Since the turn of the century there has been an ongoing debate about what reading is, why it should be valued and how best to teach it. This has resulted in a number of different theories of reading, each of which has influenced the way reading is perceived and taught within the classroom. Another debate, oral versus silent reading, which has received less attention, also surfaced around the turn of the century. This paper examines those debates and explores issues associated with the practice of reading aloud in schools within a `critical social' framework (Luke & Freebody 1997).
The paper is divided into four main sections. The first section details and historically locates various oral reading activities and practices that are used in schools. The second section reports on questionnaire data collected from 100 teachers in the Northern Territory on their use of oral reading practices. The third section discusses students' perceptions of these activities and the final section asks, `How might we best shape oral reading practices in schools within a critical social framework?'
Oral versus silent--the debate
It is useful to historically contextualise debates about reading. Social semioticians emphasise the importance of history in fully understanding semiotic texts and the contextualising practices associated with them (Hodge & Kress 1988, p. 35). McHoul (1996) has also called for a need for a history of reading texts and practices to fully understand reading in school (p. 71). Similarly Graft (1987) describes the importance and benefits of historical perspectives in research (p. 2). A history of reading texts and practices is useful then in helping us to understand current pedagogies and trends.
Up until the turn of the century oral reading had reigned supreme as the main means of providing reading instruction in the classroom. In the early part of the century a number of education and reading scholars began to question the benefits of oral reading in reading instruction. In fact some suggested it should not be used at all in schools (Reutzel et al. 1994, p. 41).
Russell (1949) reports that in parts of Chicago and other places there was a system of reading called `non-oral' which gave no place to oral reading instruction even in the early stages of the child's reading development (p. 87). Texts on reading pedagogy in the first half of the twentieth century went into great detail describing the advantages, disadvantages and processes associated with both oral and silent reading (Chall 1967, Harris 1962, Hester 1964, Klapper 1926, Russell 1949). By the middle of the twentieth century the oral/silent debate had subsided but by no means been resolved. Most agreed that both oral and silent reading activities were necessary to develop a well-balanced reading program. The debate resurfaced again in the late seventies and eighties with cries from educators about `fluency being a neglected goal' in reading instruction (Anderson 1981, Arlington 1983, Rasinski 1989). It was suggested that `lack of fluency' was characteristic of poor readers and that it was rarely attended to in the classroom (Arlington 1983, p. 556).
More recently a study by Galbraith and Clayton (1998), which was conducted to measure the oral reading fluency of 242 randomly selected Grade 4 students using `correct words per minute', found that 65% of students sampled had not attained mastery level in oral reading fluency by the end of Grade 4. Galbraith and Clayton (1998) reiterated the cries from the eighties about fluency being a neglected goal, and urged classroom teachers to use measures of oral reading fluency to continually monitor students' progress and to assist in the grouping of students for instructional purposes (pp. 98-111).
This debate then, would seem to have come full circle: from a position where educators were concerned about too much emphasis being place on oral reading, we are now coming to a point where concerns are being expressed that too little oral reading is happening in the classroom. …