Is Round Robin Reading Really that Bad?

  • 29 July, 2019
  • 24 Comments

Teacher question:

I teach fourth-grade social studies at my school and I have an ongoing argument with our reading coach. Perhaps you can help me. She says that the way I teach is bad, but it works, and I see no reason to change. My students take turns reading paragraphs aloud and when each one finishes then I ask them questions or explain what the book said. I like it because the students are attentive and when I do have them try to read the book silently, they don’t get it. Can you help me with the reading coach?

Shanahan’s response:

You know, when I became a teacher the professors were telling us that, too. They told us that what they called “round robin reading” was a horrible practice and that only bad teachers used it.

In fact, I agreed with their judgment. I could remember such turn-taking reading when I was a boy. Our teachers were pretty harsh, so when a student made a mistake or read the wrong sentences, it was terribly embarrassing.

We were supposedly paying attention when the other kids read, but what we were really doing was counting sentence so that we could practice a bit and miss out on the embarrassment.

That, of course, didn’t always work.

One day, I thought I’d figured out which lines I was supposed to read, and I would have if the kid before me hadn’t screwed up. The teacher rapidly assigned that kid’s part to me and I wasn’t even sure where to start.

I looked dumber than usual!

No, I was not a big fan of round robin reading. The professors were right. Round robin was bad.

Then I became a third-grade teacher, and I had my own social studies book to teach.

And, I bet you can guess what I did. I used round-robin reading. I used because it kept the kids on task, I could be sure they read the text, and frankly, I didn’t know what else to do. Sound familiar, right?

Nevertheless, I still agree with your reading coach. I was wrong and, respectfully, I suspect that you are, too. As are literally thousands of teachers—they were telling me not to do it 50 years ago, but these days round robin appears to still be de rigueur (Ash, et al., 2009), and it will be 50 years from now if we don’t end it ourselves.

What does all that mean? Simply that while I sympathize with you, I think there are better ways to go in terms of teaching social studies and teaching reading.

By grade four, kids should be doing most of their reading for comprehension silently, not orally. Studies have long shown that 9-year-olds comprehend better reading aloud than silently but you have to start somewhere. I’d encourage you to try.

Last year I was working with a group of middle-school kids. I assigned some pages in their social studies book and, just like you, when we reached the discussion it was evident that they had blown off the reading. I guess I could have gone back to oral reading—I would have all those years ago. But this time I went the other way. I told the kids how disappointed I was and gave them a second chance. On that go round, they did the reading—perhaps not perfectly, but they did the reading and that is a start.

Talk to your kids about the importance of silent reading, tell them why you want them to get some practice in doing it, and that they are going to have learn to read social studies and science and the books from other subjects silently.

Initially, keep the text segments brief—maybe a paragraph each, just as you were doing with your round robin reading. That will allow you to question the kids about the content and you’ll be able to tell how they are doing. When they have trouble with it, have them read it again. (You will be teaching social studies, reading, and persistence).

If they still have trouble, have them read a sentence at a time and question them intensively. For example, here is a sentence from a fourth-grade social studies text:

In the Middle Ages, monasteries and convents had libraries.

Where were the libraries?

What is a monastery?

What is a convent?

What is a library?

When were the libraries in the monasteries and convents?

Once the kids start having some success, move the goal. If they can read single sentences silently with comprehension, then have them try paragraphs. If they can handle single paragraphs, then try assigning 2 or 3. Keep stretching them out.

Recently, I was speaking to some teachers about the teaching of oral reading fluency (that is teaching kids to read text aloud with accuracy and with appropriate speed and expression). Research shows that teaching kids to read text fluently has a positive impact on reading comprehension.

The teachers wanted to know if they could use round robin to support fluency development.

The fluency instruction that has worked does require that the kids do oral reading, and round robin reading is certainly oral.

But there are some problems that would have bothered my old professors.

One thing I should point out is that kids get to do very little reading in your social studies lessons. The only kids who are really reading is the sweaty-palmed ones who are reading aloud (the other kids aren’t really following along).

Let’s face it, in a 30-minute social studies lesson, each kid would typically get to read a minute or less. That means social studies would add fewer than three hours of reading time per year—not enough to help the kids.

What if, instead of that, you had the kids read sections of the text aloud to each other (partner reading) and then discuss and answer your questions? You should circulate among the partners making sure that they are reading well and when they are not, they need to reread; such repeated reading is effective in promoting fluency.

The reading part of social studies can be done quite effectively either silently—giving kids great reading comprehension practice; and it can be done orally using partner reading and repeated reading (and this can be supplemented with some occasional reading while listening, that is chorally reading the material along with you (I’d lead off with that, and then turn the kids loose on it, either silently or aloud).

When I talk to middle school and high school social studies teachers, they tell me the worst barrier to their success is the fact that their students often struggle to read social studies texts. They, too, fall into the trap of round robin reading (because the kids don’t act out and they can be sure they cover the material that way). Sounds familiar right?

