Why should we read aloud? Because we don’t want THIS to be our class: “So, what is the significance of the color gold in this story?” (pause to look at glassy-eyed students) “Anyone?” (pause again…was that a snore in the back?) “Didn’t anyone read the chapter last night?” (oh, they are SO getting a quiz now—that’ll teach them!) UGH!
I grew up preferring books to food, but my teachers always seemed determined to exterminate any pleasure found in reading. Assigned chapters, reading comprehension questions, vocabulary quizzes, writing analytic paragraphs, worksheets, test prep… It’s a wonder I survived education and still choose reading as my favorite pastime!
Before I ever taught a single student, I promised myself to never contribute to an abhorrence of reading. This was easy when I taught kids because children’s books invite you in with their rich illustrations, and coming up with and maintaining a different voice for each character is a joy. I wanted to read aloud as much as they wanted me to. But then I started teaching adults.
These weren’t just adults. These were adults coming from oral cultures. Adults who, for the most part, had NEVER willingly read a book. Yeah, I was in disbelief in the beginning too! I had classes of students whose listening comprehension was miles ahead of their reading abilities. These were people who could use vocabulary in daily speech that if they saw in print, they denied ever having seen or heard of that word before.
Teachers especially can kill a love for reading rather easily.
To my shame, when I started teaching adults, I didn’t read aloud. Instead, I tried all those things my secondary teachers had inflicted upon my classmates and me. I assigned chapters and gave quizzes. I wrote and even had them write reading comprehension questions. If only I could apologize to those students now.
One day, I decided to just read aloud to them, and it changed everything. Now, I want to share five powerful reasons that you should read aloud in adult ESL classes.
Reason #1: Read aloud because it gives students access to a book that they wouldn’t be able to experience on their own.
Your students’ listening level might be much higher than their reading level. So, if they are only reading books “appropriate” for their level, it’s going to be a frustrating, boring, and possibly even demeaning experience for your adult students.
If they weren’t already readers, this likely wouldn’t get them clamoring for a library card. Have you been to the library recently? The choices are overwhelming! How does a reluctant or hesitant reader even begin to choose a book? When we read aloud to our adult ESL classes, we grant them that access.
The Outsiders turned out to be super relatable for many of my classes.
So, I got a class set of The Outsiders by SE Hinton and began to read aloud. We discussed vocabulary as we went along, and I’ll admit that I sometimes quizzed them on the characters and the plot, but informally and always orally. That really sounds defensive. *sigh* It was a start.
My first group was made up of mainly Saudi students from Qatif. They really related to a lot in the story, and by the middle of the book, I was coming up with questions that helped them understand the story and connect even more to it and the characters. I began writing down the questions that animated them the most.
This success quickly confirmed my belief that assigning reading to my adult ESL students would NOT be a grievous blunder. I wanted to increase their interest in independent reading, not eliminate it or prevent it from ever happening. The secret I never expected? That for me to read aloud would be so popular with my students.
Reason #2: Nothing sells without advertising, and that includes pleasure reading.
Yes, your students are reading passages in their books. Perhaps you’ve assigned them a book from which they must read a chapter every night. That’s not pleasure reading—that’s labor, heavy labor for some. You’ll never convince anyone that taking a walk can be enjoyable if you have them walking around a parking lot three times a day. Still, if you take them to a park alive with birdsong, inhabited by curious squirrels and shy rabbits, shaded by tall leafy trees, and scented with flowers and soil and walk with them down the winding path, you’ll sell them on it. That’s the difference when you read aloud to your students.
Do you look forward to washing the dishes tonight or scrubbing the bathroom floor? That’s the equivalent of assigned reading for many of your students—a chore to get through with as little thought as possible. Read aloud in your adult ESL classes. Take them out of the parking lot and into the garden.
The second time I read aloud The Outsiders to students (not the same group as mentioned before), it was an even more thrilling experience. Students who had low attendance were coming because they didn’t want to miss any part of the story. Students who rarely talked were sharing, arguing, and coming alive. I used all the questions I had written down before, and their responses inspired me to create many more.
I was finally onto something magical.
Before I read aloud the book to the third round of students, I had already created a set of anticipation guides. Things had gotten out of hand—we barely scraped by with enough time to cover the mandated curriculum because they couldn’t get enough of The Outsiders. Students from lower levels were eager to start this level and begin reading.
Use anticipation guides and reflective response questions that highlight what will grab their attention the most.
So, what does it look like in class? Well, before each chapter, we do an anticipation guide. First, I give students time to read through it and answer any that they can. Then, as a class, we discuss the literal meaning of each one to ensure that they understand. Occasionally they get my opinion, but they have to push pretty hard to get it, and I always refuse unless everyone else has already weighed in.
Then, we use a few reflective response cards to help them begin making connections before reading. This dramatically helps their understanding because their vocabulary tends to be relatively low. Next, I read to them, and I NEVER ask them to read for one huge reason.
Reason #3 to read aloud in adult ESL? It demonstrates fluency.
I can almost see you shaking your head and doubting my entire message now. Here’s the thing: are you assessing them on fluency? Is that the reason for the book? If not, then don’t put them under that microscope in front of all their peers and under all that pressure.
