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Why is reading out loud controversial?

I didn’t realize this before making the course, but there are debates raging on the Internet and on YouTube about whether reading out loud either:

  • …is good for you; or
  • …will ruin your live

My advice is to take a practical approach. It won’t ruin your life. At the same time, it’s not right for everyone. You should listen to the pros and cons, and then make your own decision.

Reading out loud is one technique; it’s one tool in your toolbox. You can’t build a house with one hammer, so we shouldn’t expect to be great speakers from just one technique. Likewise, tools are only effective if you use them correctly.

This is my way of saying: use this tool properly, but don’t expect too much from it.

Trauma of reading out loud in school

Did your teachers make you read out loud in school? Mine did. The teachers would make a full classroom of 20 or more students open the same book to the same page. The teachers would then call on someone to read part of the book out loud to the rest of the class. After a few minutes, the teachers would call on someone else to continue reading.

This went on for the whole class!

Let’s think about what this experience is like for each person:

For the student reading

Traumatizing! Instead of paying attention to the words, the student reading is:

  • Nervous about pronouncing a word incorrectly
  • Embarrassed if it takes him a longer time to try to say a word
  • Disengaged from the content because he’s so busy worrying about the pronunciation that he can’t think about what the words mean.

For the other students in the class

Boring! And worse than useless. No offense to the student reading, but the student reading is probably not reading it very well. And that means that the listeners can’t concentrate on the content. Everyone else spends the whole class hoping they are not called upon to read next.

The whole experience is a waste of time. Thankfully, that’s all behind us.

Now that we can reflect on how ineffective this was in the classroom, we can think about whether it’s right for us as individual adults. Let’s review the pros and cons of reading out loud as an adult.

Pros of reading out loud

There are some good reasons to practice this as an adult. They are:

  • Repetition: Reading ahead of time reduces the mental strain of pronunciation for the next time you have a conversation with someone in real life.
  • Confidence: By practicing the pronunciation ahead of time, you’ll have more confidence in your speaking and you’ll be willing to take more risks.
  • Transition from passive to active: How many words do you recognize on the page, but you’ve never used yourself? Probably thousands! By saying those words out loud–even if it’s at home with nobody listening–you are helping to transition those words from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary.

Cons of reading out loud

Are you convinced? Not so fast. There are some down sides as well:

  • Confusing spelling: You don’t need me to tell you that words in English are not necessarily pronounced like they are spelled. (Though, thought, through; etc.) Therefore, you cannot tell just by looking at a word how you should say it.
  • Risk of saying it wrong: If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, you can guess. But you might guess wrong. And if you guess wrong, then you take all the learning power of reading out loud and you turn it against yourself. There is a real risk of teaching yourself the wrong pronunciation.
  • Written and spoken English are different: Written English is (often) meant to be read silently. You can read it out loud, but you won’t sound like a speaker. You’ll sound like someone reading a book. The risk is that you’ll practice sounding like a textbook and not like a normal person.
  • Not engaged with the content: The sound and the content go together. If you don’t know what you’re saying, it won’t sound good. That’s why it’s impossible to pick up a text and start reading it if you want to sound natural. You have to know what you’re saying before the words start coming out of your mouth.

So now are you convinced not to read out loud? It’s okay if you are. It’s not for everyone. However, in the next lesson, we talk about ways to get the benefits without suffering from the drawbacks.