Are you in tune with your students’ phobias? The fear of snakes, the fear of spiders, the fear of dark places, the fear of small spaces….the fear of reading out loud. Do you have any students with this last one? It’s easy to overlook phobias when we ourselves aren’t susceptible to the same triggers. More students than you might realize suffer from severe anxiety when they are asked to read out loud.
Why does this fact matter? For one, we don’t want students to hate reading. When some students are asked to read out loud, the fight or flight response kicks in. They may experience shortness of breath, perspiration, chalky mouth, shaky voice, or flushed face. These physical manifestations are often obvious to peers. Many teenagers are already lacking self-confidence. Adding teasing about reading in class to their list of worries only serves to make reading in general a negative experience.
Plus, if a student is truly that nervous about reading on the spot, he or she is most likely not comprehending a word they are reading. Combine the noticeable physical side effects of their anxiety with the possibility for fluency issues, and their peers are probably not understanding the text either.
Traditional strategies for reading novels and short stories involve popcorn reading, combat reading, popsicle-stick reading, and touch-and-go reading, among other round-robin techniques, but they are not the most effective ways of reading a text or creating a safe classroom culture. It’s not that teachers should never ask students to read out loud. We just need to be purposeful in doing so.
WHEN IS IT OKAY TO ASK STUDENTS TO READ OUT LOUD?
After you’ve assessed students’ comfort levels. At the beginning of the year, I always ask students about their comfort level with reading out loud (in a written survey format). It looks something like this:
I want to make sure your experience in this classroom is safe and enjoyable. Please rate your comfort level with reading out loud to the class below. All responses will be kept confidential.
- I love reading out loud. Please feel free to call on me any time.
- I am indifferent. I don’t mind reading out loud, but I probably won’t jump out of my seat. You can call on me.
- It depends on what mood I’m in. Some days I’m okay with it. Others, I’d rather pass.
- No. Reading out loud terrifies me. Please don’t call on me.
- Other: __________________________________________
Collecting students’ answers to this question will help you to have reliable names in mind when you want someone to read on the spot.
If students have had time to practice. If reading out loud is part of your classroom culture, or if it’s an important part of your approach to teaching and learning, you can give students the information the day before. Assign everyone a certain portion, and let them go home to practice it. This way, they will comprehend what they are reading, and they can rehearse outside of class to help deal with the jitters.
When you’ve asked for volunteers. I’ll often ask for volunteers to help me read a lengthy piece. Changing speakers can help students refocus if they’ve zoned out. As a cautionary tale, make sure to know your readers pretty well. I’ve found that occasionally, students who truly struggle with reading out loud are the ones who want to read the most. The problem is that when someone who has fluency issues struggles through a text, it’s difficult for everyone else to follow along.
There are better alternatives to calling on students to read out loud.
For example, if your students have just written an essay and you’d like them to share their research, you can offer differentiated options to do so. Sure, reading the essay might be one of the choices, but informal group presentations, student-created videos or documentaries, and crafted projects can be safe alternatives that allow students to share their findings without the stress of reading out loud.
Perhaps students can listen to audiotapes. Many short stories have audio versions available online. In the past, I’ve created simple audio files myself to avoid having to read and reread the same article or story six times a day.
Reading in partners or groups can lessen the intensity because the number of individuals listening is reduced. Students can take turns reading a paragraph or a page. I usually allow each group to determine the length. Watch out for the clever ones who try to alternate words.
Reading together. If you want your students to practice fluency, you can read the passage together as a class. This approach works best if the passage is shorter. It helps students to feel the cadence of good reading technique.
Teacher reading and modeling. The best way for students to become better readers themselves is to hear good reading. Even high school students benefit from this approach. If you’d like your students to participate and read as well, you can modify the teacher read by adding an “echo” activity where you read a sentence, and the class mimics you, focusing on your intonations, pronunciations, and pacing.
Regardless of your approach, if only one student is reading out loud, it helps to have the other students engaged as well. Keep them busy thinking about comprehension and less worried about looking around and making faces. Ask students to focus on finding the answer to a thoughtful question, or have them write down a couple of their own. Annotation is a possibility as well.
Let’s make reading a positive experience for students by providing them a safe and understanding environment. It’s okay to push students a little outside of their comfort zones, but driving them to the point of fear and shame is not a winning situation for anyone. Do you have favorite strategies for handling reading out loud? Please share them with us in the comments.