Are read-alongs (round robin, popcorn) a good idea?

  • Silent reading Oral Reading Fluency
  • 19 November, 2017

Teacher question:

  I'm a UK teacher; we use read-along here a lot (the teacher or pupils read a text to the whole class while the other pupils follow in their own text). There is a growing concern that this is ineffective for several reasons. Chief at the moment is that reading and listening simultaneously has a higher cognitive load than either independent reading or listening alone. What do you recommend?

Shanahan response:

The practice of having students read-along as you describe is often referred to with what is now a pejorative term, “round robin.” That term originally comes from the UK, so perhaps its pedagogical misuse starts there too (yeah, blame the Brits).

  Back in the day, when sailors had a complaint, they’d sign a circular instrument so that no one could tell who signed first. These days anything that operates in a rotational manner may be referred to as round robin, including the practice of reading aloud in turn.

  When I was a boy that meant 50 turns, since there were usually about 50 kids in a class. And that reading was really done in turns… thus, if you were the 7th child in the row you knew you were to read the 7th paragraph.

  Many American teachers have gotten it into their heads that the problem with this pedagogy was its predictability. Let’s face it. It was the dull child, indeed, who wasn’t counting kids and paragraphs to try to get in some quick practice prior to one’s turn (rather than following along). As a result, they replace the set turns with “popcorn” (in which, the kids pick their friends—or foes—to do the next reading), or by choosing randomly among ice lolly (popsicle) sticks on which are written the kids’ names.

  But as your question points out, that isn’t the real problem.

  Let’s just say that read-along practice is ubiquitous in the USA as well and that it is not well supported by empirical research.

  A handful of studies shows deleterious impacts on the reading eye movements of students—that is on the reading of the kids who are trying to follow along (Gilbert, 1940 and 1949), and upon reading comprehension (Anderson & Wilkerson, 1988; Durkin, 1993; Lynch, 1988). The latter seems to be due distracting attention from text meaning; this might be the “cognitive load” issue that you mention.

  Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been and continue to be a big fan of oral reading practice throughout the grades. It is just that oral reading practice should not be a spectator sport. Instead of one child practicing oral reading at a time—with everyone else watching—engaging students in activities like paired reading (in which, taking turns, one student reads aloud and the other listens and helps) are much more effective.

  Similarly, the practice of “reading aloud while listening,” having students trying to match an oral reading simultaneously can be effective in building fluency (if the oral model is slow enough), at least at early levels of reading development. But in that practice, everyone is engaged in oral reading, all at the same time.

  I oppose round robin reading less because of the supposed harm that it does to reading ability, but because of its lack of support for developing oral reading fluency.

  Think of it this way: if every child were given a one-minute opportunity to read to the group everyday—say 30 minutes of read-along, that would provide each child about 3 hours of oral reading practice each year. That modest amount of practice doesn't a good reader make. If instead, the teacher set aside that same amount of time for paired reading, each child would get about 45 hours of practice each year (and reading while listening would provide even more); obviously better choices.

  Oral reading practice of that kind needs to include not just reading, but re-reading, and such re-reading is very uncommon in read-alongs. The benefit of all of that reading and rereading is that, for most kids, word recognition and silent reading comprehension tend to improve (NICHD, 2000; Stahl & Kuhn, 2002).

  Similarly, it is very reasonable, during reading discussions, to require readers to read some portions of a text aloud—to provide evidence supporting their claims about the text. This kind of activity gives kids practice locating information and using evidence.

  But you’re not talking about a regimen of daily oral reading practice or the kind of sporadic reading aloud to prove a point that I just described.

  Read alongs are used to get the group or class through a science book or literature anthology (“soldiering on,” as you might describe it). It tends to be used, less to try to teach, and more for classroom control (teachers are worried about what happens when some kids finish the silent reading before others—so silent reading for comprehension scares them a bit).

  Beyond beginning readers (first-year readers are notorious for their inability to read silently), reading comprehension work should take place silently. Not only would I guarantee 30-minutes per day of oral reading practice, but a similar investment in time should be made in reading texts silently to try to understand and learn what they say.

  Such reading should be followed by discussion and writing about the texts.

  Increasingly, to ensure that everyone is getting it from silent reading, I prefer reading discussions that allow for multiple responses. If you ask a question like, “Who was home when Goldilocks arrived?” instead of having one child blurt out the answer—obscuring the fact that a dozen classmates had not a clue, it is better to either have everybody writing the answer on their whiteboards (so teacher can see who is in the tall grass and can require rereading or provide some other helpful guidance).

  Or, perhaps the teacher might accept the “nobody” answer aloud from one child, but then require that everyone find the place where that fact is revealed. Again, improving individual monitoring without slowing the proceedings down much.

