In my 11th-grade English course, a student volunteered to read aloud, and I overheard another student mutter in admiration, “Damn, she reads like the teacher.” Every class seems to have two or three students who read “like the teacher”; the rest of the class avoids eye contact in hopes of being passed over during popcorn reading.
I get it. Older students especially want to avoid a stilted display of stumbling through a text in front of their friends. It’s all very cringey.
A colleague jokes that he feels like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when he asks for volunteers to read: Anyone? Anyone? Another shares how when she asks students to read louder, they nod but continue in the same soft, monotonous voice. One teacher admits how they don’t ask kids to read aloud because they hated being called on when they were younger; they would never shame a student for not knowing how to read well.
Reading-related shame is omnipresent in the classroom. Students feel it as they laboriously read, and teachers feel it when we hear them read. Therefore, students don’t read aloud anymore. Either they read silently, or the teacher reads aloud to them. I also started reading aloud more to my students to avoid embarrassing anyone, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of culpability. I even earned a master’s degree in literacy because I felt that I had let my students down, that their education had let them down.
The truth is, our students have been let down. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more simply called The Nation’s Report Card, cites evidence that only 33 percent of fourth graders in the U.S. can read at a proficient level or higher—despite the exhaustive efforts of elementary school teachers. Because of Emily Hanford’s reporting, phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding are receiving much-needed attention in the primary grades.
However, for students above the third grade, they need to be taught how to decode oral fluency. Older students need to practice reading aloud, and they need to be taught how to do it.
In the past few years, I started teaching my own 11th graders how to read aloud. I begin with this question: When reading aloud, what does good reading sound like? Their answers:
- You shouldn’t stumble over words.
- You shouldn’t hesitate so much.
- You should be able to pronounce every word.
- You should be able to read fast.
My suspicions are consistently validated—they believe good reading equals speed and perfection.
Fluency, however, isn’t speed. A fluent reader doesn’t rush but reads with automaticity and prosody. Automaticity is when a reader doesn’t need to spend cognitive energy decoding words because they can recognize them. The term prosody actually stems from music and poetry, where pieces should be expressed with rhythm; pacing; intonation; stress; emotion; and chunking of words, phrases, or notes. In literacy, prosody means reading with expression, and it is the music and poetry of reading aloud.
Struggling readers have no idea that they are supposed to read with prosody. They believe prosody is for the teacher or the privileged few. Unlike what my students assume, good reading sounds prosodic.
To combat the shame around reading, older students need to feel safe to read aloud. They also need explicit instruction on the elements of prosody to develop metacognition around what good reading sounds like.
- Surface stories. Allow students to surface their positive and negative memories concerning reading in general and reading aloud in particular. Guide them to become observers of their reading-related trauma and part of a common dilemma in schools. Reading Apprenticeship’s Personal Reading History protocol works well for surfacing stories.
- Source authority. To explicitly teach prosody, to expose and break the code, I’ve used excerpts from The Science of Learning Blog and Reading Rockets. There are many more. Use chunks of the text if necessary, but don’t water down the texts. Let students evaluate and trust the sources.
- Self-assessment. After examining the elements of prosody, provide space for safe practice. Give students the opportunity to create a rubric using prosodic elements. They may want to choose three elements that they need to improve. They can use their own rubrics to assess a recording of themselves reading. Free online voice recorders like Reverb and Vocaroo allow anyone to record online and copy a URL of their recording.
- Prosody practice. Before reading aloud, assign paragraphs to students. Teach them how to mark words that need stress or break up sentences into phrases where they will practice pausing. Have them practice aloud, by themselves or with partners, before reading aloud all together in class or in groups.
- Project-based learning. Base the prosody work within a project-based learning unit. Students can have opportunities to interview others about why so many have terrible experiences reading aloud. They can participate in service learning, like teaching a prosody lesson to a younger person or writing letters to future students about the importance of prosody. Edutopia has many articles about implementing PBL.
Despite whatever fears may surface, especially for non–English language arts teachers, investing in oral fluency routines at the beginning of the year will reap rewards. Students will feel safer, thus braver, to read in front of their peers. They will feel a sense of agency over their improvement in oral fluency. The time spent teaching the concept of prosody will pay off in future procedures that include reading in class.
The greater reward of investing in oral fluency is the increases that students and teachers will see in comprehension. Kent State University Professor Tim Rasinski elucidates important research finding that those who read aloud with prosody read the same way silently, and reading silently with prosody leads to comprehension—both literally and inferentially. Reading with prosody opens the door for students to understand what they read.
For all of our students, we must lean into the cringe of reading aloud instead of avoiding it. Our kids must learn that reading like the teacher isn’t as hard as they think.