Let them read

How well a person reads out loud is not a reliable indication of how well the person can read.  Unfortunately it’s the only measure of comprehension we’ve come up with, other than asking the person to recount the events or information in what they’ve read, so we keep making our assessments of reading ability based on a vocal performance of the text.*

Like any vocal performance, reading aloud requires several processes that reading doesn’t.  It requires pronunciation and thus choices about pronunciation, which reading definitely does not require and which can be very distracting when you’re trying to understand what’s happening.  (I’ve overheard, for example, several heated conversations between young people about the pronunciation of Hermione; such pronunciations tend to live as truth however they are first performed by the adult reading the story aloud!  But even the correct pronunciation of other words (that aren’t proper nouns) may not be necessary for successful reading and may in fact confuse and confound the process.  It’s possible to recognize words and know what they mean such that you can continue with a text, even if you can’t pronounce them quickly and easily.)   So reading aloud takes pronunciation.

It also takes speaking, which reading doesn’t and which comes more easily to some than others. This is not to say that it’s not useful to practice speaking if it’s something you struggle with; it just might be better practiced when you’re not also trying to read.

Reading aloud also takes thinking about how you sound to the people listening, which reading doesn’t.  That’s a big one, and I’d venture to say it’s at the root of many a person’s stage fright.  Being on stage is not inherently frightening, and yet many of us are paralyzed by it as we aren’t by any other fear.  We start early being forced to perform what we read, before we’ve even mastered the reading.  Wouldn’t that set anyone up for performance anxiety? Regardless, if you’re worried about how you sound and how you’re doing, it may well get in the way of your actual reading.

All these things are not reading.  Only reading is reading, and when you’re new to it, it can take a lot of concentration and focus to do it. The rest is distracting and can render the process unnecessarily difficult, overwhelming, and stressful.   If we’re interested in making reading itself possible, we’ll let kids just do it and figure out other means, besides requiring that they perform during it, to determine whether or not they need our help with it.

*Update/clarification: I had it gently called to my attention that I didn’t say exactly what I mean in this first paragraph. It’s not that I think these are the only measures we’ve come up with.  It’s just that they’re often, still, the default measures (partly because they’re the ones we remember from when we were learning), and they’re bungling things up for lots of kids.

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