I think I’ve always sort of known in the back of my mind “why not”. And as I’ve found that most of my colleagues and tutors in the TEFL world so far have also been against it, I’ve never really felt the need to overtly enumerate the reasons. I didn’t feel that strongly about it, in fact, until I started studying languages again and am now asked to read something aloud at least once in nearly every lesson (and I reeeeeeeally don’t like reading aloud in my language class). So, I’m rising to the challenge of justifying my anti-reading aloud stance. Here’s why I hate it:
1. It’s unnatural.
When does anyone ever read aloud in real life? I will concede a few possible examples – (1) when reading bedtime stories to children (and I’ve rarely seen language students read stories, but usually rather texts and even instructions (!!) from coursebooks); (2) when giving formal speeches/presentations (and then we’re normally reading from prompts, not religiously adhering to every word on a page); and, I suppose, possibly, (3) when cooking/shopping (following a list and saying the things on it aloud to help avoid mistakes/missing something). But apart from these, I consider the whole business incredibly weird and unnatural.
2. It’s distracting.
Reading aloud (spoken) speed and pace doesn’t match up at all with normal reading (to yourself in your head) speed. They’re different skills and it’s quite hard to do both at the same time, even when you’re the one doing the reading aloud! Furthermore, when one student reads aloud and the rest of the class listen, that student sets the rhythm and, in my experience, this interferes noticeably with my ability to understand what I’m reading. Every time that student stumbles on a word, I lose my place. Every time that student pronounces something differently to what I was expecting (regardless of which one of us has it ‘right’), I lose my place again. Every time the teacher jumps in with a correction, I lose it again. It’s frustrating and annoying. Even if I try to just read the text to myself and ignore the student reading aloud, so that I might actually glean some meaning from what I’m reading, I can’t. Maybe some people can, but I personally can’t tune out the background noise that easily.
3. It doesn’t prove anyone’s understood anything.
Just getting a student to read out the instructions to a task, then saying “OK?” to the class at large doesn’t check they’ve understood what they’ve got to do, or even that they’ve understood any of the actual words in the instructions. Moreover, they won’t necessarily have taken in a word of it even if they’re fluent in the target language, because it’s so distracting trying to read and listen to someone else saying what you’re reading at the same time (see point 2, above).
4. It can be embarrassing.
For both those doing it and those listening. Decent pronunciation in the language you’re learning is often hard to master, and in English the sound-spelling relationship is notoriously confusing. Furthermore, many students who come across unknown words while reading (aloud or silently) stumble and hesitate at these points, no matter what efforts teachers invest to get students to try and carry on, working out meaning from context. Stumbling over what you don’t know while the whole rest of the class’s attention is on you isn’t much fun.
5. It draws attention to pronunciation, rather than meaning.
I see this as a bad thing because we don’t normally read with reference to pronunciation (or rather, we don’t generally refer to pronunciation features when we read). As reading aloud makes us very conscious of our pronunciation, I think this kind of misses the point of most reading. Not to mention that not all students are particularly tolerant of others’ pronunciation, which is exhibited for everyone to notice and (internally, if you’re lucky) critique when you’re reading aloud.
6. It’s boring.
Forgive the bluntness, but it has to be said – listening to other students speaking at length without interruption (other than corrections from the teacher), interaction or any natural modulation of their voice (because it’s hard to read something with convincing or interesting intonation even in your own language when you’ve never seen or prepared to read the text) is incredibly tedious, and not how I personally prefer to spend my classroom time.
Despite all my objections, I am willing to concede some possible legitimate uses for reading aloud. Here they are:
1. As it draws so much attention to pronunciation, use it for pronunciation work.
Preferably not by having students’ pronunciation difficulties on show for the whole class, but perhaps by getting students to read aloud to themselves, e.g. for homework. They could record themselves, considering their articulation of particular sounds, their intonation, rhythm, etc. If there’s a professional version of whatever they’re reading, they could compare this with their own version (e.g. a recording from the coursebook, or a famous speech, or an audiobook, or a podcast…)
2. As there are, I admit, a few examples of naturally reading aloud, how about using it for those?
In other words, don’t bother having students read emails or articles aloud from a coursebook, or read the instructions aloud. What’s the point in this? (What, are you just trying to prove someone’s actually reading the text you’ve put in front of them?) But I can see a point in reading aloud something that was always meant to be read aloud (at least in part) – e.g. a speech or presentation. Things that are read aloud in real life are rarely done without prior preparation, so get students to prepare something with the knowledge that they will eventually read it out. Then the reading aloud part won’t be so strange, daunting, embarrassing or apparently pointless. What’s more, the other students will have a better reason to listen.
3. Similarly, as many (most?) people will have experience of being read a story, get students to read stories!
Stories are just made to be told, so reading these aloud doesn’t offend my better judgment so much. Again, I wouldn’t suggest students read these aloud without having prepared to do so first. And I wouldn’t have one student read seemingly endless passages of text. But perhaps, for example, they could read stories they themselves have prepared, where they can use their voices to give deeper meaning to the words and personality to the characters, while developing a greater appreciation of the interplay of pronunciation with scripted speech.
4. Use reading aloud as a follow-on/extension of other work.
After thoroughly dissecting and digesting a text or language point, if you’ve got something short (short!!) for which you’ve already clarified the meaning and checked the students’ understanding, you could get students to read this aloud, but with a pronunciation focus. For example, students take the five sentences they’ve just completed/created in a practice task and mark which words they think would be stressed, then read them aloud to a partner, who can give feedback on how natural/appropriate their pronunciation was, or what sounds seemed to disappear (and whether they should have!). Or you could do the same with intonation, or linking sounds, or contrastive stress. This will help them develop natural pronunciation features and gives them the chance to think about what they’re going to read, rather than just spontaneously reading.
Those are all my thoughts on the subject for the moment. I may have more to add in future, but for now – rant over!