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Whole-class reading might be engaging, but does it give students enough chance to practise?

Written By: Robbie Coleman
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4 min read
Professor Tim Shanahan questions whether whole-class reading gives pupils enough chance to practise

Sometimes it’s worth repeating the obvious, just in case anyone missed it. Everyone should watch The Wire, Scottish hopes of footballing success are rarely fulfilled, and Tim Shanahan’s website is one of the best sources of information about literacy on the internet.

Shanahan is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago, and has led the US Government’s National Reading Panel. In November 2017 on his blog, he fielded a question about the effectiveness of whole-class reading approaches, where one student reads aloud while their classmates follow the text. It’s hard to think of a more relevant question to primary and secondary teachers than how they should read with their class, so although the debate isn’t new, it’s worth recapping and exploring which aspects remain unanswered.

Avoiding strawmen

Discussions about whole-class reading can be muddied by terminology. Names for whole-class reading include ‘Round Robin Reading’, ‘Popcorn Reading’ and ‘Control the Game’. The latter is advocated in Doug Lemov’s popular Teach Like a Champion series and, most recently, in his book Reading Reconsidered.

Control the Game is an approach that involves the teacher asking students to read aloud in turn in an unpredictable order, while the rest of the class follows the text. It is deliberately designed to enable the teacher to adjust difficulty and reading duration, which may be a weakness of ‘Popcorn Reading’, which lets students select who will read next. In addition, by making it clear that any student could be asked to read at any time, Lemov argues that engagement will be higher compared with approaches where students read in register order or similar.

Shanahan’s warning about a one-at-a-time reading activities should be treated seriously by fans of Teach Like a Champion

Fluency matters in reading

While the differences between these variations of one-at-a-time reading should be acknowledged, they all have an underlying turn-by-turn nature. Keeping sight of this constant is useful, and it is where Shanahan focuses his critique. For him, the problem with all forms of one-at-a-time reading is not predictability or pace, but intensity. This means that any adjustments to help with the former miss the mark.

Using TeacherTapp, a new app that surveys educators, I asked teachers what approach to reading they last used with their class. Our results found that 45% (of 1,674) respondents had chosen some form of one-at-a-time reading (see Figure 1). Shanahan’s point is that reading aloud is valuable insofar as it improves students’ reading fluency, which is strongly associated with comprehension (e.g. see the EEF’s most recent guidance on literacy at key stage 2). But, Shanahan argues, students need large volumes of practice to improve reading fluency – taking turns one-at-a-time is a highly inefficient way of providing this.

Teacher Tapp Results (1,674 respondents)
Figure 1: Teacher Tapp Results (1,674 respondents)

For Shanahan, preferable alternatives include reading in pairs, where students alternate after each paragraph, choral reading, where students and teachers read the same section of the text simultaneously, and repeated reading, where students read the same passage multiple times. In all cases, Shanahan argues that students read more and have greater opportunities to improve fluency, citing studies reviewed by the US National Reading Panel (NIHCD, 2000).

The benefits of silent reading

Once students have achieved fluency (a useful tool for assessing this is available here), Shanahan argues that they should predominantly read individually and in silence. He suggests that silent reading is likely to be preferable to whole-class one-at-a-time reading for two reasons:

  • There is some evidence that when reading individually students are likely to read more quickly and cover more text (Hilden and Jones, 2012)
  • Effective readers often employ strategies such as re-reading an unclear section of the text. These strategies can be utilised when reading alone, but not when reading aloud as a whole class.

The underlying message is to think carefully about matching the type of reading with the aim of the activity. For example, if a class is studying a passage that they are unlikely to access independently, and the aim of the activity is comprehension, then having students read individually – either aloud or in silence – is unlikely to be most effective. A more logical sequence might see students engaged in a short discussion in pairs about their existing knowledge of the topic, the teacher reading the passage with concise clarifications of key vocabulary (as recommended by Lemov in another section of Reading Reconsidered), and then students discussing and answering  comprehension questions about the passage.

An important challenge

Shanahan’s warning about one-at-a-time reading activities should be treated seriously by fans of Teach Like a Champion, among whom I count myself. Lemov gives ‘Control the Game’ an important role in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, arguing that the activity is so reliable it could be the barometer (or ‘hurdle’) against which other activities are measured.

There are at least two implications of Shanahan’s challenge. First it is a warning against false equivalence. ‘Control the Game’ might guarantee engagement with a text, but if this engagement is separated from the opportunities to practise the skill required (either reading fluently or independently) in the quantities required to improve, might it miss its mark?

Second, it highlights the need for more research into the bread and butter activities that teachers use regularly. Shanahan’s critique of one-at-a-time reading draws on a considerable evidence base but they are relatively old, small studies. Lemov might reasonably respond that ‘Control the Game’ is employed by a number of effective teachers, and that it avoids some of the weaknesses of other forms of whole-class reading. A new study comparing two or more forms of whole-class reading would be extremely valuable.

It might sound obvious, but for practices we use regularly, it’s worth ensuring we’re getting them right.

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