Round Robin Reading: The Bane of the Literacy Classroom

ssanden-2Dr. Sherry Sanden is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Literacy at Illinois State University. She is a former first- and second-grade teacher and child care director. Her research interests include the ways that teachers learn about and use books and reading in early education classrooms. In this post, Sherry raises the persistent issue of Round Robin Reading in ECE classrooms. Read ahead to learn more.

Picture this: You are a third-grader seated in your classroom on a Wednesday afternoon in early October. You and your classmates follow your teacher’s direction to take out the science textbook and turn to page 32. As you pull the book out of your desk, you start to get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach because you know what is coming next. Sure enough, your teacher points to the student in the front row and says, “You read the first paragraph, Molly behind you will read the second paragraph, and so on. Go ahead.” And your heart sinks because you know that by the time the reading snakes its way to you, you will be so anxious over this public exhibition of your developing skills that you will hardly be able to utter a word. You count how many students are seated ahead of you, then rapidly scan the pages to try to locate the paragraph you will need to read. Are there any unfamiliar words that will cause you to stumble? Maybe today you’ll be lucky and get a short, easy paragraph that won’t necessitate the teacher correcting your reading in front of your friends. Or will the teacher notice that you are not following along and suddenly break the routine, making you read a paragraph that you haven’t had a chance to preview?

round robin reading

What the teacher would like to think is happening is that everyone is listening attentively as each student dutifully reads aloud a part of the text, moving throughout the room until the end of the section is reached. However, anyone who has ever witnessed this experience knows differently. Readers who are unsure of themselves are doing their best to avoid embarrassment by scanning ahead to prepare to read material that is most likely beyond their capability. Advanced readers are either reading ahead silently or staring out the window at the turning leaves, completely bored with listening to the halting performance of their classmates. Few of the learners are actually attending to the substance of the material being read.

This all-too-common routine is known as Round Robin Reading (RRR) or sometimes Popcorn Reading, and it figures prominently in many adults’ stories about negative school literacy experiences. Too many readers were turned away from reading, sometimes permanently, by being forced to suffer over and over again the anxiety, embarrassment, or boredom brought about by reading that was turned into an unrehearsed public performance in front of their peers. There is no research that supports this practice and plenty of findings that point to its detrimental effects on young readers. For instance, simple math will tell you that RRR provides less time for eyes on text per student than would having students read independently. In the typical model of RRR, each student reads aloud a page or a paragraph and supposedly “follows along” as others read. If students were provided time to read the same amount of text independently or even aloud with a partner, the amount of reading practice for each student would obviously be far more. In addition, in a classroom with students of uneven reading abilities, it is inevitable that students will be listening others whose reading is even less fluent than their own. A steady diet of that cannot hope to provide the sort of modeling of fluent reading we would hope for. Finally, it appears that struggling readers, who require our strongest instruction, often suffer the worst effects of RRR. Studies demonstrate that struggling readers are more often expected to participate in RRR, usually in texts that are too hard. Then, when they do, they are more often interrupted during their reading, especially following mispronunciation of a word, rather than being encouraged to self-monitor and fix up their own reading. This is opposite the kind of support that will create independent, self-regulating readers.

Many teachers continue to utilize RRR because they experienced it themselves and they don’t know what else to do to meet the instructional needs that they believe RRR addresses. Some teachers believe that RRR is the only way to cover reading material that students can’t read and understand on their own. They think that having their students simply read aloud, one after another, will allow them to understand material on topics they couldn’t read about independently. This does not appear to be the case—students are often too bored or distracted during RRR to truly listen to what others are reading. A big part of this problem is created when we expect all learners to read from the same material. A common example is using class sets of social studies or science textbooks, which are often written at levels beyond the reach of many of our readers. However, the plethora of nonfiction trade books written for young readers provides great resources for classroom use. If we scrap the textbook sets and substitute trade books matched to our learners’ reading needs, we won’t feel forced to read aloud the books that so many of our students couldn’t access independently. We can provide our readers with opportunities to read their own books silently because they’ll be able to, thereby avoiding the public reading of texts that they weren’t paying attention to anyway.

round robin reading 2

A second reason teachers use RRR is their belief that it is an effective way to provide oral reading practice and assess students’ oral reading abilities. While oral reading is not an exact match for silent reading, it is about as close as we can get to understanding the strategies readers use. So, assessing students’ oral reading is a valuable practice but doing it in the public arena of the classroom, surrounded by critical peers, is fraught with all kinds of problems. There are many alternatives to using RRR for assessment purposes, like listening in for a few minutes one-on-one as all students read books independently. Similarly, there many beneficial and fun ways to provide students with oral reading practice that don’t come with the baggage of RRR. One that many readers enjoy is reader’s theatre, which allows students to rehearse and perform parts in a context that is far less stressful and more entertaining than the cold reads of RRR. There are many published reader’s theatre scripts available online or in published books, or you can easily turn a favorite class picture book into a script.

Most, if not all, teachers claim that a major objective of their literacy programs is to instill in their young readers a lifelong love of books. In keeping with this, abandoning a practice that appears to have the opposite effect on students and instead developing practices that support rather than inhibit reading growth and enjoyment seems warranted. Dropping round robin reading from our instructional repertoire and substituting routines that provide children with opportunities to practice their burgeoning reading skills in safe and supportive reading environments will go a long way toward meeting this goal.



One thought on “Round Robin Reading: The Bane of the Literacy Classroom

  1. […] use books and reading in early education classrooms. Check out Sherry’s past posts at this blog here, here, here, and […]

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