Academic journal article American Secondary Education

Enter the Villain: Against Oral Reading in Secondary Schools

Academic journal article American Secondary Education

Enter the Villain: Against Oral Reading in Secondary Schools

Article excerpt


Both content area teachers and reading teachers often see oral reading in epic proportions, as a hero in the struggle for the best way to motivate students to read. This article briefly reviews the reasons that are commonly given for supporting the use of oral reading in the classroom. The author then provides a rationale for opposing traditional student oral reading practices as well as teacher read alouds in secondary school classrooms.

Dickens' Scrooge is a generous philanthropist compared to me. Rowlings' Lord Voldemort is an examplar of social conscience compared to me. Darth Vader is a humble, loving patriarch compared to me. Why am I such a villain in the eyes of students, colleagues, and school administrators? I oppose oral reading in secondary schools. There is something about oral reading that makes heroes of those who are its champions and villains of its opponents. So be it, but in books and movies, when he has the hero is in his grasp, the villain has his say. Here is mine: oral reading in a secondary school classroom is a practice that makes many promises, but few if any, are ever kept.


The professional literature is replete with reasons and methods for both teachers and students to use oral reading in secondary school classrooms. Advocates of teachers reading aloud begin with Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (2006), whose enthusiasm for parent and teacher oral reading has influenced millions to see the powerful effect that proficient oral reading of interesting books has on children's motivation to read. Another argument for teachers to read orally is based on the belief that orality creates in the classroom a sense of fairness, since all learners are "exposed" to the same information (Optiz and Rasinski, 1998).

Proponents of student oral reading might begin with Jane Stall ings (1984) whose study of instruction in 43 secondary classrooms found that the use of oral reading with effective teacher guidance was related to higher achievement. Next, are the cognitive scientists who claim that oral reading is advantageous because it provides auditory feedback to the reader (Rummer & Engelkamp, 2003), and on their shoulders stand the advocates of using oral reading activities with those readers who are described as auditory learners (Kelly, 2010).

Some proponents advocate using oral interpretation techniques (Muzzillo, 2007) and Reader's Theater (Harmon et al., 1999). They point out that the audience aspect raises the efficacy in these methods over the usual classroom reading aloud activities. The National Reading Panel report (2000) endorsed the frequent practice of student reading aloud with guidance and feedback, a recommendation that elementary and secondary teachers could hardly ignore in the recent political climate.


The immense power of tradition contributes to oral reading as a practice that is still prevalent today as it has been since colonial times (Rasinski and Hoffman, 2003). In opposing this practice, I will start with the Muzillo's (2007) definition of oral reading:

"Oral reading typically takes this form: a student volunteers or is called upon to pronounce the words of text for an audience, not having prepared or planned his interpretation. Usually, one student reads to the entire class; each audience is as varied as there are class sizes. ... Not all listeners are enthusiastic about the practice" (p. 11).

Muzillo described "typical" practice, but I will also argue that even in the best cases, including interpretive uses of oral reading, it is less valuable than its promise suggests.


Secondary teachers often view teaching as transmitting "content" (i.e information) from teachers to students, a perspective that "has changed little over the years" (Readance, Bean and Baldwin, 2004). Using the oral channel for content transmission, either by playing professionally recorded books or by having students do the oral reading, promises both efficiency and wide dissemination of information, but it is an empty promise because it frequently leads to passivity. …

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