Why it’s time to let round robin reading go the way of the dodo
When I was a graduate student in English, I took a German reading class to fulfill a language requirement. It was, to put it mildly, a challenge for me.
For reasons I still don’t understand, the instructor made us do many round robin read-alouds even though we were supposed to be learning to read German, not speak it. Do you know what my least favorite part of every week quickly became?
My pronunciation was abysmal, especially when compared to students who had taken German in the past. I had no idea what I was reading but knew full well that I was butchering every word. I also didn't know what my peers were reading because I was too busy figuring out which passage would be mine and rehearsing (to no avail).
Before that experience, I had used round robin reading in my own high school ELA classroom. But no more. There had to be a better way.
Most literacy experts agree that it’s time to be done with round robin reading and its variations, such as “popcorn reading” and “touch and go reading.” As Tim Shanahan points out, we knew these activities didn’t work decades ago, yet they have persisted in more than 50% of the nation’s classrooms.
Todd Finley, a professor of English education, echoes Shanahan’s sentiments: “Only one graduate research paper has claimed a benefit to round robin reading or its variations. It simply doesn’t benefit students to have poor fluency and pronunciation modeled, and asking students to take turns reading aloud in front of the whole class can stigmatize struggling readers.”
While we don’t want to dwell too long on what you shouldn’t be doing in your classroom (we’ll get to some great alternatives next), here’s a quick rundown of why it’s time to replace round robin reading with something better.
Round robin reading:
Causes struggling readers anxiety and embarrassment. We’ve all seen students shake, stammer, or sweat when they have to read aloud in front of the class. Why impose this stress on them?
Often models poor fluency and pronunciation. It doesn’t make sense to provide a classroom full of emergent readers with examples of how not to read well.
Impairs comprehension. Students learn that word calling is more important than taking time to comprehend each word, an idea emphasized when teachers or peers correct pronunciation but don’t check for understanding.
Does not account for different reading speeds. Fast readers will be frustrated by the pace, and slower readers will not have time to decipher meaning.
Encourages inattention. Some students will only tune in when it’s their turn to read. Others won’t pay attention because they’ll be busy rehearsing the passage they have to read.
Stunts independence and confidence. Students can’t correct their mistakes once they see the flow of a sentence or paragraph, meaning they aren’t teaching themselves to read better. Also, when teachers or peers jump in to make corrections, students don’t get the confidence boost from figuring it out themselves.
Makes reading a chore. Ideally, a class coming together to read and discuss a text should be a joyous event. Round robin reading turns what could be a celebration into drudgery.
To be clear, reading aloud in some forms can improve students’ fluency, comprehension, and confidence. So, try these research-backed read-aloud activities to strengthen literacy and SEL skills as you phase out round robin reading.
Partner reading is a low-stakes, research-backed activity that works at almost every grade level. One student reads aloud while the other listens. The process then reverses with the same passage read again. After each reading, the listener asks questions to ensure the reader understands the text. You can provide questions if there are particular ideas you would like explored. During partner reading, have the stronger reader go first so the weaker reader can hear difficult words before reading them aloud themselves.
Choral reading—when the teacher and class read a text aloud together—takes the pressure off struggling readers while encouraging them to participate. Another variation is echo reading, where the teacher reads a line aloud, and students then read the same line aloud. This strategy is great because you model ideal fluency, pace, and pronunciation. Research suggests that choral and echo reading improves fluency, expands vocabulary, and boosts confidence.
Pairing students from different grades to read together has educational and SEL benefits that help both students. Younger kids see greater fluency modeled and enjoy the one-on-one attention of an older student. Older kids learn by answering questions, explaining concepts, and practicing skills like patience and empathy. Additionally, for older kids not reading at grade level, having a younger reading partner allows them to read simpler texts without stigma and increases their confidence as they take on a mentoring role.
Ear reading, listening to an audiobook while silently reading along, is a fruitful activity for all students, but especially for struggling readers and students with dyslexia. In a 2010 study, students with dyslexia who listened to audiobooks showed significant gains in reading accuracy, improved behavior, and better general school performance. As you listen, pause to pose questions, such as, “What did I just read? Who can recap it?”
This strategy isn’t technically about reading aloud and will likely meet with initial resistance, but it’s fine to ask kids to read silently to themselves in class. You can first talk to them about the importance of silent reading, emphasizing that it’s a skill they will need throughout their time in school and beyond. Initially, keep the passages brief—maybe just a paragraph. Question students about the content so you can gauge comprehension. If they have trouble, have them reread it. You’re not only teaching them to read better; you're also teaching them to persevere.
Students learn best from each other. Facilitating a discussion based on something they have just read silently is an authentic way to test for comprehension. It also allows students to strengthen reasoning skills, practice oral fluency, and increase their listening capacities. Discussions also build classroom community and boost confidence because students see that you trust them enough to hand over the reins.
Reading Theater, or having students perform what they are reading, is so fun that they won’t even notice how many skills they’re acquiring! Making acting choices, such as how to stand, what sort of emotion to use, and which words to emphasize, can only happen after a student has deeply comprehended a text.
Reading theater works best, unsurprisingly, with excerpts from plays. As a warm-up, incorporate choral reading by choosing a monologue and asking students to read it aloud together three times. The first time, they should all act like they’ve had way too much coffee. The second time, they should pretend they’ve just received some bad news. Let them choose their own mood/emotion for the third reading. After this warm-up eases jitters and begins to familiarize students with the text, split them into mixed-skill groups, and ask them to start preparing their performances.
Letting students read aloud to themselves can help reluctant or struggling readers feel less pressure to perform. Plus, when students read aloud individually, they can move at their own pace, stop to correct mistakes, and pause to answer comprehension questions. The downside is that students won’t receive immediate feedback and might not pause to think about what they’ve just read.
Technology can help overcome these pitfalls. A program like ClearFluencyTM, an online guided reading tool, listens as students read each word aloud and delivers immediate support whenever a learner struggles with or mispronounces a word — reinforcing newly learned reading skills, vocabulary, and fluency.
If you need a friendly reminder of these new items in your toolbox, download and print out this handy “cheat sheet” of alternatives.
Change isn’t easy, but banishing practices with no research basis, like round robin reading, is a significant step in helping all students reach their full reading potential. Replacing outdated practices with innovative, effective activities and programs is critical if we want to achieve literacy for all and make our classrooms places where students feel safe and ready to learn.
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author