Should We Read to High School Students?

  • 01 February, 2015

Blast from the Past: This entry first posted on February 1, 2015 and was reposted on May 17, 2018. This week on Twitter, Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English challenged the practice of high school teachers reading books to students. She rightly criticized the practice, pointing out the importance of having students do the reading. Her thoughtful comment reminded me of this still timely blog posting.

Teacher question:

            Should high school English teachers read aloud to their students or play audio recordings to them?

Shanahan response:

            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 small place, and its appropriateness depends upon the purpose. 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 our major instructional purposes. 

            If the idea 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.

            But how often is that the purpose? 

            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. (And, reading whole books to kids in those grades is just plain foolish.)

            While too often the practice is misused by teachers, but that doesn’t mean “no teacher reading.”

            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. If my students were still building oral fluency, I might have them listen to a small 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 (like an announcement from the school office). Oral sharing of a text can be a practical way to accomplish that.

            3.    We’re responsible for building students’ reading and oral language. It can be useful to have them listen to the sound of the language for a particular text (like what a Shakespeare play or a Longfellow poem ought to sound like). 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 herself did the reading—and your kids should, too). 

            4.    Sometimes we have to balance efficiency with our instructional purposes. Teachers may use their own oral reading to speed things along, 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 had hoped. Consequently, she reads the next section to everyone just 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 text over to them.

            Nothing wrong with any of those practices since none of them would displace much student reading. Unfortunately, teacher reading tends to be used because the kids are finding the text 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 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 that class changed, 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 those approaches.

            One way to protect against the weak uses of it would be to establish an arbitrary percentage of English class to be devoted to student reading (perhaps 40% or 50%–the teacher might decide that over five 50-minute instructional periods, the students will spend 100 minutes reading—not discussing, not listening to others read, not writing, not waiting, just reading the stories, poems, essays, literary nonfiction, and so on that are to be discussed and written about by the class.

            Teachers should not read the books to their English classes in middle school and high school.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 04:24 PM


I came on here to ask this exact question about 5th and 6th grade students. I am a literacy coach in a high poverty area with many struggling readers. Many of my teachers don't believe that their students can even attempt to make meaning of grade level text on their own and have the chapters read to the students through audio books and such. Most of the time, the students are not even focused or paying attention to the audio book. Do you feel like this post would have the same applications for those grade levels? Thank you so much.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 04:24 PM



Yes, what I said for high schoolers is even truer as you work down the grades. It is crucial that kids do their own reading. I'm not talking about just turning them loose on a book, but guiding them (e.g., preteaching vocabulary), scaffolding (e.g., showing them how to make sense of the information), and monitoring them (e.g., asking questions to make sure they are understanding the text). Those teachers are not helping kids to learn to read--they are holding them back.

Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 04:25 PM

These are very important points to consider. I'm wondering what you think about students who have been identified as having a reading disability/dyslexia and who struggle with decoding accuracy/automaticity. There are many advocates of allowing and encouraging the use of text-to-speech and audiobooks and some organizations such as Bookshare and Learning Ally that provide great resources. What do you think teachers and parents need to consider as far as the balance of remediation and accommodation for these kids? And do you think there's a difference between an adult reading out loud, text-to speech, audiobook, etc.?

Also, I've heard the assertion that in general people's reading comprehension is better than their listening comprehension. Any good studies of this in typical readers?

Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 04:25 PM


This issue of reading something to students as an accommodation is a very difficult one. If a student is trying to learn social studies, and he/she has a disability, so they want to use an audiobook with the student to make the info accessible (to not allow them to miss out on the info). However, what i see happening in far too many cases, is the accommodation is made during reading class. That means when the students should be reading they are getting out of it because they have a disability. That's like not using Braille because a student is blind.

Donna Miller May 17, 2018 12:46 PM

What do you think about support English language learners? We often use some of these techniques, but I really think it is important for them to interact more with the text.

Connie May 17, 2018 05:33 PM

I still read picture books to my adult children .... I know that's not what you meant but I just had to add that. It's still good bonding time. :)

Anonymous Feb 22, 2022 04:41 PM

I really appreciate the anonymously posted question from February 13, 2015 (and your response). Seven years after this question was asked, I'm still finding this challenging. There is enormous pressure on teachers to provide accommodations to students who have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities, gaps in their learning due to attendance issues, etc. Often this fits under the umbrella of inclusion, and I'm often told this is easily solved if I just implement universal design for learning. The problem is, I don't know what this looks like when it comes to reading.

