In this excerpt from Comprehension and English Language Learners: 25 Oral Reading Strategies That Cross Proficiency Levels (Heinemann, 2009), Michael Opitz and Lindsey Moses Guccione discuss some of the reasons why round robin reading can prove ineffective as a strategy for improving English language learners' reading comprehension.
For more information about recommended strategies, see Oral Language Development and ELLs: 5 Challenges and Solutions, written for Colorín Colorado by Dr. Moses Guccione.
Why Not Use Round Robin Reading (aka "Popcorn Reading")?
When I think of answering this question, I am reminded of a student's emphatic response, "It's s-o-o-o boring!" because it certainly is for more students than not. But beyond this initial response, there are other good reasons for ridding ourselves of this outmoded practice, sometimes disguised as "popcorn reading," which calls on students to pop up and read a non-rehearsed passage when signaled to do so.
Research base and origins
Did you know, for example, that round robin reading has no research base? Did you also know that no one is certain where round robin reading originated? A graduate student of mine discovered the following quotation from Quintilian "Institutes of Oratory" (A.D. 95), from which hints at a possible starting point:
"For to me it seems easier, as well as far more advantageous, that the master, after calling for silence, should appoint some one pupil to read, (and it will be best that this duty should be imposed on them by turns,) that they may thus accustom themselves to clear pronunciation." (Bizzel and Herzberg 2001, 374)
With the current emphasis on research and the necessity of using evidence-based best practices to educate children, then, another reason for moving away from round robin reading is that it has no credibility. But there are still other reasons for moving away from round robin reading. Here are five.
Student and teacher difficulties
1. It provides ELLs with an inaccurate view of reading English.
From the onset of instruction, perhaps the greatest learning that teachers need to help ELLs understand is that comprehension, rather than word calling, is what drives reading. Using purposeful oral reading strategies can help lead students to this important understanding whereas round robin reading leads them away from it.
Readers most often use silent reading in everyday reading. They only use oral reading to accomplish a specific purpose such as when they want to share information or perform. At other times, readers rely on oral reading as a coping strategy. In other words, they may recognize that comprehension has broken down and may decide to read aloud to themselves with the hope that doing so will bring about some understanding.
In all of these situations, oral reading is used in authentic ways to accomplish a specific purpose. In contrast, when using round robin reading, students experience oral reading in an artificial way. That is, rarely, if ever, are readers called upon to read an unrehearsed passage in turn while others follow along. And rarely do others correct readers when a stated word does not match the text.
Emphasizing unrehearsed reading and correcting misspelled words, which most often occurs when using round robin reading, risks leaving students with an understanding that reading is more about accurate word calling than it is about comprehension, a serious misconception of what constitutes effective reading of English.
2. It can potentially cause faulty reading habits instead of effective reading strategies.
Readers tend to read at different rates and this variation is natural (Flurkey, 2006). Expecting students to follow along while another reads an unrehearsed passage inevitably slows those readers who read at faster rates than the person who is reading aloud. On other occasions, the oral reader reads too quickly leaving students, many ELLs in particular, little or no time to decipher the meaning of unknown words. Instead, they are forced to forge ahead rather than stop and think.
In both cases, readers are disenfranchised because they are unable to process information in a manner best suited to them. All students need to learn that self-monitoring is important when reading as is paying attention to meaning, recognizing when it breaks down, and what to do about it. The ability to do so is one hallmark of proficient readers as I define them.
3. It can cause inattentive behaviors, leading to discipline problems.
Those of you who are familiar with round robin reading know the drill. While one student is reading aloud, the others in the group are supposed to follow along — but they rarely do. Instead, they are reading ahead, either because they are interested and want to keep reading, bored and therefore try to do something to alleviate their feelings of boredom, or, as in the case of many ELLs, they are self-conscious of their accent and decide to give themselves some practice time so that when called on they will sound more acceptable to others.
Reasons for reading ahead dismissed, what often happens is that students are reprimanded for not following along as told, leaving them with a less-than-favorable view of what it means to come together to share a text. Aside from making students appear unruly, the main problem is that little attention is given to discussing the text at hand. Between the time it takes to read aloud and to reprimand, there is none left for discussing, an important part of the reading experience that enables all to thrive.
4. It can be a source of anxiety and embarrassment for all students, ELLs in particular.
I have worked with countless teachers who seek to understand best ways to use oral reading that will help students to advance as readers. As a part of this work, I more often than not have them experience round robin reading firsthand. These teachers admit that they were not following along as told but rather trying to figure out my pattern of calling on people so that they would know what to practice so that they would sound good when called upon. All comments focus on saving face, not embarrassing themselves.
After going through the experience, they better understand how students must feel when called on and what they do to save face when reading in front of others. And this is the major point of the exercise: to show more than tell them how round robin reading causes anxiety and embarrassment to appear and that when using it, comprehension is virtually nonexistent.
5. It consumes valuable classroom time that could be spent on other meaningful activities.
With round robin reading, much time is spent trying to keep all on track and on reading with accuracy. Little if any time is devoted to comprehension. Yet there are many ways to use oral reading in purposeful and meaningful ways. Regardless, comprehension is always the goal. Oral reading is merely used as a vehicle for helping to facilitate this comprehension. The objective, then, is not to rid us of oral reading but instead to use it to students' best advantage.