Fast and Garbled Oral Reading is Due to Social Pressure Among Students

Groups Mohamed, one of my tutoring students, was already in Grade 7 with a serious reading problem; his reading level was only about Grade 5.  In order to disguise this, whenever he was asked to read aloud, either in class, or in a small group, he would read twice as fast as he normally spoke, only pronounced the beginnings of words, slurred the rest, and mumbled as much as possible.  This way, students hear his voice reading quickly, even if what he says is not understood.

However, the surprising thing is that even excellent readers are in the habit of reading aloud in the same way.  When I investigated as to why this was so, I discovered that students judge each other, and even bully each other, based upon their reading speed in class!  The reason for reading so quickly, no matter that it sounds like, “”blethebletheblethebletheblethebletheblethe…” is to show off one’s quick reading ability to other students, to show that one can read at least as fast, if not faster than, other students.  This style of reading is equally common from elementary school through high school.

Reading Aloud

Mohamed was an intelligent boy who had lost all confidence in himself.  Mohamed attends an American School in an African country, and Mohamed was threatened with being expelled from school the following year if his grades did not improve (the policy of schools in this country if one has poor grades for two years in a row) .  Unfortunately, this is what it took before Mohamed’s parents took his problem seriously.

I worked with Mohamed for two years to bring both his reading and math up to grade level.  His reading is still far below what it should be, but it is greatly improved, and his oral reading is now excellent.  In order to start by breaking his bad habits, as well as not wanting him to get hung up on vocabulary he did not know, we went all the way down to a Kindergarten primer.  I keep the McGuffey Readers at home for students who need a graduated program that starts simply.  I insisted both on reading slowly enough to enunciate the ending of every word clearly, and on reading with great expression, as if we were putting on a play.  Sometimes we took turns reading sentences, or various dialog parts in a story.  We also read fairy tales with great expression.  We moved gradually through the books, and by the time we got halfway through the Grade 2 book, completely new reading habits had been established with easy material.  It was then easy to move on to harder material.

Now Mohamed is having to read more difficult books in school, books such as The Outsiders and Animal Farm, which on his own are still above his reading level.  Yet, Mohamed’s spoken English (not his native language) is excellent, better than most other students in the school.  He has the right pronunciation, rhythm, and inflection, all of which help him tremendously.  So with these more difficult books, I have taken another approach.  I read aloud with expression, while he follows along silently.  We stop frequently to discuss and clarify what’s happening, new vocabulary, discuss how we feel about what’s happening, what we think might happen next, whether we agree with the characters’ decisions, what we might do in the same situations, etc.  Then when Mohamed is asked to read in class in his small group, he has no trouble doing this and understanding what he is reading, following our sessions.

Surprisingly, even though he now reads aloud far better than others in his class, the others still try to bully him because his oral reading speed is slower than theirs, even though he is reading at a normal adult-speaking speed, and very clearly.  He has gone to several teachers at school and they all tell him that he is reading aloud better than the others now.  What this means is that dominant students want to pressure others into doing it “their way,” even if that way is not correct.

–Lynne Diligent

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3 Responses to “Fast and Garbled Oral Reading is Due to Social Pressure Among Students”

  1. Happy Elf Mom Says:

    Congrats to Mohamed! And to you!

    Am I understanding his native language is generally spoken more quickly than English? Though of course, even in English, variations don’t mean someone is “wrong.” People in New York City really do speak more quickly than we do in the Midwest generally. 🙂

  2. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Happy Elf Mom, Good question, but no, I don’t think his fast reading has anything to do with his native language. We are in a school where students gain prestige with good grades and doing well in comparison with others. I’ve also noticed that even in America, younger people speak more quickly than older people. I recall speaking very quickly when I was in my 20s and working. I think young adults speak quickly to show their energy and enthusiasm. I slowed down my rate of speech after moving overseas and finding that non-native speakers could not understand that rate of speech. As we get older, we become more concerned about our listeners’ comfort, rather than the “image” we ourselves want to project. I think this is true in most cultures. Reading habits are an extension of, and to some degree, even a reflection of speaking habits. He’s reading quickly because he’s young and everyone else is reading quickly. It’s a way to acquire prestige among that age group.

    However, I’m reminded of another experience I once had which may interest you. I was visiting Burundi (Central Africa) in 1990. One person I knew was translating from English to the local African dialect,and back to English for me. When translating, he always seemed to be saying a lot more than what I said, as well as saying a lot less back to me after someone said something in the local dialect. When I asked him about it, he told me that in the Burundian language (I don’t know the proper name for it) that it took about three times as long to say the same thing as it would take in English or French. I was very surprised.

  3. sandford johnson Says:

    Dear Miss Diligent,

    I was interested in your explanation for children reading aloud so rapidly that they can’t be understood. I tutored a second grader last year who had that problem but I attributed it to shyness. I later found that he was being bullied by a classmate. By the time this was rectified, his habit was very stubborn. The school only allotted us a half-hour a week and there were many holidays and sick days, so I am afraid I didn’t make much progress.

    I applaud your calling attention to what seems to be a widespread problem and offering very effective ways of dealing with it.

    Thank you, Priscilla in Indiana

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