As a student I was one of those kids who was desperate to be picked to read. When we studied Romeo and Juliet I got to read Mercutio, a part, I felt, I was born for.  I threw myself into it and felt I really connected with both the character and the play. This was obviously how to do things.

Fast forward to my PGCE. For the first weeks of my first placement I got to watch a lot of lessons. Being a complete novice I felt very able to criticise the lessons of many of the seasoned veterans I got to observe and one of the things I noted was that reading a Shakespeare play around the class is pretty dull for those not actually reading. As every English teacher will know, students reading the Bard aloud is rarely as gorgeous an experience as one might wish. Hearing beautiful poetry mangled by hesitant, unskilled readers benefits no one; not the reader and certainly not the listeners. All that happens is that students feel increasingly alienated by unfamiliar texts, increasingly convinced that poetry, especially that written by Shakespeare, is stupid.

But hearing a skilled reader perform the words on the page, listening to them use punctuation and syntax to create meaning, getting the sense of the prosody of unfamiliar language, can be wonderful. Students are freed from the shackles of non-fluency and able to step into other times and places, see through other eyes and consider ideas beyond the scope of their experience. Throughout my classroom career, reading aloud to my students was a guilty pleasure, something I hid behind a closed door.

The trouble was – is – that if students only listen, they’ll never acquire the familiarity with print they need to access exam papers, and the world of words beyond school. They need to see the patterns of written text, the shape of sentences, the effects of punctuation. For skilled readers this is mainly a question of exposure and determination. As Maryanne Wolf explains in Reader, Come Home, there are two distinct modes of reading, what she calls ‘screen literacy’ and ‘print literacy’. Reading on screens encourages rapid consumption, to skim and scan for information. Print literacy, on the other hand, encourages a communion of minds, deep reflection, critical thinking, the making of analogies and the noticing of detail. How we read, Wolf argues, changes our brain. What we repeatedly do is who we increasingly become. Over the past decade or so, we have all spent far more of our reading lives looking at screens and, on average, far less time curled up with a physical book. The skills of screen-literacy have crowded out those of print literacy. For children who rarely if ever pick up books, the likelihood is that they never acquire the tools required for print literacy.

Does this matter? Reading print – particularly fiction – is a unique experience. Nowhere else do we engage so deeply with another mind; there is no other human activity that encourages the same slow, careful exchange of experiences. Do we value this? The urgency here is that if we don’t use it we’ll lose it. Wolf suggests that for adult readers who have fallen out of the habits of print literacy, spending 20 minutes a day over a 2 week period can be enough to ‘re-wire’ our brains with the circuitry required for deep reading, an experience I can confirm anecdotally. But what does it take to build this ability from scratch? Even more overwhelmingly, what do we do we the estimated 20% of children who leave primary school every year unable to read fluently enough to access an academic curriculum? How do we get these children to read deeply and independently? Although the process will require specialised and dedicated intervention, it also needs children to be regularly exposed to print.

Here is the dilemma classroom teachers face: if you don’t read aloud to students then we will ensure students will struggle to make meaning from the texts we read and that non-fluent readers fall ever further behind, but, at the same time, if we don’t ask students to read print then they will never have the experiences required to develop print literacy. Clearly, we need to do both.

I’ve been struggling with what ‘doing both’ looks like for some time. Intuitive as it sounds, I’ve concluded that asking children to ‘follow along’ as a teacher reads aloud is likely to backfire. Few students read at a pace that will naturally match that of their teacher’s read-aloud speed. Some children will want to block out the teacher’s voice and read ahead, others will want to put down the book and just listen. Insisting that speeds are matched is likely to result in a split-attention effect where students are focussed on what words are coming next rather than on meaning. Although they will give the appearance of reading along they are likely to remember and comprehend less. (For those interested, this blog explains the issue in some depth.)

Then, last week I visited Wodensborough Ormiston Academy in Wednesbury and 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.

Clearly echo reading isn’t going to close the chasm between text and meaning, but it’s a start. For students who have mastered the phonetic knowledge the decode fluently, this approach really could have the potential to move them from confusion to clarity. I’ve been thinking that over time and as students’ confidence grows, the space between the teacher’s reading and the student’s echo could grow: instead of a single line the teacher might read two lines, then three, a whole paragraph and so on. At the same time, students could be encouraged to interpret the text differently and inject their own ideas on emphasis and tone.

Maybe you already do this sort of thing and call it something else? Maybe you have an even better idea for getting students to experience the benefits of hearing texts read aloud but also reading independently? In either case, or if you have a go at experimenting with echo reading, I’d love to know what you’re doing to bridge this particular gap.