  Oral reading practices that help students to become better readers definitely should have a place in your classrooms. But none of those practices justify the read-alongs that you describe. Your teachers could do much better for their students; it is weak and ineffective pedagogy—and, perhaps, even dangerous to kids’ reading.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Nov 19, 2017 05:11 PM

Round robin is an awful, awful, awful way to "practice reading" or to teach content. I work with reading disordered students and they invariably talk about what a nightmare it is to be the kid who has to be told the words by the teacher (as there is no incentive to try to decode-we need to keep moving!). While looking ahead to count for their turn, they are unable to pay attention to the content. Also, letting all your classmates hear that you are not a proficient reader is appalling on many levels. We don't become better readers this way. Besides, if you have ever watched a class doing round robin, you may see a few kids following along, but most are not paying attention because 1. they can't hear or 2. the reading is less than engaging. No learning happening. I consider it a very lazy way to teach, frankly. It leaves no one better educated and some are left traumatized. It should be outlawed.

Sharon Brittingham
Nov 19, 2017 11:22 PM

I hated round robin reading as a student, as a teacher and a principal. While I don’t see it as much in Elementary it is still pervasive in high school.

Nov 20, 2017 04:12 PM

I do agree with the above comments. However, is there ever a place where the practice is acceptable? I teach small groups of lower elementary children and we do a daily choral reading, and partner reading, and independent whisper reading with whisper phones. Sometimes after we have much practice with it, we may read it round robin. This is 3 or 4 kids in a small group who are showing off their fluency for the others as we have gotten away from our beginning robot reading. Sometimes we chorally read a page and let a "reader leader" read the page by themselves. We go to the next page and read it chorally and ask for another "reader leader'. Children follow along to help out their friend if they get stuck on a word. They rarely do because it is a practiced text. Do I need to eliminate this practice? I think novelty has a place. Sometimes we record a few pages for See Saw for parents to listen to as well. This is done individually.

I work hard to develop a warm, inviting reading room. We have a new growth mindset mantra we recite.

Tim Shanahan
Nov 22, 2017 05:15 AM

Novelty has a place... but the amount of choral reading (daily) is neither novel nor particularly constructive and the same can be said about the round robin part of this. The partner reading and whisper reading are fine if they include text that is challenging enough and if there is going to be sufficient rereading to get good at it. You’ve worked out a comfortable routine, now try to tweak it to help these kids to learn more... do you have daily silent reading with discussion and writing about the texts? Are the kids orally reading texts that initially would be frustration level to the point that they could read them well? Is there sufficient vocabulary overlap between the texts the kids are reading so that the oral practice would eventually ,read to better reAding?

Savannah Porter
Jan 18, 2018 10:06 PM

I am most familiar with read aloud being referred to as popcorn reading, for the sake of my comment I will refer to read alouds as popcorn reading. I am a self-contained special education teacher, serving students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. I absolutely love my students but I am not in touch with many issues found in the general education setting. However, I think it is important as an educator to be informed on instructional methodology across content areas. As a special educator, I am not pro-popcorn reading. I think that popcorn reading discourages slower or less confident readers; also, it can embarrass the lower level students. In addition, I do not feel that reading aloud helps increase comprehension. Not all students will read the passage correctly or at an appropriate pace, it is difficult to comprehend the meaning a text when the learner is focusing on understanding what the reader is saying. In an ideal world, every child would have exceptional oral fluency skills and could read aloud with confidence and without hesitation. This not where we are! I was an honors level student through my entire school career, being a special educator has shifted my perspective on so many issues. I no longer get annoyed by the slower readers but strive to help them and foster a love for reading. I read to my students every day, I think that fostering a love for literature is far more important than having students read aloud. In summary, popcorn reading does not foster a love for literature but discourages lower level readers.

Emily Lewis
Jan 19, 2018 01:30 PM

Thinking back on my days in school, I remember doing the most round robin reading in high school. This always baffled me since most, if not all, students in my class knew how to read at this point. Anytime we had round robin we would all sit there with our finger on the paragraph we were supposed to read, causing us not to pay attention to any of the literature before our turn. After our turn we would typically zone out, knowing our job was done. While I think it is still important for students to read together and share thoughts in the high school setting, I do not believe read aloud is an appropriate way to do that. I enjoyed the other suggestions you made in this post such as silent reading or partner reading. Partner reading is a great way for struggling readers to get practice with a peer without being humiliated in front of the entire class.

Jan 20, 2018 07:02 PM

When I first began teaching, I used the round robin method a lot. As the years have progressed, I have gone to much more partner and or small group reading. The partners/groups will complete an echo reading the first time the text is read and a choral reading the second time the text is read. For the echo read, I will designate a leader of the pair or group and that person will read a portion of the text first. After the leader has read the selection, the other(s) will read the same selection trying to imitate the speed and emotion of the first reader. The second time the text is read, all readers will read at the same time. I have seen tremendous growth in the reading fluency scores for many of my students. One student, a rising eighth grader that I was tutoring, came to me reading roughly 80 words per minute. By December, he was reading approximately 150 words per minute. I have seen great growth in the students I teach in the classroom as well.

I also use SSR in my classroom. Students get to bring in any reading material that they want and read independently for 15 minutes and add an entry to their reading log. I know you said a full 30 minutes, but I think I will have to progress to that.

What Are your thoughts?

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Are read-alongs (round robin, popcorn) a good idea?


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