To read out loud or to read to oneself—that is the question! by Joe Busuttil
Joe Busuttilcarries 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.
Introduction 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 Sometimes a technique for teaching skills or systems is in, trendy and cool; after a time, it becomes outré, outdated and obnoxious.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.
Literature Review 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 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.
The Study 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?
Results 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. Discussion 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, the chunking.
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.
Conclusion 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.
References: 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