If we are reading a text in class that is significantly beyond a student's reading level, how do we accommodate that student while still having them reading? Does it make more sense to have that student read a different text or to provide access to audio text so that they are still engaging with the same text as their peers? It's often suggested to me that students should just all read their own, self-selected texts, but I think you've already demonstrated the failings of that approach.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 22, 2022 07:43 PM

Your response has to depend upon the amount of demand and the amount of resources and the purpose. For example, if the student is suppose to be learning science in your classroom, then having the student listening to the science text may be very reasonable. However, if the purpose is to improve the students' reading that approach is dopey. Or, if a student is reading 4-5 years below level, many teaching situations would allow you to scaffold this situation -- by having the student read the text in small parts -- a paragraph at a time perhaps -- and then discussing, rereading, etc. But what if the student reads more like a first grader than a 10th grader? Then you might have to shift to texts that the student can read to a greater extent. Or, what if that low reading student is the only really low reader in a class -- how much can the teacher do for that student, given the need to address everyone else's needs. The further behind a student is the more support he/she will need -- and that typically means being in a "special education" setting rather than a regular classroom. There is not question the issue is not simple.


Anonymous Sep 04, 2022 02:59 PM

With regard to Anonymous of Feb 22, 2022, and Mr. Shanahan's response, I am grappling with this issue teaching ELA at the middle school level. We are working to improve inclusive practices and increase the participation in the gen ed curriculum for students who are 4+ years below level. My solution, generally, is to 1. activate background knowledge with either vocabulary or content-related warmup, 2. read the text aloud while students follow in their own text, then 3. work with the text in 2 or more additional ways - annotating it, finding evidence, writing about the text, etc. Students may work in groups in part 3 in order to help each other identify the text information they need. If I ask students to read independently, too many will not comprehend the material sufficiently to move to the next step. Am I short-changing students whose reading is near or at grade level?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 04, 2022 06:18 PM

Anonymous --

I even think you are shortchanging many of the ones who are so far behind. I'm uncertain what you see as the purpose of your lessons -- to get through those selections that you are teaching with? What you are doing is not likely to make kids readers. I would suggest that you take a look at some of the powerpoints and articles on this website (in the publications section) on how to work with complex text. You also might want to type Lupo into the search function to look at some blogs that talk about how secondary teachers have managed to successfully teach students with complex text.


Anonymous Sep 17, 2022 06:19 PM

Thank you for your feedback on my 9/4/22 comment. I believed I was following a model that is aligned with research-based recommendations for secondary students. Help me understand where I am going wrong because my goal is for students to make progress, not to simply march them through material. In reviewing the resources on this site, I found material like this: which describes the Before, During, After template I am trying to utilize. I found some strategies here I can add to my rotation, but I also found a number of the strategies that I currently use in my lit units. Perhaps I should have been less general in my earlier description and more specific. We read a given story to address a specific literary element (eg conflict) which has been pre-taught as an element of the Before section. I read the text aloud to insure understanding and model fluent reading. Following that initial reading they would return to the text to annotate for examples of conflict. Students might work in groups, reading alternating sections while others identify conflict. They might then re-imagine a scene in a new setting or from another point of view and re-write the scene. I don't want to see anyone stagnating in my classroom so if this approach is misguided I want to change it.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 17, 2022 07:43 PM

Anonymous -- Much of your method sounds good to me... teaching students to identify a feature of literature and guiding their analysis and response to it and give them some specific strategies they can be in charge of. However, I wonder who will do the reading for them when they leave your classroom? Your approach will make sure that students have some tools for understanding what is read to them, but at what point are they taught how to handle text that they might struggle with. I certainly have no problem with the teacher doing a short listening task to demonstrate the cognitive moves the students are to make, but they need to do these things with texts that they are trying to read (and, over time, those texts should be increasing in their difficulty).


Shari Mar 06, 2023 11:56 PM

I think there is a balance of having students read to themselves and having teachers read to their students. I believe all teachers should read some type of written material to their students on a regular basis. Teaching kids how to find important information and teaching comprehension is key. Audio (especially with the Summer of the Mariposas) if the reader is not familiar with the pronunciation, audio is great. Reviewing the reading material with quality questioning reinforces the material to be read. I strongly believe teachers need to read to their students often.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 07, 2023 01:28 AM


It is great to have strong beliefs but when it comes to educating other people's children, it is a better idea to have evidence that supports those beliefs


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Should We Read to High School Students?


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