An article by Richard Allington provides interesting insights into the teaching of reading. Professor Allington is Professor of Education at the University of Tennessee, was an elementary school teacher, and has written many books and articles on reading. He makes the provocative statement:

In almost every early elementary classroom, you’ll see students reading aloud and answering questions about what they’ve read. It’s time for that to change.”

Peter Mosenthal in a 1977 study identified that silent reading and reading aloud are two different processes in which the student learns different things. Arlington suggests strongly that reading silently represents a potentially higher level of comprehension and that facility in reading aloud does not necessarily indicate comprehension at all. Since we read more quickly silently than aloud, readers who struggle and are asked to read aloud more actually suffer because they read less than proficient readers who are left to read silently on their own.

Arlington identifies two practices that are bad for reading:

  1. Although silent reading and aural processing employ the same comprehension competence, reading aloud does notalthough silent reading and aural processing employ the same comprehension competence, reading aloud does not although silent reading and aural processing employ the same comprehension competence, reading aloud does notInterrupting the reader to correct. Arlington gives the following example to illustrate not only that interrupting retards reading fluency but that the teacher’s own assumptions about good and struggling readers leads to interrupting feedback that is significantly different for the good and the struggling reader.

“Consider what happened when a good reader made an error in reading the sentence John went to the store.

GOOD READER: John went to the stone.

TEACHER (after the sentence is completed): Does that make sense to you?

The student then reread the sentence, correcting his mistake.

Now consider what happened when a struggling reader misread the same sentence.

STRUGGLING READER: John want—

TEACHER (interrupting and pointing at the word went): Look at the vowel in that word.

This interruption led to a bit of unsuccessful word work by the student, followed by the teacher pronouncing the word for him. The student then continued to read.

STRUGGLING READER: … to the story.

TEACHER: That e is a silent e. Try it again.”

The principle is straightforward. If there has to be correction, let it be through the student’s own self-regulation. If there has to be correction, let it not be in the middle of sentences!

  1. The second practice is “asking an interminable number of low-level literal questions” during or after reading as recommended by so many teacher manuals. He references several studies showing that literate conversations (how do you like the story? Wasn’t it amazing when…) increase comprehension far more than literal questioning (what color was the car? When did they see the ghost?). Facilitating or having peer facilitated literate conversations does not have to take a lot of time. Commercial reading programs won’t help you – Peter Dewitz affirms these findings about reading aloud, considers five reading series and says that “these are not research based documents” because they teach strategies without the structure that the research included. (Baker, E. A., & Dewitz, P. (2009, March 16). Comprehension strategy instruction in core reading programs. Voice of Literacy. Podcast retrieved from http://voiceofliteracy.org)

Improving student reading comprehension won’t happen through interrupted oral reading asking literal questions. Instead:

  • Lead literate conversations
  • Ask far fewer questions that are comprehension questions
  • Ask questions that probe
  • Get students to engage with each other e.g. turn, pair, share
  • Model conversations for students
  • Model writing extensions for students

The outcome will be “student self-regulation and better reading comprehension”.