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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

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

December 1, 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's 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.

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"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox