Is Reading to Students Bad?

The forums over at Teacher Magazine have a great conversation going on right now about the advantages and disadvantages of reading text aloud to students in the classroom. Apparently a high school teacher was given a hard time by his administrators, who overheard him and felt he was talking down to the students by treating them like they were in elementary school.

This surprised me, because every literature professor I ever had when I was an English major would recite passages of text to the class and myself have been doing if for years. I had never considered that it might be a “bad” way to teach, because utterance brings a printed text to life in a way that silence usually does not. Some students may very well be “aural” learners. And in my experience students seem to respond well when I read text aloud to the class, because I am — to be unabashedly cocky — probably the best reader in the room. All teachers probably are. Why be shy? We usually know the text we’re reading to the class inside-and-out, so we can probably do a good job it. As an English prof, I am an experienced reader who has been visited by many fictional voices across a lifetime, and I know how to inflect and read prose and poetry with a dramatic cadence. I even have the audacity to read my own writing to the class sometimes, because this is what creative writers do professionally. I’m not saying I’m the best oral interpreter on the planet, but in my classroom, chances are very good that I am the most qualified person in the room to do it. And so is any teacher.

The counter-argument, of course, is based on the assumption that students who are already literate don’t want to be “talked down” to. It harkens back to the parent-child relationship, infantalizing students. It reduces the adult classroom to something akin to a preschool-level children’s library, and participates in what critics call “the crayola curriculum,” contributing to the “dumbing down” of American students. It impedes the flow of speedy learning that people who can read for themselves might experience. And if a teacher is a boring, turgid reader, it risks killing the class dynamic — or can lead to student mockery, disappointment or other tomfoolery.

But all things considered, it depends on how you do it, and what your motives really are. Sometimes the “Crayola Curriculum” can be employed in productive, reflective, or simply tension-relieving ways (as my SHU colleague Dennis Jerz attempts to do when he reads a children’s book to his English majors at the end of a stressful term). I would say that, on balance, reading aloud is a good strategy. As Candy Blessing points out in “Reading to Students Who Are Old Enough to Shave”, research supports the argument that “reading to kids boosts their reading comprehension, increases their vocabularies, and helps them become better writers. In fact, students who are read to are more motivated to read themselves—increasing the likelihood that they will one day become independent, lifelong readers.” Clearly knowing how printed words and sentences and poetic lines and so forth should “sound” in our heads when we read them can only help us comprehend them, and teachers can and should model these sounds for students. This is something that Language teachers have employed forever.

Moreover, we’re not just modeling how to read that particular text. We’re modeling how to read in public, how to recite in general, and also teaching communication and listening skills. Listening to a teacher recite has its analogue in many civic functions: hearing politicians speak, or priests and preachers, and so forth. Students can learn what we might call “audience literacy”: how to be a good, attentive, ethical listener.
I would toss in, however, that the method can create a teacher-centered environment in the classroom, and that one shouldn’t dominate the class or treat it as their own private rehearsal hall. A lector’s reading aloud should be counter-balanced by having the students read — in fact, they should read more often than the teacher. Having students read aloud is often better because not only does everyone get to practice, but everyone also gets the “stage” for a moment. Everyone has a voice and students always benefit from participating fully in the class. When they listen to each other, they engage with one another. (I have even seen students correct each other and offer advice to each other, workshopping their recitation without any input from me!). You can see it in their eyes. Reading is not just absorbing through the eyes or ears — it is reacting, responding, voicing, and more.

I would also add that not only should teachers be wary of producing a teacher-centered environment, but also that the textbook-dominated one. Even in a literature course, it might be good to have students read aloud from their own writing. Or, optionally, to have the teacher read student writing to the class. I do this quite often. In classes where I collect daily journals, I will often begin the hour by reading one of my favorite entries. It not only rewards the students who put their energy into the journal writing, but it also provides a great transition from the previous class into the next one.

Another trick, of course, is to bring in an audio CD or DVD, or to bring in the writer as a guest, so that students can hear authors read their own work aloud. They’re often surprised by how the author sounds — how different they sound than they expected — and sometimes even how much better it sounded in their own heads when they read it off the page themselves.

I suppose all of these tactics are relatively obvious, and that there are myriad other strategies for employing oral recitation in the classroom. I’ve really only scratched the surface. But I think just hearing that some administrators think this is a bad idea makes me realize that we need to talk about these things we take for granted more often…so that others won’t take their own assumptions — usually ones that originate in their own experiences in the classroom as a kid and carried forward into adulthood — for granted, too.

Visit the forum at Teacher Magazine to find more methods, arguments, and research about this topic.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

6 thoughts on “Is Reading to Students Bad?”

