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 experience reading anxiety when asked to read out loud.
Why does this fact matter? For one, we want students to love reading! Many teens don’t bat an eye when asked to read in front of the class. Still, when some students are called on to read out loud, the fight or flight response kicks in. Along with it might come some physical manifestations (shortness of breath, flushed face, etc.), which could be obvious to peers. Plus, if a student is truly nervous about reading on the spot, he or she is most likely not comprehending the text.
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.
Just ask students whether they have reading anxiety – privately, of course. 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 fluency are the ones who want to read the most. The problem is that when someone who has fluency issues pushes through a text, it’s difficult for everyone else to follow along.
If you’ve created the culture.
Perhaps you’ve worked hard to create a culture in which all students truly feel comfortable reading out loud. Many students in reading workshop style classrooms who regularly share reading in small groups, one-on-one with the teacher, and in larger settings are used to it. When students are surrounded by an environment in which everyone shares reading and all readers are respected by their peers, reading anxiety is less likely to be an issue.
There are better alternatives to calling on students to read out loud. These approaches can put students with reading anxiety at ease.
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.
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.
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. Here are some additional strategies for improving fluency with older students.
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 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 not to call randomly on them as a method of accountability. We need to be empathetic toward students who have reading anxiety.