Should high school English teachers read aloud to their students or play audio recordings to them?
Over the past several years, this practice has insinuated itself, Justin Bieber-like, into our consciousness. It seems to be showing up everywhere and it can be very annoying.
Reading aloud to older students definitely has a place, and yet it depends upon the purpose. I know many teachers use it like a crutch, reading to kids rather than requiring them to do their own reading. It is easier that way, of course, but it doesn’t accomplish some major instructional purposes.
Thus, if the purpose is to ensure that students know Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” as a cultural touchstone (“ooh, that’s the one where the guy gets bricked up in the wall”), then reading it to the kids should accomplish that. Or, you could just show an old Vincent Price movie.
The problem, however, is that English teachers need to teach students to read that kind of text themselves, and make sense of it. The hope is that if students build the ability to read and interpret such texts that they will be able to do so later in college and in the workplace (though it would be a pretty strange workplace that wants you to interpret dramatic irony in an account of a homicide).
The problem is that students won’t build that ability from being read to. They need to engage the texts themselves.
But, just because I think the practice is misused by teachers, that doesn’t mean it should be banned. What are some good purposes for oral reading in secondary English?
Here are a few:
1. Teacher reading (or the use of audio recordings) can provide a model of what a text should sound like. Thus, if my students were still building oral fluency, I might have them listen to a portion of the text, and then try to make it sound the same way themselves. Such modeling can play a useful role in fluency practice, even with older students.
2. There are times when the point is simply to convey information. Oral sharing of a text can be a practical way to accomplish that.
3. We are responsible for building students’ oral language as well as written. It can be very useful to listen to the sound of the language for a particular text. Eudora Welty wrote about how important reading aloud was for her in learning to write and in appreciating the texts of others. Occasionally demonstrating this power to kids can be a great idea (though she engaged in it herself—and your kids should, too).
4. Sometimes we have to balance efficiency with our instructional purposes. Teachers sometimes use their oral reading to speed things along, to focus attention or motivation, and to make a lesson fit the schedule. For example, a teacher may have the students reading and discussing a text for the first 40 minutes of class, but is not getting as far as she hoped. Consequently, she reads the next section of the text to everyone to complete the chapter before the bell rings. Or, in another case, the teacher reads the first 2-3 pages of a story to the students to set the stage, and then turns the rest of the reading over to them.
Nothing wrong with those practices if they don’t displace too much student reading. Unfortunately, in my experience, such reading tends to be used because the kids are finding the text to be difficult or don’t want to read it.
Last week, I was teaching a high school English class myself. I had the students read an essay, and was questioning them—and not getting very far, I must admit. At some point, I asked one young man a question about what the author said, and he gave a dopey answer. It was evident he hadn’t actually done the reading. He either didn’t read it or he read it badly. It was tempting to just stop there and read the essay to them to move things along, but instead I said, “You guys didn’t get it. Read it again.” It was amazing how the tenor of the class changed at that point, and in retrospect I’m sure glad I didn’t read it to them.
Oral sharing and video and audio presentations have their place in the high school English curriculum. But it is a small place, so teachers need to be honest with themselves as to why they are using it. I think one way to protect against the weak uses of it would be to simply set an arbitrary percentage of English class that will be devoted to student reading (perhaps 40% or 50%--the teacher might decide that if there are 250 minutes of class time per week, then students should spend 100 minutes per week reading—not discussing, not listening to others read, not writing, not waiting, just reading stories, poems, essays, literary nonfiction, etc.