  1. Imagine this argument in the context of an ESL classroom… Let the problematizing begin! It’s the same argument (adults don’t want to be patronized, students can read for themselves, etc.) PLUS the concept of how to best teach English to speakers of other languages. At both of the writing centers I’ve worked for, we either read or have the students–native and non-native English speakers–read their papers aloud as a tool to begin workshopping.
    From my own experiences, the only time I’ve felt that being read to is truly inappropriate is when someone reads from a Power Point. (That’s a different can of worms altogether, though.) As a former student of yours and a fan of your poetry, I can’t tell you how enlightening it can be to have things read to me. Sure, sometimes it takes me back to my younger (and shorter) days, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Like you said, though, there are pros and cons (and there will always be fans and critics too), but I suppose this has to be another of those situationally based items in pedagogy because there is no one-size-fits-all.

  2. Mike, I agree that reading aloud in class can be very effective. It’s a time-honored tradition in English, going back to the Old English poet, or scop, reciting poems in the mead hall. Many of our earliest and most revered poems come out of oral tradition. Where would we, as a discipline, be without it? Plus, it’s fun, and it does seem to reach students better than the wall of words on the printed page . . . focuses their attention . . . gives a break to those who didn’t do the reading before class. Thanks for sharing all the reasons why reading aloud is an effective technique.

  3. A flip side of this argument… a former student recently blogged about his frustration taking a course at a different school, in which some students in a literature class reacted with outrage when they realized they wouldn’t be spending the entire class time reading the work they were supposed to be studying.
    Last term, I had students read their poetry and other writing drafts in small groups, but I didn’t have them read the assigned texts aloud. Maybe if I had gotten them into the habit of listening to each other read aloud, some might have had an easier with the unit on meter. Yet another great teaching question to ponder.

  4. Please allow an ESL publisher to wade in as well. Karissa, you are absolutely right about the additional problems in a language classroom. To summarize much of Second Language Acquisition research: you get better at what you practice. There are plenty of data that suggest that the single best way to improve your ability to read in a new language is to read both intensively and extensively. This would imply a classroom in which students would primarily develop their abilities to read and comprehend in their new langauge, rather than one in which they would practice listening or speaking.
    Language students often take separate reading courses in which the end goal is for them to learn how to read in the target language, not necessarily to learn literature. In this context, I think Michael’s point that we should consider the goals of the course and the lesson is especially relevant. If students are learning listening comprehension and speaking skills in a separate course, then one could argue that the primary focus of second-language reading courses should be on learning reading skills.
    Michael brings up the additional issue of “how it should sound in your head” and our oldest, oral traditions of literature. I especially liked your recommendation of listening to authors read their own work–that was one of my favorite parts of many undergrad courses. However, for langague learners, literature is unlikely to make up the future reading of the majority of students. They will be more likely to either move into business and read prose, or move into academic studies in their target langague and read prose there. For these students, it is critical that they be able to read large amounts of dense writing quickly and effficiently. In short, their reading classes need to teach them how to read. Reading aloud may well help with pronunciation, but one could argue that this is best taught in a listening/speaking classroom.
    Karissa, I love your comment about students reading their papers aloud as in intro to workshopping. That seems especially appropriate in your context because the goal is to help them improve their organization/style/etc., not their reading skills. If they will be discussing the papers aloud, and if they have not had a chance to read each other’s papers beforehand, then this seems like a great introduction to the lesson that keeps the students’ goals in mind.

  5. I am a 5th grade ESL Language Arts teacher- but I previously taught 7th & 8th graders. Reading aloud to the students is a great way to, as the poster says, bring text alive for them. In my current teaching assignment, helping students make the correct correspondences between the way English words are spelled and the way they sound is vital to their success. Another great strategy for bringing text alive to students is to treat the novel as if it is a play. The teacher, as narrator, reads all the parts that are not in dialogue– including “he said/she said.” The students are assigned (or volunteer for) the character “parts”. It is an AWESOME way of getting the kids to stay tuned in and truly pay attention to paragraphing and dialogue. VERY successful outcomes with this method.
    What an interesting debate to be having. I’m glad I happened upon this page.
    Beth Fehlbaum, author (& teacher)
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    http://courageinpatience.blogspot.com
    http://www.kunati.com/courage-in-patience
    Chapter 1 is online!

  6. I never liked poetry, it just never clicked for me. That was until junior year of high school, when my English teacher read us Poe’s The Bells.
    Some English is meant to be read, and some to be listened to. A good dramatic reading can engage students otherwise complacent.
    Another good example of this is public radio, specifically This American Life. That show is largely written works read by the reader. Many of them are published in other areas, from magazine to book. Nobody feels talked down to there, they tune in on purpose.

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