Should Teachers Teach Students to Read Aloud or Read Silently?

When I was an MEd (TESOL) student, I listened to my professor and a classmate discussing how to teach reading. But as I listened I noticed something strange. They appeared to be talking about different things–although neither seemed aware. Our tutor was clearly talking about strategies to improve students’ reading comprehension, but my classmate seemed to have something different in mind. I asked her if by reading she meant that all the students stand up and read aloud together. She said yes–our tutor ended the discussion in surprise.

If such a misunderstanding can develop in face to face conversation, then it’s hardly surprising that even bigger misunderstanding can occur online. As was the case when I recently read an online discussion on whether English teachers should teach students to read aloud or read silently. The teachers were passionate in defending their positions, but one thing became quickly clear to me: the meaning of reading aloud varied widely, as did their approach to teaching it, and the teachers who advocated either reading silently or reading aloud often taught in very different contexts.

What is Reading Aloud?

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” William Blake. 

No fools here, but people do see things differently. For some teachers reading aloud simply means having the whole class stand up and read chorally from their books; for others it means reading individually or in pairs; and yet, for others, it means reading aloud within activities or games. 

One example of using reading aloud can be found in a common activity for children: ‘running dictation.’ Many of you will be familiar with this activity. The teacher sticks sheets of paper, with a simple story or other piece of text printed on it, on the walls at the back of the classroom. The students form teams and (without shouting) a ‘reader’ must read the text aloud to the ‘runners’ who run and repeat what they remember to a ‘writer.’ There are many other games or game-like activities (far too many to list here) which can use reading aloud. 

My point is that ‘reading aloud’ means different things to different teachers, depending on the their training, personal experience as students, professional teaching experience, and the educational culture of their school and country.

The Benefits of Both

Reading aloud is great for bringing a class together, especially if you teach students who have attention problems in class. Choose students (perhaps those chatting or using smartphones) to read text aloud. If several students have problems focussing you can ask a student to read one sentence, and then another student to read the next and so on. So, reading aloud is one way to help bring the class together and help them understand instructions for an activity at the same time.

  • Reading aloud can help with the pronunciation of individual words.
  • Reading aloud can help teachers spot pronunciation problems with individual words.
  • Reading aloud can help shy students gain more confidence.
  • Reading aloud is pretty much all you can do with young children (of these two options).

Reading aloud can be fun (when done as a part of a creative activity).

But… 

  • Reading silently can help reading comprehension. When students read silently they can focus on the meaning, they can search for specific information.
  • Reading silently is faster (when students don’t subvocalise).
  • Reading silently can be a relaxing activity (I certainly feel more relaxed).
  • Reading silently is a more natural activity (for most types of reading). 

The Drawbacks of Both

  • Reading aloud will not (usually) help with sentence level (or beyond) pronunciation. There can be exceptions to this–but for most teachers I think this is true. The robotic pronunciation I sometimes hear with my students in East Asia is, I believe, exacerbated by years of chorally reading aloud in classes. There are better ways to practice rhythm.
  • Reading aloud can be painful. If someone attempted to read a complete novel aloud to you it would quickly become annoying :) Similarly, I’ve seen teachers engender hatred of advanced level class readers (which the students had previously enjoyed) by forcing them to read long tracts aloud.
  • Reading aloud usually results in a focus on pronunciation of the individual words being spoken, not on the meaning.
  • Reading silently doesn’t practice pronunciation at all (although it does practice other things).

Much depends on your aims.

Do you wish to practice reading comprehension?
Do you wish to practice pronunciation of individual words?
Do you wish to practice pronunciation at the sentence level (i.e. rhythm)
Do you want to bring the class together?

And Your Situation
Is your class elementary or advanced?
Are they young children or adults?
Are you teaching a small group or sixty+ students?

Personally, I use both reading aloud and reading silently. With my higher level classes, I’m more likely to use reading aloud to bring students together when we are beginning a new class activity, or when I’d like them to ask questions. When I taught children I used reading aloud more, but not exclusively. Reading silently and searching for information is one of the skills I encouraged students to develop.

One of the dangers I see in usually having students read aloud is that teachers may restrict their teaching of pronunciation to individual words and not progress to teaching the rhythm–this will obviously depend on whether the teacher develops other ways of practicing rhythm or not.