11 Alternatives to Round Robin (and Popcorn) Reading

There’s no evidence that round robin reading helps students improve, so we gathered alternatives that teachers can use instead.

December 1, 2014

Round robin reading (RRR) has been a classroom staple for over 200 years and an activity that over half of K–8 teachers report using in one of its many forms, such as popcorn reading. RRR’s popularity endures despite the evidence that the practice is ineffective for its stated purpose: enhancing fluency, word decoding, and comprehension. Cecile Somme makes a good point in Popcorn Reading: The Need to Encourage Reflective Practice: “Popcorn reading is one of the sure-fire ways to get kids who are already hesitant about reading to really hate reading.”

Facts About Round Robin Reading

In RRR, students read orally from a common text, one child after another, while the other students follow along in their copies of the text. Several variations on the technique offer negligible advantages over RRR, if any. They simply differ in how the reading transition occurs:

  •     Popcorn Reading: A student reads orally for a time, and then calls out “popcorn” before selecting another student in class to read.
  •     Combat Reading: A kid nominates a classmate to read in an attempt to catch the peer off task, explain Gwynne Ash and Melanie Kuhn in their chapter in Fluency Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices.
  •     Popsicle Stick Reading: Student names are written on Popsicle sticks and placed in a can. The learner whose name is drawn reads next.
  •     Touch Go Reading: As described by Somme, the instructor taps a child when it’s his or her turn to read.

Of the 30-odd studies and articles I’ve consumed on the subject, only one graduate research paper claimed a benefit to RRR or its variations, stating tepidly that perhaps RRR isn’t as awful as everyone says. Katherine Hilden and Jennifer Jones’ criticism is unmitigated: “We know of no research evidence that supports the claim that RRR actually contributes to students becoming better readers, either in terms of their fluency or comprehension.” (PDF)

Why all the harshitude? Because RRR:

  •     Stigmatizes poor readers. Imagine the terror that English language learners and struggling readers face when made to read in front of an entire class.
  •     Weakens comprehension. Listening to a peer orally read too slowly, too fast, or too haltingly weakens learners’ comprehension—a problem exacerbated by turn-taking interruptions.
  •     Sabotages fluency and pronunciation. Struggling readers model poor fluency skills and pronunciation. When instructors correct errors, fluency is further compromised.

To be clear, oral reading in other formats does improve students’ fluency, comprehension, and word recognition, though silent or independent reading should occur far more frequently as students advance into the later grades. Fortunately, other oral reading activities offer significant advantages over RRR and its cousins. As you’ll see in the list below, many of them share similar features.

11 Better Approaches

1. Choral Reading: The teacher and class read a passage aloud together, which minimizes struggling readers’ public exposure. In a 2011 study of over 100 sixth graders (PDF, 232KB), David Paige found that 16 minutes of whole-class choral reading per week enhanced decoding and fluency.

In a variation, every time the instructor omits a word during oral reading, students say the word all together.

2. Partner Reading: Two-person student teams alternate reading aloud, switching each time there’s a new paragraph. Or they can read each section at the same time.

3. PALS: Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) exercises pair strong and weak readers who take turns reading, re-reading, and retelling.

4. Silent Reading: For added scaffolding, front-load silent individual reading with vocabulary instruction, a plot overview, an anticipation guide, or KWL+ activity.

5. Teacher Read Aloud: This activity, says Julie Adams of Adams Educational Consulting, is “perhaps one of the most effective methods for improving student fluency and comprehension, as the teacher is the expert in reading the text and models how a skilled reader reads using appropriate pacing and prosody (inflection).” Playing an audiobook achieves similar results.

6. Echo Reading: Students echo back what the teacher reads, mimicking his or her pacing and inflections.

7. Shared Reading/Modeling: By reading aloud while students follow along in their own books, the instructor models fluency, pausing occasionally to demonstrate comprehension strategies. (PDF, 551KB)

8. The Crazy Professor Reading Game: Chris Biffle’s Crazy Professor Reading Game video (start watching at 1:49) is more entertaining than home movies of Blue Ivy. To bring the text to life, students...

  •     Read orally with hysterical enthusiasm
  •     Reread with dramatic hand gestures
  •     Partner up with a super-stoked question asker and answerer
  •     Play “crazy professor” and “eager student” in a hyped-up overview of the text.

9. Buddy Reading: Kids practice orally reading a text in preparation for reading to an assigned buddy in an earlier grade.

10. Timed Repeat Readings: This activity can aid fluency, according to literacy professors Katherine Hilden and Jennifer Jones (PDF, 271KB). After an instructor reads (with expression) a short text selection appropriate to students’ reading level (90–95 percent accuracy), learners read the passage silently, then again loudly, quickly, and dynamically. Another kid graphs the times and errors so that children can track their growth.

11. FORI: With Fluency-Oriented Reading Instruction (FORI), primary students read the same section of a text many times over the course of a week. Here are the steps:

  1.     The teacher reads aloud while students follow along in their books.
  2.     Students echo read.
  3.     Students choral read.
  4.     Students partner read.
  5.     The text is taken home if more practice is required, and extension activities can be integrated during the week.

I hope that the activities described above—in addition to other well-regarded strategies, like reciprocal teaching, reader’s theater, and radio reading—can serve as simple replacements to round robin reading in your classroom.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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