oneself—that is the question!
Joe Busuttil carries out a study on student expectations when it comes to reading in class
In a recent study conducted at an English Language school in Malta, 60 EFL students from different
countries were asked to state whether they preferred to read aloud or silently. The vast majority –
54 – opted for reading aloud.
EFL philosophies, schools of thought, and methodologies tend to follow fashion. Sometimes a
technique for teaching skills or systems is in, trendy and cool; after a time, it becomes outré,
outdated and obnoxious. In recent years, reading aloud seems to have fallen out of fashion.
What do some EFL educationalists think about this form of reading.
Describing reading aloud as something many of us recall from our schooldays, Jim Scrivener (2005)
lists a number of reasons why this technique may not be effective; it might be boring; it causes
nervousness; readers tend to make to mistakes and this ends up in embarrassment. He adds that
round-the-class reading tends to be a slow, tedious turn-off rather than an enthusiastic rouser.
Scott Thornbury (2006) stresses that although reading is a receptive skill, it involves an active, even
interactive, process. Including reading aloud as one possible option, he argues that readers not only
bring their own questions to the text, but also their own purposes.
Jeremy Harmer (2012) says that one main criticism is that reading aloud is not helpful because it is
not related to real life – people do not read aloud normally – and the reader is concerned with
grammar, not speaking. However, he feels that there are cases where it can be of benefit.
John Hughes (2011) emphasises that reading aloud can assist the process of making incomprehensible
pronunciation, comprehensible. He proposes a seven stage pyramid, breaking down sentences into
aspects like the mood, accent and feeling of the reader, moving to stressed, as well as redundant, words.
Faced with these, as well as other for and against arguments, the author wanted to test the ground
and find out what students themselves think and want. The two month fieldwork featured 60
students from various countries randomly allotted to make up his class for periods varying from one
to three weeks. Their levels were between A2 and C2, while their ages ranged from 15 to 57.
Before the reading assignment from the prescribed textbook, the students were given pre-reading
tasks for context setting and prediction, as well as pre-teaching difficult vocabulary and grammar
structures. A few alternatives to reading aloud were given, such as reading the text on their own,
and then summarising the story. Then they were asked the standard question: Do you prefer to
read the text aloud or do you want to read it silently?
54 out of the 60 respondents wanted to read aloud.
“Of course I prefer it this way. It helps me in pronunciation. Otherwise, how would I know what I’m
doing? If I make mistakes, I stand to be corrected”, said one student, whose opinion was subscribed
to by many in this category.
“Reading aloud helps me in writing. I don’t do much writing, but by reading aloud, I find that I learn,
and remember, new vocabulary”, answered another respondent. A number of students agreed that
reading aloud trains their understanding of the language, and moreover, they could concentrate more.
3 students were in favour of reading on their own. “Reading aloud is not for me, as then I would have
to focus on my pronunciation”, stated one of them. “Consequently, this would put pressure on me.
Also, when reading aloud, I cannot focus on understanding the overall content and the specific
meaning”. The other 2 also objected on similar grounds.
3 respondents replied that it did not really matter to them which way they read.
Most students considered reading aloud a diagnostic tool for pronunciation – something that is also
useful to the teacher. Consequently, problems with sounds and spelling can be easily picked up, too.
Harmer (2009) agrees, adding that it helps to make connections between words, phrases and sounds
and prosodic features, such as stress and intonation.
Stressing the benefits to pronunciation, Maley (1999) opines that the greatest instrument we have
at our disposal is our voice – or all the different human voices in the classroom. Advocating choral
speaking, he explains how, like an orchestra, reading a text can be varied by volume, pace and
pausing, pitch level and range, voice quality and manner, as well as mood and tone. This transforms
a text into something more interesting and motivating.
Some respondents said that reading aloud helped their overall understanding. Dellar (2012) feels
that this works best if students are reading things they might actually say, for example, reading out
conversations, vocabulary exercises based on short exchanges, or bits of text from time to time.
This understanding could also be enhanced by sound chunking, as he claims that pronunciation is
all about listening.
Although only 3 students were in favour of reading silently, their comments were important as it
brought home the fact that they felt they could not concentrate on the text content when reading
aloud. In fact, educationalists are in total agreement that reading aloud should only take place when
students have had a chance to understand the text that they will read from.
In order to be effective, reading aloud should be attractively packaged and presented. Scrivener
(2005) suggests various alternatives to round-the-class reading, including students reading to each
other in pairs or small groups. Alan Marsh (2013) also recommends reading aloud – both by the
teacher as well as the students – when telling tales, and using stories, jokes and experiences in the
classroom. This is done after learners have been given an opportunity to read the text silently,
understand it and prepare it for reading aloud e.g. the pronunciation of difficult words, the stress,
Criticism of the Study
The study can be criticised on various fronts. The student sample was too small, and the research
question too short and simple in order to arrive at any statistical analysis of qualitative or
quantitative significance, validity or reliability. The class was made up of students belonging to
different age groups, thus the halo effect may have influenced younger respondents to follow what
their adult class colleagues wanted. Few interesting alternatives to reading aloud were offered to
the students before the standard question was given, thus their options of embarking on a different
route were limited.
Despite its shortcomings, the study points to the fact that reading aloud could be coming back into
fashion, albeit with a difference. Harmer says that reading aloud is usually done very badly because
it is a skill that not many people have or practise. He says that our job as teachers is to “read them
excited”, so that listening to English, making sound and spelling connections and really hearing the
meaning, is something for them to look forward to and learn from.
I fully subscribe to this point of view, and hopefully, other local EFL teachers would be interested
in gathering similar data - replicating it with improved research tools and methods, and arriving at
similar or different conclusions - and sharing it with kindred spirits.
Dellar, H. 2012 Personal Correspondence, 12/09/2012
Harmer, J. 2009 Is Reading Aloud Allowed?, English Teaching Professional, Issue 65, Nov. 2009.
Harmer, J. 2012 FELTOM Seminar, Malta, 12/05/2012
Hughes, J. 2011 MATEFL Seminar, Malta, 12/11/2011
Maley, A. 1999 Choral Speaking, English Teaching Professional, Issue 12, July 1999.
Marsh, A. 2013 MATEFL Seminar, Malta, 13/11/2013
Scrivener, J. 2005 Learning Teaching, MacMillan, Oxford
Thornbury, S. 2006 An A-Z of ELT, MacMillan, Oxford