Why not help them out?

Start teaching your kids to read social studies now. Instead of finding a way around that goal with round robin reading that gives kids way too little practice and not exactly the right kind of practice, let’s plunge kids into reading and rereading their social studies silently and orally in an effort to try to figure out the content.

My regards to your reading coach.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito
Jul 29, 2019 03:04 AM

First you are sooooooo right RR is bad.
All your ideas are useful. Tim Rasinski believes repeated reading for a purpose also helps Especially have a look at his Megabook He even includes passages by great figures like JFK and MLK. Good on so many levels!!!!

Carole Davies
Jul 29, 2019 03:06 AM

I used reciprocal teaching to teach nonfiction text. My students loved it and research shows it's highly effective. This method also teaches skills that students can use independently. I highly recommend it!

Sherry Moser
Jul 29, 2019 03:10 AM

Thanks, Tim. This is a consistent conversation with my Elementary undergrads. I will direct them to this blog for back up!

Stephanie
Jul 29, 2019 03:27 AM

Round Robin reading gives the teacher a false sense that the class is engaged, when in reality it is the opposite. The student who has already read is no longer paying attention, the student reading is worried about embarrassing himself, and the rest are awaiting their turn.

Yet, what is the barrier that keeps Round Robin reading alive? It's easy. It looks good on the surface if someone walks in your classroom. Yet, outside of school walls you do not sit in meetings and discuss the book study by Round Robin reading. In order for students to engage in more authentic literacy situations, Round Robin needs to become the rare act rather than the regular routine. Thank you so much!

Hilde Stroobants
Jul 29, 2019 06:15 AM

I was a fluent reader, but when I had to read out loud, I would not remember what I had read because of the stress of reading out loud. Great advice in this message.

Lori Bolone
Jul 29, 2019 10:10 AM

There are definitely alternatives to RRR. I remember waiting in absolute fear throughout upper elementary grades and middle school and even high school when a teacher would RRR throughout the classroom. What about choral reading or echo reading in the upper elementary grades-- partnered with pair reading and then consistent independent reading cross-content? I have had great success with the choral and echo reading in elementary and even used it at the secondary levels for intervention. Both strategies open a window for progress monitoring also.

Literacy Specialist
Jul 29, 2019 11:16 AM

Thank you for your insights on a recurring issue. There are a variety of alternative strategies, as already mentioned. In middle school, it is important for students to take the reins of their content reading and comprehension. I've noticed that many students respond positively to reading in triads. One reads a section, one questions, and one answers and then the roles switch. Teaching silent reading and self-questioning supports the student in developing independence. For students far below grade level, providing a cloze or note-taking outline may be required.

Nancy
Jul 29, 2019 12:07 PM

Yes!!! One of the biggest problems with reading informational text silently is that teachers ask students to read too much at a time. Tim's suggestion to read SHORT portions (a paragraph, even just a sentence) is perfect. This keeps kids engaged and allows the teacher to monitor comprehension--with nobody getting lost. You can also get in a little oral reading (and retrieval of precise evidence) if you say, "Could you read me the sentence where you found that detail?" One potential problem to try to avoid is to have them respond to questions in their own words rather than just quoting from the book. Some kids are very savvy about finding the right quote, but don't really understand the meaning.

Kay Brewton
Jul 29, 2019 01:10 PM

Thanks Tim for once again coming to our rescue! Sharing with all of the teachers and administrators who attended your three days with us.

K

Sandra
Jul 29, 2019 01:23 PM

My (and my students) favorite comprehension check is Quizizz. After they read the passage, I have questions prepared online, and students anticipate this so read through the passage with the intent of learning the material. After reading time, they complete the quizizz. At a glance, I can see who has mastered the content- and as a bonus I have a mark for them without spending my evening marking. As we review the questions when the quiz is complete, this is my opportunity to clarify and expand on discussions. This helps those who may have struggled with the reading to have an opportunity to learn the material. My students are always disappointed when we don’t have a quiz-they ask for one daily. I find it a highly effective way to engage students and make sure they all have learned the material in class.

Martha Kohl
Jul 29, 2019 02:20 PM

Totally agree. I've often encouraged partner reading with many different variations to increase oral fluency as well as aid in comprehension. Here's a link I've referenced at times as well: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/alternatives-to-round-robin-reading-todd-finley

Jennifer Throndsen
Jul 29, 2019 02:22 PM

As the former Coordinator of PreK-12 Literacy for Utah, and now as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Utah, I can understand your perspective. When I took the position as the Literacy Coordinator, I joked that eradicating round robin reading was one of my primary missions in taking the position, but in all honesty we can do better and these strategies can help all our children become successful readers without the pitfalls of RRR. We have used RRR for a very long time in our system and luckily there are very few things we do instructionally that have a negative impact on student achievement, but there are strategies that are more effective than others. In this case, there are many other strategies that would have much greater impact. I created a list of 6 strategies that are replacements for RRR and increase student engagement and opportunities for practice. These strategies greatly increase the number of students participating in reading, provide scaffolded support for students who are still developing their reading skills, and increase accountability for all students to be active players in their education. Here is a link to a poster of the 6 strategies as well as a description for each one: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/18-QwNFzgD1c3lHAK5LVetvsxv_zC3Elf?usp=sharing. Thanks for being willing to ask your question!

