How often in your daily life do you read aloud? Unless you have small children, the answer is probably “not often”. For most of us, the vast majority of the oral reading we did was back in the early years of elementary school, when we were still learning to read. At that stage, it was important to read aloud in order for teachers to grasp our strengths and deficits as developing readers. With this information, they could provide the assistance needed to address the issues preventing fluent reading.
As we grow older, and the mechanics of reading are presumed to have been mastered, reading is assessed through comprehension. We read a passage, and then answer questions to demonstrate that we have read well. Assessing comprehension can alert teachers to reading problems, but it cannot shed much light on the nature of the problems. In other words, while teachers might know that their students are not reading well, with only comprehension scores to go on, they are none the wiser as to why.
Is learning to read in a second language different?
In most cases, second language reading develops sometime after native language literacy has been established. Those who are learning to read in a second language are doing so at a later age (sometimes in adolescence or even adulthood). For this reason, oral reading is often by-passed. The assumption is that the skills developed while learning to read in the native language will transfer to the new language. Problems (if there are any) will be due to insufficient vocabulary or limited understanding of grammar. Although this may be true in many cases, without an attempt to observe the act of reading, it remains speculation.
Much like listening (the other receptive language skill), reading is difficult to observe. Although not a perfect representation of what occurs during silent reading, oral reading has the advantage of being observable. Issues can be identified, problems diagnosed, interventions offered that, if appropriate, can facilitate the development of fluent reading. Given the known benefits of oral reading, it’s strange that what’s readily offered to first language readers is considered inappropriate for language learners grappling with the complexity of learning to read.
Oral reading probes can provide language teachers with vital information about the reading skills and phonological awareness of their learners. In the case of English, the correspondence between sounds and how they are represented by letters is weak and inconsistent. This can prevent learners from recognizing the written form of words that are familiar through speaking and listening (and vice versa). Reading texts aloud and hearing texts read aloud creates a feedback loop that benefits reading, listening, and pronunciation.
When regular oral reading is added to a program of study, the boundaries between the four skills (listening, reading, speaking, writing) begin to break down. Consider the following sequence of tasks: 1) listen to a reading of a text in the target language, 2) listen again and complete a fill in the blanks activity, 3) view the text while listening to a model reading 4) speak the words from the text along with the model (shadowing), 5) record an oral reading of the text, 6) listen to the recording and reflect on pronunciation and intonation.
Many language teachers dismiss reading aloud, questioning it’s benefits and relevance. However, most learners exposed to the practice come to value it as helpful to their overall language development, not only their reading. Perhaps those who are opposed to it imagine a teacher listening with a critical ear, waiting to pounce upon any error the student makes. In reality, the benefits of reading aloud can be reaped without direct supervision from a teacher. Providing recordings of model readings and asking the students to practice them before recording themselves is a good example of this.
How can I get started with oral reading?
There are a number of options available to help get your students reading aloud. The first thing to consider is the texts themselves. You will need abundant, level-appropriate texts for your learners to work with. If you don’t have access to appropriate reading materials, a quick internet search will throw up plenty of options. (Personally, I’ve found the IRCMS – Printable Forms available from North Carolina State University’s College of Education to be particularly useful).
Once you’ve sourced your reading passages, you will need to provide a model for the students to follow and figure out a way for them to record and send the files back to you. Record MP3 Online is a free service that meets all of these needs. Teachers who make an account are given access to an audio assignment workbench called “My Audio Folder”. Here you can record a model reading and distribute it to your students as a link. You can also generate a public link that enables your students to record. The resulting files will appear in your “My Audio Folder” without the students having to do anything! Watch this video for a summary of the process.
Poodll Net (free accounts also available) features a more advanced oral reading application, ReadAloud. In addition to automatically scoring student reading, ReadAloud features preview and practice modes that provide models of appropriate pronunciation and opportunities to rehearse. You will still require reading passages, but once these have been entered, ReadAloud’s AI automates the entire task sequence. Watch this video for more information on how ReadAloud works.
Why not start a program of oral reading with your language students? You can sign-up for a free account at Record MP3 Online, by filling this form, and following the instructions in the email. For a free Poodll Net account, sign up here, and we’ll get started building your course.