When learning how to pronounce an unfamiliar word, do you prefer to hear it first, or are you comfortable diving right in and using it in conversations? Generally, we need to hear a word before we can say it. You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you usually have to speak it before you can read it.
You’ve probably had your students take turns reading aloud in class. When it’s not their turn, what are they doing? Are they wincing with pain as a slow reader plods through the text? Anyone struggling to understand someone who battles the pronunciation of every third word? Are they discreetly or overtly checking their phones? Is this going to teach them to enjoy reading? Not likely. But wait; there’s more!
Use those character voices in your head.
Have you ever noticed that when you are reading something, you are reading aloud in your head? You’ve seen those Morgan Freeman memes, the ones that have you listening to his voice read it to you in your head. That’s a pleasure of reading. Have you ever created voices for characters even though you were reading silently? How easy would it be to “hear” these voices if you were reading in a foreign language?
If pronunciation is essential, you have to be able to speak a word before you can read it. No, you don’t have to have a rich voice that vibrates in the listeners’ blood. You can be you, but don’t be afraid to BE YOU! Those voices you hear in your head when you read? Share them!
After reading for a while, I use my Going Deeper cards to probe for insights. Because I have just read aloud, we are all on the same page, so to speak. There is never an issue of someone not knowing what was going on due to not doing an assigned reading.
Reason #4: Reading aloud provides limitless opportunities for extended discussions.
Not every class can handle every controversial topic out there, but with books, we get the opportunity to examine explosive situations without having them blow up in our faces. And when we read aloud in adult ESL classes, we open those opportunities.
My students wanted to know why Sandy was “visiting” her grandmother in Florida, and suddenly we were having a conversation about cultural differences in dealing with unwed mothers and what happened to illegitimate children years ago vs. now. This discussion was completely unplanned, which is what made it so authentic, so heartrending. I had several young teenage women in my class who had children of their own.
While my very conservative students themselves were married, they were impassioned in their defense of an unwed mother’s right to keep her children. Only a few lines here and there in the book refer to Sodapop and Sandy’s story, but these young mothers identified with Sandy so strongly that it made them look deeper into the book’s storyline. That never would have happened if I hadn’t decided to read aloud.
You see, with books, we develop an awareness of people outside our experience and develop a sense of empathy. I sometimes feel like we might never finish the book because we have to stop and discuss so many of the themes present. In the beginning, I was the one poking and prodding them, but once they get into the book, they take over that role and begin to examine the social situations present in the story.
The personal reflections that they spontaneously share blow me away at times. Having characters to discuss allows everyone to be a bit removed and not take someone else’s opinion personally, so we can talk about highly charged, emotional topics without anyone feeling disrespected, personally misunderstood, or attacked.
But what about response strategies, you ask?
Okay, so they can find the main idea in a text. That’s great, but wait…there’s more. There’s more to education and more to life than finding the “right” answer. It’s the difference between identifying a photo of chocolate and slowly savoring that piece of chocolate. What about learning how to respond to literature in innovative ways and from new perspectives? Students are accustomed to reading for information—to find the answer. But when they can examine a text from more than one perspective and talk about their ideas with their classmates, they are reading to understand instead of just to deconstruct. Let them climb into the skin of different characters to see from another’s eyes.
I still wanted something more concrete to show, to prove to others that this works. I also wanted to prove something to my students.
Reason #5: Exposure to models of good writing creates good writers.
To prove this to my students, I created a test made up of seven questions from each unit. I used questions from my reflection and going deeper cards. I required students to choose two of the given questions from each unit and give short answers of three sentences or so.
Now, unless our ESL students have been exposed to a wide variety of written material for years, they are likely sincere when they say they don’t know what to write or how to write about it. How many paragraphs have you had to plod through that just had no voice?
It’s easy for us to correct their grammar and even help them with semantics, but, oh, the syntax! Just what makes a well-formed sentence? For me, it’s when I hear a voice in the writing, when the words themselves come alive. Now, when students read to themselves, most do not hear a voice. They are just focused on getting through the material. However, when you read aloud TO them, they get that voice. They feel the rhythm, flow right along with the words, and EXPERIENCE is skillful writing.
I think this is why my students were groaning over choosing only two questions to answer. They stayed AFTER classes were over for the day because they had more to say and more to write. Students who before struggled to write sentences drier than toast abandoned in the desert were positively poetic and wrote answers that beat with the blood of their hearts.
Reading comprehension questions? *snort* Never again!
Questions to reflect upon:
- In what ways does having new and multiple perspectives on issues affect the quality of your students’ conversation?
- How can you get students started with extended discussions, and how can you then back off and let them take the lead?
- What are some ways you can sell pleasure reading to your students?
- What books would you like most to read aloud?
Read more about teaching adult ESL.
- If your students enjoy reflective questions, think about Using Reflective Writing in the Adult ESL Classroom.
- Three Painless Activities for Teaching Facts and Opinions in Adult ESL
- How Using Adjective Clauses Helps Power Up their Writing
- Connectives & Transition Signals: Fixing Writing that Meanders