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Round Robin by Any Other Name … Oral Reading for Older Readers


While I encourage, and even require, oral reading instruction in middle schools, I don’t countenance round robin. Engage your kids in paired reading and they’ll get much more oral reading practice than in the round robin approach.

Blast from the Past: This entry was first published on April 23, 2015; and was re-issued on October 19, 2017. Some oral reading questions came up this week that reminded me of this blog. I’d point out that since its release, Tim Rasinski has shown that even struggling college students need fluency work — well beyond the middle school focus of this blog. Finally, last week Jan Hasbrouck let me know that she and Gerry Tindal have updated their oral reading norms. Given all of that, this seems timely.

Teacher question

I am seeking your advice based on the email correspondence below that I have had with my principal. She noted that I was practicing “round robin reading” on a classroom observation.  Upon asking her to remove it (since it was not what I was doing), I realized that she doesn’t entirely understand what that practice looks like. 

I gather from her response that she is only interested in the teacher modeling expert reading and students not reading aloud in the classroom at all. I personally believe that there is a place in the classroom for students to read aloud. 

During the lesson that we are speaking of, I read aloud an excerpt of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography.  I chunked the reading with questions and discussion in between parts. I did ask for volunteers to read some parts and several students did volunteer. I teach gifted language arts. The majority of my students are proficient in reading and enjoy reading aloud. I never force them to read aloud though. If you would please, could you read the correspondence below and let me know your thoughts about students reading aloud in the classroom?

Shanahan’s response

I agree that oral reading has a place and even an important one in middle school classrooms.

Oral reading fluency is important because of the role it plays in reading comprehension.

With primary grade readers (grade 2), about 70% of the variation in reading comprehension is due to variance in fluency. That is, if we could make all the kids as fluent as the best second-grade readers, 70% of the differences in their reading comprehension would go away. That’s why studies show that teaching oral fluency improves reading comprehension (NICHD, 2002).

However, the importance of fluency diminishes over time.

It isn’t because fluency stops mattering, but that more students reach the levels of fluency needed for mature reading. There is a ceiling on fluency — generally increasing the numbers of words one can read correctly per minute (wcpm) improves ones reading, but readers can’t do much better than 150-175 wcpm. We can only speak so fast, and improvements beyond point don’t help with reading.

What that means is that by eighth grade, oral reading fluency differences only account for about 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. That is much lower than with younger kids, and yet, 25% is still a big deal. 

I would definitely have middle-school kids practicing their oral reading because I want them to get that comprehension payoff. So, there is one point on your side of the ledger. If your principal opposes middle school oral reading, boy, is she wrong.

One problem, in this case, is that you say that these are advanced readers. That means that they are already fluent enough (though that isn’t necessarily the case). Even good readers may benefit from oral reading work when working with historical texts, as you were doing. The language patterns of such texts can be so complex and archaic that reading such material aloud can help to figure it out. I do that myself. Your lesson, however, doesn’t sound like it was that strategic.

We know how to teach oral reading fluency successfully.

What works?

Meta-analyses suggest that oral reading practice with challenging texts (texts that kids have difficulty reading). This oral reading practice should receive feedback from someone (e.g., teacher, parent, volunteer, other students, computers) and it should include rereading — you practice the texts to improve with them. There are now a couple of studies showing that we can build fluency through silent reading, but both studies focused on computer-delivered instruction that monitored fluency thoroughly specialized equipment.

There are lots of methods (e.g., paired reading, repeated reading, echo reading, neurological impress, Radio Reading) as well as programs (e.g., Read Naturally) aimed at providing fluency training.

Modeling can help (having someone show students what oral reading should sound like — which wouldn’t make sense in your case — or, more commonly, this modeling would include reading a short portion of text to students, and then having them give it a try.

Round robin reading refers to one student reading while everyone else listens. Which is what your letter describes. You seem to see this as an issue of motivation, but it is one of teaching. It is not that the oral reading practice that round robin provides is so bad (motivationally or instructionally). But round robin reading allows for so little reading practice. It is terribly inefficient. The person who is learning during round robin is the reader — which means 25 other kids are sitting there waiting for their turn.

In a middle school in which classes might last only 45-50 minutes, that is a terrible waste of time, especially with good readers.

While I encourage, and even require, oral reading instruction in middle schools, I don’t countenance round robin. Engage your kids in paired reading and they’ll get much more oral reading practice than in the round robin approach that you are using. And, if the point was to help students to make sense of the text, I’d encourage you to do that with silent reading — including the silent reading of the short text portions that you describe.

If your students can’t read an eighth-grade text at 150-175 wcpm making it sound like English, then it is legitimate to teach oral reading.

But if one student is reading, and everyone else is just listening, then we’re not on the same page.

Instead of you reading Frederick Douglass to the kids, I’d encourage them to read it silently. If they have difficulty making sense of it, I would definitely show them how to use oral reading (or whisper reading) to untangle those complicated 19th-century sentences.

Sorry, on this one, I agree with your principal.