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What's The Point of Reading Out Loud in ESL/EFL?
The Thin Line Between Skill-Building and Irrelevance

In his remarks below, John Harbord, now living in Hungary, responds to a few recent exchanges from the TESL-L listserv about the efficacy of reading aloud in ESL/EFL classrooms. See also related articles on rethinking the bias against reading out loud as well as suggested lessons incorporating the activity.

There has been discussion on the TESL list recently about reading aloud as a means to oral proficiency. I think one poster has hit on the first question I would raise when he says: "Remember, the objective is not to read correctly but to talk correctly. One might legitimately ask, 'why are we reading and not talking then?'"

I must clarify first of all that I don't think that reading aloud is an utter waste of time, especially if one gets students to read drama or other things that were meant to be read aloud. I also concede that students might benefit from a certain amount of reading aloud in their own time, for themselves, in order to get a feel for the sound and rhythm of the language. What frequently underlies an emphasis on reading aloud as a step to oral proficiency, however, (and this is standard practice in very large parts of the world) is a fundamental misconception of the skills required to be able to hold a conversation. Clearly one very important skill is the mastery of the sound system of English, together with the system of intonation and stress, all of which contribute to making a speaker understandable. Here, reading aloud might possibly be of help.

These are only the basic level skills, however. What the speaker needs on top of this is practice in interacting with other speakers, in turn taking, and in responding quickly to a question or a response. Reading aloud will not give this practice because it is not interactive, and because what is said is prescribed in advance.

Learners also need practice in communicating a message and being able to see how effectively this message gets across. This skill requires they should know the message at the start but not the exact wording. When we read aloud, the message is not composed by us, nor can we get feedback on anything other than how well we have pronounced the sounds. The only time when reading aloud contains a communicative element is when the learner has written the text herself with a communicative purpose in mind and has not yet shown it to the teacher - a common technique in writing teaching. Closely connected to the skill of communication of a message are the criteria of fluency and accuracy: how smoothly can the learner put together a message on the spot, and how accurately can he manipulate the grammar as he does so? Clearly, with reading aloud, as no message is being composed, neither of these criteria can be assessed. A further skill that most oral exams assess is breadth of vocabulary: whether the learner can use a range of words to express sophisticated meanings on more abstract topics. Again, this skill is not practised at all in reading aloud.

In short, as reading aloud practises only a very small part of the skills of speaking, it should take up very little time in the lesson, whether with groups or one-to-one. My personal experience of language learning and teaching is that while reading aloud - a sophisticated skill that few master well, even in their mother tongue - can help with certain aspects of pronunciation, equally good pronunciation can be achieved without reading aloud at all.

I am particularly uncomfortable about another poster's description of a situation in class where "The initial reader is not expected to understand what he or she just read, but the other members of the class are." My (German) girlfriend and I frequently experience a similar situation when she picks up the (Hungarian) cinema guide for the week and says 'listen, this might be a good film. What's it about?...' She is capable, with a certain amount of stumbling, of reading a synopsis of the film to me in Hungarian that she doesn't understand more than 20% of, and at the end I will tell her the meaning of what she has read. This is all very well, and it affords us a degree of amusement at times, but I'm not so sure it is an effective EFL classroom technique. Somehow I am deeply unsettled about the idea of an activity where the student is not intended to understand what they are reading. Good reading aloud requires an understanding of the text, that the text has been read before and that it has been rehearsed, both subvocally and aloud. It is also not clear to me what benefit the listening students get from hearing the text which they themselves have in front of them, and according to the poster can understand anyway, being stumbled through by one of their peers who does not understand it.

If we assume for the moment that reading aloud is a good thing and it does have positive effects, wouldn't it be much more enjoyable, confidence building and sensible for students to read aloud texts that they did understand - texts that were meant for reading aloud, such as dialogues, drama and short speeches? The syntax of written texts is more complex than that of spoken language and forcing students to read aloud something that was not written to be read aloud is setting them up for failure. In many (sadly not all) parts of the world, texts (pieces of writing, not textbooks) are cheap and available enough that one does not have to squeeze every last drop of use out of them, one can have say a newspaper article for reading comprehension and a bit of drama for pronunciation practice. Isn't this at least a partial solution?

By the way, I think my girlfriend would agree that her Hungarian is not improving, in spite of her reading aloud...

Reported by John Harbord, CEU

2002 ESL MiniConference Online