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I am seeking your advice based on the email correspondence below that I have had with my principal. She noted that I was practicing “round robin reading” on a classroom observation. Upon asking her to remove it (since it was not what I was doing), I realized that she doesn’t entirely understand what that practice looks like. I gather from her response that she is only interested in the teacher modeling expert reading and students not reading aloud in the classroom at all. I personally believe that there is a place in the classroom for students to read aloud. 

During the lesson we are speaking of I read aloud an excerpt of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I chunked the reading with questions and discussion in between parts. I did ask for volunteers to read some parts and several students did volunteer. I teach gifted language arts. The majority of my students are proficient in reading and enjoy reading aloud. I never force them to read aloud though.

If you would please, could you read the correspondence below and let me know your thoughts about students reading aloud in the classroom.

I agree that oral reading has a place, and perhaps an important place in classrooms even at Middle School.

Oral reading fluency is important because of the role it plays in reading comprehension. With primary grade readers (grade 2), about 70% of the variation in reading comprehension is due to variance in fluency. That is, if we could take away the variation in fluency by bringing those with lower fluency up to the same levels as the most fluent readers, 70% of the differences in reading comprehension would go away. That’s why studies show that teaching oral fluency effectively improves reading comprehension (NICHD, 2002).

However, the importance of fluency diminishes over time. This isn’t because fluency stops mattering, but that more and more students reach the needed levels of fluency. There is a ceiling on fluency — generally someone who can read 125 wcpm (words correct per minute) is a better reader than someone who reads at 100 wcpm. However, by the time you get to 150-175 wcpm it is difficult to do any better than that (we can only speak so fast), and improving on that doesn’t seem to help. What that means is that by 8th grade, oral reading fluency only explains about 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. That is obviously a much lower payoff than for younger kids, and yet, it is 25% — which is a big deal.

I would definitely have kids practicing oral reading in the middle school grades, at least if they were below the grade levels norms in fluency because I want them to get that comprehension pay off. The problem in your case is that you indicate these to be advanced readers. There is a very real chance that they can already read fluently, and more practice probably would not benefit them (though I would test them rather than asserting that). One reason for engaging good readers in oral reading is to meet the special demands of historical texts like the one you were working with or Shakespeare. The reason for that is that the language patterns can be so complex and archaic that reading the material aloud can aid in figuring it out (I do that myself). But it doesn’t sound like your lesson was very strategic in that regard.

We do know how to teach oral reading fluency successfully. What works? The various meta-analyses show oral reading practice with challenging text (e.g., frustration level), with feedback (e.g., from a teacher, parent, volunteer, other students, computers), and with rereading improves fluency and comprehension. There are now a couple of studies indicating that it is possible to do this with silent reading too, but those focused on computer-delivered instruction that allowed monitored in a way teachers could do on their own. There are lots of effective methods (e.g., paired reading, repeated reading, echo reading, neurological impress, Radio Reading) as well as various programs that work (e.g., Read Naturally). Modeling helps, such as having someone show the student what oral reading should sound like — which wouldn’t make much sense in your case, or, reading a short portion of the text to the student, and then having then trying to read it themselves — which might make sense, though your description makes me doubt it. In some studies, modeling was a planned part of the intervention, but the way I’ve usually used it is when a student has attempted a read unsuccessfully — I would then read a portion and have have him/her try again. That almost always helps.

Round robin reading refers to one student reading while everyone else listens. Which is what your letter describes. It is not that the oral reading practice round robin provides is so bad, but that there is so little practice in it. Round robin is terribly inefficient. The person who is learning during round robin is the reader — which means 25 other kids are sitting there waiting for their turn. In a middle school in which classes might last only for 45 minutes or 50 minutes, this would be a terrible waste of time, especially if they were already good readers. While I encourage, and even require, oral reading instruction in the middle school, I would never countenance round robin. If you have your students engaged in an activity like paired reading, students would get much more reading time for the same amount of class time. However, if the point was trying to make sense of the text, I would encourage you to work with silent reading — including silent reading of short parts as you describe.

If your students can’t read 8th grade material at 150-175 wcpm making it sound like English, then it is legitimate to engage them in oral reading instruction. If one student is reading, and everyone else is listening, then we’re not on the same page. If multiple kids are engaged in the process (in echo reading, everyone reads at the same time; in paired reading, kids take turns). Activities like Reader’s Theatre can be okay, but they should be used no more than occasionally because in some ways it is like round robin — kids wait around too much.

Instead of you doing the reading as in this lesson, I’d encourage you to have the students try to read it silently. If they have difficulty making sense of it, I would definitely show them how to use oral reading (or whisper reading) as a tool to make sense of those complicated 19th century sentences. Sorry, in this one, I agree with the principal.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
April 27, 2015