Last year I wrote about ‘echo reading’:

…last week I … watched English teacher Rhys Williams do something I’d never seen before. He was teaching The Tempest to a low prior attaining Year 8 class and was focussing on the moment in Act 3 scene 1 where Ferdinand and Miranda first begin flirting. What he did was to allocate lines to different members of the class that they would read aloud after listening to him reading them first, attempting to emulate his tone, emphasis and pronunciation. While I was watching I wasn’t sure whether it was working. The students were reading aloud with impressive fluency and sophistication, but where they following the plot? Did they understand what the characters were expressing? A post-reading discussion made it clear they did. When I spoke to various students in the class they talked about how much they enjoyed this way of reading the text: it gave them confidence to read aloud and helped them understand Shakespeare’s meaning. I’ve christened this approach ‘echo reading’ and I commend it to you.

Since writing, I’ve learned a lot more about teaching fluency. Firstly, I read Megan Cheesman-Smith and Tim Rasinski’s Megabook of Fluency and discovered that echo reading was not a clever new coinage of my own but an approach to teaching reading fluency that’s both rooted in research and with a long pedigree.

We shared echo reading with schools across OAT and Holly Lawes, Head of English at Cliff Park Academy in Great Yarmouth decided that it would be a central plank in their approach to reading. When I went to watch Holly teach a reading fluency lesson I was blown away: it was one of the best lessons I’ve seen. Students were given a copy of the first scene from Simon Armitage’s brilliant play script of Homer’s Odyssey and told that they would be building up to a whole class performance by the end of the lesson. Holly began my modelling Zeus’s first line: “This is what I say: Odysseus must be punished!” by capturing the imperious tone of an angry Greek god. The class duly chorused back the line. They then discussed what Zeus was feeling, what his attitude to Odysseus might be and whether a different tone of voice might work better. Students were asked for suggestions of how to deliver the line and several were experimented with before they agreed which was most successful. Bit by bit, Holly and the Year 7 class worked through the extract with some students echoing back lines individually and some being chorused by the whole class until they had performed the scene with a fair degree of panache. At the end of the lesson, the students were buzzing. I asked one boy what had been his favourite part of the lesson and, with a wild grin on his face he hissed out, “Everything!”

Since then, I’ve been modelling fluency lessons in several different schools with a range of different classes. Predictably, some classes are a harder sell than others. While anyone can get an enthusiastic reaction from a group of Year 7s, it can feel much harder to use this approach with a surly set of Year 9s. That said, It’s important for teachers to see the struggle and get a feel for how to make sure every student takes part despite their awkwardness and embarrassment. I always start with whole class choral responses and then tend to split them into groups. Maybe one side of the class echoes one line while the other side echoes another. From there we’ll move to smaller groups, then pairs and maybe even individuals if they’re confident enough. Some students are overcome with nervous giggles and need to go through their line word by word. Occasionally, students point blank refuse to read and have to be given the choice of following the school’s disciplinary procedure or following reasonable instructions. At no point is any individual made to feel humiliated: they’re only ever echoing back my reading of the text in question.

So far, every class I’ve tried this with has experienced some sort of success. Even groups for whom this approach to reading feels utterly foreign have progressed from halting mutters to a certain degree of confidence. But when it really works, the students are breathless with excitement and purpose. They feel they’re been part of something powerful and special, and are hungry for more. Teachers are often surprised by some of the individuals who shine, with students who are thought of as ‘quiet’ coming to life. I’m always interested that students who are seen as brash and confident are not always the ones who get the most from fluency lessons: the inclusive group dynamic leads to a sense of accomplishment in which no one is the centre of attention. The key to this working is repetition: to keep modelling and echoing as many times as necessary for reading a line to become fluent. And, of course, the more often students experience fluency lessons, the more culturally normal the experience becomes.

Apart from students (on the whole) really enjoying fluency lessons, the real point is the experience they get of reading fluently. At first, many students listen to the modelled reading and then read as haltingly and erratically as ever. It’s when the process is repeated to the point where they are made to be successful that things begin to change. I’ll give instructions such as, “Listen to what happens when the comma comes up – can you hear the pause? The change in tone? Make yours the same.” Or, “Pay attention to the way the pace and volume are picked up here – you need to show you’re changing form thoughtful to excited.” This focussing on how the detail or a text changes the way we read can transform students’ understanding of meaning. As they repeat a line and get it right they can hear what it means. This is especially important for dense, unfamiliar texts like poems or Shakespeare plays, but it works with pretty much anything. Recently I’ve taught fluency lessons using Act 2 scene 2 of Macbeth, the brilliant boxing match in chapter 19 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first chapter of Great Expectations, and poems as diverse as Edward Thomas’s ‘Adelstrop,’ Keats’ ‘Lamia’ and Angelou’s ‘Woman Work’ with students from Year 7 to Year 12. In each case, even where students have been initially reluctant, I’ve had a blast!

Reading fluency has been built in to our KS3 curriculum and we recommend that students experience fluency lessons at least once per fortnight.