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.