Or at least, how MY students feel about reading aloud, anyway…
So, my previous post and subsequent discussions with colleagues led to several of us realising/acknowledging that we teachers often seem to make decisions about what’s right and wrong in our classrooms because of our own feelings/prejudices/training/experience (as teachers or as learners). For instance, I absolutely hate reading aloud in my language lessons and tend to think it’s pretty pointless, so I don’t do it with my students. But if I actually gave them the chance to do it, would my students hate it too?
I decided to find out. I conducted an experiment over two days (one 90-minute lesson each day) in which a few activities involved some sort of reading aloud. Then I asked for the students’ feedback. The short story: they don’t hate reading aloud, but they don’t generally like it, either. Here’s the break-down:
Activity 1: reading a text in the book (i.e. silently, to themselves, as reading is normally done) while listening to a recording of someone reading that text aloud (a common feature in the Innovations coursebook series, which is the assigned text for this class this term).
Only two students said they liked this. The others said it was boring and/or a bit pointless – they’d rather just listen to the text, to practise listening skills. Several students said they wouldn’t mind listening to it first, i.e. for listening skills practice, then reading while they listened a final time, to help them catch anything they’d missed/misunderstood. In general, for this type of simultaneous reading/listening, they weren’t bothered either way if they were listening to a recording from a CD or listening to the teacher, but they wanted whoever was reading aloud to be a native speaker.
Activity 2: reading a text containing errors aloud to just one other student (i.e. reading in pairs to spot and correct errors in a written text).
I do this activity sometimes to add variety to coursebook listening texts, and either to exploit a grammar point within the text or to promote accurate perception of pronunciation features, like sentence stress or weak sounds.
Basically, I type out the transcript of a short listening text and either include deliberate mistakes or miss out words (so it doesn’t make sense or sound natural without them). In the first stage of the activity, students in pairs just have a go at correcting the mistakes/filling in the words I’ve removed. Then, I give them a bit more guidance (e.g. there are 5 indefinite articles and 13 definite articles missing from this text) and they look at it again. Then, one student reads the text aloud to their partner (who doesn’t look at it), the rationale being that some things are easier to spot when you hear them, whereas you may overlook them when you see their written form (and vice versa). The listening student stops the reading student at any point when something doesn’t sound right. (Note: obviously, this is the reading aloud stage.) Finally, the students listen to the recording (sometimes a few times, comparing with their partner/other pairs in between if necessary) to make their final corrections, before checking with the accurate, complete tapescript in the back of the coursebook.*
In this particular lesson, I typed out the transcript of a short recorded text and removed all the articles; the students had to work in pairs to put the articles back in the appropriate places; then they listened and checked. The students’ opinions about the reading aloud part of this activity were generally negative, which surprised me, as it’s been so well received by other students in the past! I mean, that’s why I continue to do it with different classes! Most of the students in this experimental lesson said they didn’t like it; but this may have been because in this particular instance, they didn’t find it very useful for spotting outstanding article mistakes/omissions. In other lessons where the language point or style of activity has been different (e.g. ‘there are ten mistakes in this tapescript; see if you can find and correct them’), the reading aloud stage has proven useful, as students were able to spot when listening what they’d missed when reading in the initial stages. So I might experiment with this one again at some point and see if I get different feedback.
Activity 3: reading aloud a story that they created in small groups (just within the group, in preparation for re-telling it to other groups).
In this particular lesson, the students (in groups of 3) chose six words at random from our ongoing vocabulary box, then selected four of those to create a story from. They didn’t have to write anything down, but they were allowed to if they wanted to. Two groups basically decided to write the story out entirely (as opposed to just notes), as they wanted to read from this when they re-told it. In the spirit of investigating uses of reading aloud in class, I let them try it. So in fact, I can’t take credit for this part of the experiment – some of the students chose to do this themselves before they were re-paired to re-tell their stories.
I noticed while monitoring that they had written their story down in about 5-6 sentences, and were taking turns to each read a sentence aloud to the rest of their group. I assumed that, as they’d chosen to do this themselves, they must like this kind of reading aloud. But in feedback at the end of the lesson, they said they weren’t that bothered (!). They liked working in small groups, but they were ambivalent about the reading aloud part. Most of the students said that, given the choice, they wouldn’t mind either way if they did or didn’t read their stories aloud within their groups as a kind of rehearsal before sharing them with others. Hmmm.
Activity 4: reading aloud the story that they’d created (i.e. the final presentation of their creation to other students).
This followed on from Activity 3. Again, I can’t really take credit for devising this part of the experiment, as the students did it of their own volition. But I was interested to see that they were choosing to read aloud, rather than tell their stories from memory (as I would normally encourage them to do – this was intended as a speaking activity, after all). I was even more interested to hear, during feedback on the various reading aloud experimental activities, that most of them they said they didn’t like doing this! Only two students liked it, and one student said she liked reading out her own story, but didn’t like listening to the others doing it (well, at least she’s honest!). So go figure. Do students themselves know what’s best for them? I wonder. They say one thing and do another!
Some other general comments from the feedback session – they don’t tend to like listening to other students reading aloud because, frankly, it bores them. What’s more, they don’t like listening to each other’s ‘different’ (read: crap – but they were trying to be polite) pronunciation of English. If they have to listen to anyone speaking at length or reading aloud from a text, they prefer it to be a native speaker. I’m not saying I agree with or promote this view, but this kind of prejudice is quite common amongst many of my students, and I can’t say I entirely blame them if they’ve deliberately travelled a long way to be in a native English-speaking country and they want to have as much exposure to native accents as possible.
Now, these results were from just one class. This particular group of students are upper-intermediate, there are 8-9 in the class, and they’re from a mixture of cultural, national and linguistic backgrounds (Japanese, Thai, Russian, Turkish and Chinese). I’d be interested to see what other students at other levels and from different language backgrounds thought. Perhaps I’ll do another experiment one day…
*I borrowed the idea for this activity from a past French teacher of mine, who did this with us in class now and again and we really enjoyed it, despite it being quite difficult. It’s quite an intensive activity, can take a long time (upwards of 30 minutes for all 4 stages), and encourages really close attention to every small detail of what they hear, which I actually usually avoid in favour of promoting more holistic understanding and working things out from context. Students can find it incredibly difficult to catch all the mistakes/missing words, so I don’t do it very often as I prefer to focus on what they do know and can do rather than what they don’t/can’t; but they do usually really like the challenge and enjoy the feeling that they’ve really given their brains a good workout!