Rachel Owen
Jul 29, 2019 02:39 PM

Early in my career I adopted alternatives to RRR when my county Office of Ed provided training by Anita Archer. I also learned alternatives to asking a question and then calling on a single student. Here is a link that demonstrates some of her techniques.

https://explicitinstruction.org/video-elementary/elementary-video-2/

Rachel Owen
Jul 29, 2019 03:02 PM

My comment, I suppose, is more about group size than reading instructional strategies.

I teach ELD at the middle school level. I have a number of kids who, at the beginning of the lesson, will ask me if they can read aloud during the lesson. Perhaps this is because we are generally sitting in a small group (4 or 5) with no more than 10 students total in the room? When they enter their social studies class later in the day, I know they aren’t going to do the same thing in that class of 32 students! I wish every student in every school could have at least one period a day with just a small group.

Also, I put a great deal of emphasis on training my students to do their part to maintain a safe atmosphere for asking questions and making mistakes. And again, this is easier to do with a small group of students, many of whom I have for a few consecutive years.


Deb
Jul 29, 2019 04:56 PM

Agreement all around. To build on Tim's suggestion about partner reading, and Carole's suggestion to use Reciprocal Teaching, I also have been incorporating the major thinking of Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris into my reading work with students. The overarching idea in their book Who's Doing the Work? is that teachers have embraced scaffolding TOO much and it's time for us to put more of the onus of learning on students. So, in this social studies case, partner reading (or reading independently) followed by partner discussion, would be much preferred over RR. In that partner discussion, students can talk about everything from vocabulary to overall meaning to sharing how they decoded a difficult word, and so much more. A follow-up whole class discussion can be fruitful for all - students are empowered to share their learning, students learn from their peers, and the teacher has the basis for not only a rich conversation but also informal assessment of HOW students are reading and where/ in what they warrant further instruction.

Elizabeth
Jul 29, 2019 05:54 PM

What methods could you recommend in order for teachers to have a chance to hear students reading?

Lisa
Jul 29, 2019 07:18 PM

What about primary children? Is there a place for RR in 1st & 2nd?

Nancy Barth
Jul 29, 2019 07:39 PM

Another thing to consider is whether the student you are asking to read aloud can actually read the words. Social studies texts are often written without grade level in mind, let alone reading level. My current dyslexic student is ten. She can read CVC words, is learning some vowel teams, can read two syllable words with closed syllables, and open and closed one syllable words. She couldn’t read monasteries or libraries.

Tim Shanahan
Jul 30, 2019 03:22 AM

Elizabeth-
It makes great sense to teach oral reading fluency. I prefer paired reading as it uses time especially well. If you have 24 kids in your class you can have 12 pairs reading, with as few as one books and as many as 12. The teacher circulates among the pairs and you can usually evaluate 5-6 readers per 30 minute period and I’d do this daily.

Tim

Kellie
Jul 30, 2019 01:53 PM

Thank you for your blog. You challenge teachers to make informed decision about their practice. What I especially love about this post is that you acknowledge why teachers keep coming back to this practice and give a strong alternative approach that truly helps students develop as readers. Thank you!

Ms. Dori
Jul 30, 2019 05:58 PM

On occasion, as an alternative to partner reading of texts, give the students a little extra time to read all of the text, each student reading silently to himself/herself then discussing it as a class or with the partner. The text might need to be broken down in "digestible bites", but every student will be reading and discussing all of it.

Cheryl young
Jul 31, 2019 04:31 AM

Repeated reading, after the teacher has modeled the prosody can build comprehension, I have found. Even if it is just a few sentences at a time. After several go arounds, a discussion can become rich with analysis of structure and references to earlier connections from past texts. This is a slow process but I have found that a few paragraphs can yield a full range of new learning, while teaching students to attend to the nuances present in the text. Quality over quantity. I am a special ed teacher - by the way... I am wired for small bit golden nuggets of success. Wink.

Esther
Jul 31, 2019 06:25 PM

I disagree with Stephanie in that I engage in Round Robin reading with other adults on a regular basis in book studies where we are reading the material together in its entirety or in small parts. I think the difference is my interest level. As an adult, I'm engaging because I want to and it doesn't matter if I don't engage -- I'm only hurting myself. As teachers, we have to hold kids to a higher standard than voluntary participation in class readings.

Flora
Aug 17, 2019 04:46 PM

THANK YOU! I have been looking for something like this for a few years! I do not like round robin reading because students don't pay attention and it is down right boring!

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Is Round Robin Reading Really that Bad?

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