Listening while reading: can it actually help develop reading skills?

[Thanks to @Sarah_WG on ELT Pics for the photo]

A little while ago I went to the recording of the listening component of my new coursebook- Real Life Global Advanced. I was surprised to discover (because nobody had ever actually mentioned it) that all the reading passages were also being recorded.

‘But how will listening to a reading passage help them develop reading skills?’ I wondered. In fact, as I have discovered by reading up on the area since, it just might.

We are increasingly aware that reading is an excellent way of developing language, as learners are exposed to language in context. However, many students read very slowly and laboriously in English, slowly decoding every word.  At this speed, it is very difficult for them to actually understand the meaning of the text because they are constantly dealing with isolated words and phrases.

When reading in our native language most of us carry out this decoding with a good degree of automaticity, leaving us free to focus on higher order comprehension processes. Think of this like learning to drive a car. When we first start learning, it seems impossible that we will ever be able to manage the gears, clutch, accelerator as well as actually look where we are going. But an experienced driver can do all these things with such automaticity that he or she can also carry on a conversation or listen to the radio, while keeping focused on changing conditions on the road.

But how can we help our learners to get to this kind of automaticity when reading? One way is, of course, by encouraging extensive reading outside of the classroom. But there is another strategy: repeated reading.

The idea behind repeated reading, which was originally developed by Samuels in 1979, is to help non fluent readers develop automaticity in their decoding. Students read and re-read a passage either aloud or silently. Think of it as drilling for readers!

Now, my first thought was that this would help with reading that particular passage, but that it would not necessarily be transferred to anything else the students might read. But research shows that I was probably wrong in that assumption.

According to Taguchi and Gorsuch (2002), for example, the ‘effects of re-reading a passage for L1 readers are carried over to a new unpracticed passage with regard to reading rate and accuracy’ and they cite Carver & Hoffman, 1981; Dowhower, 1989; Faulkner & Levy, 1994; Herman, 1985; Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985 and Samuels, 1979). It also helps with comprehension (Dowhower, 1989; Morgan & Lyon, 1979; Young et al., 1996). And finally, ‘repeated reading enables L1 readers to read in larger and more meaningful phrases’ (Dowhower, 1989).’

Now these studies all looked at L1 readers, and Taguchi and Gorsuch’s 2002 finding with L2 readers was inconclusive, for various reasons. However, it seems from a later article by Gorsuch in Language  that there is evidence that it can work for L2 learners too. I say seems, because for some reason the end of the article is missing from the PDF!

There are lots of different ways (more fun that it might sound at first) of carrying out repeated reading, which I will look at in a follow up post, but one of the key ways is known as assisted repeated reading, and often involves using a recording of the passage being read.

The student, who will have already read the passage silently at least once, reads the passage again, possibly several times, while listening to the recording. This helps him or her to build the connections between the way the word is written, the word itself, and what it sounds like. It also exposes him or her to all the meaning inherent in the pronunciation: the pitch, tone and emphasis.

Seeing words repeatedly in context has been found to help L1 learners transfer their word recognition to other contexts much better than lists of isolated words. Grabe (1991) suggests that this may apply to L2 learners as well. I haven’t yet come across any research which proves this, but it makes perfect sense to me. After all, isn’t this just another way of getting students to ‘notice’ language in context, which most people agree helps with acquisition.

So, in the end, I concluded that having the reading texts on audio may actually be providing teachers with the opportunity to try out a different way of helping their learners both to read more fluently and to acquire language.

And this kind of practice may also help learners to read more extensively outside the classroom because if they can read more automatically, they will enjoy it more and make more sense of it.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Teaching methodology

12 Responses to Listening while reading: can it actually help develop reading skills?

  1. Rachel,

    Every time I read your blog I feel like I should buy you a cake or a card or something to say thank you in a more solid way than just a bunch of words. I would guess that I read any text I use in class to my students at least 5 or 6 times. Usually I have them focused on some sort of language awareness task, but knowing that hearing the text and linking it up to the words could have benefits (and thank you for doing the long hard work of the lit search on this) makes me feel just a little bit more confident in what I am doing.

    And I was so nodding in agreement when I got to the last line of this post. Reading should be enjoyable. Anything we do which moves students towards the land of “enjoyable reading” is more than worthwhile.

    Thanks again.


    (Just wondering…what kind of cake do you like?)

  2. Kevin, thank you! That is such a lovely thing to read, and definitely as good as cake (well, maybe not carrot cake, my personal favourite) 😉
    I think we often do things in the classroom out of gut instinct that it helps (as with your reading 5-6 times), but it’s always good to find out that there is some evidence of this, isn’t it?
    Thanks again,

  3. Sophia

    Thanks Rachael, a very interesting post. That research is new to me but the rationale really appeals and as Kevin said, always good to know the research is behind you. Repeated reading/listening is a strategy teachers and students actually use all the time with L2 songs, makes perfect sense to apply it to other types of text too, and it’s something I am increasingly aware of as I read to my kids each night…Anyway, thanks for the food for thought!

    • Hi Sophia,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comments. The research was new to me too, but I agree, it is interesting.
      Good point about using songs in class- I hadn’t thought about that..and listening to and reading the lyrics to songs was one of the strategies I used when learning FLs myself.

  4. gareth @reasons4 davies

    I was reading to my nephew the other day, and watched him reading and mouthing along with the story. For the first time I realised why course books have read and listen. Thank you.

    • Yes, it’s something my kids have done too. In fact, they also do a lot of being read too and reading aloud..I have always dismissed this as being because they are just learning to read..but maybe not.

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  7. Rachael, thank you for the post.

    I believe, it’s true for any reader of any text that we are all pronouncing texts we read in our heads while reading. And if learners mispronounce the words while reading they’re likely to mispronounce these words in their speech. More than that, I noticed that my YLs tend to grasp the meaning and pronunciation of new phrases much more quickly once they heard the text being read for a number of times.

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  9. ouerdia

    Hi I néed books that shows that listening improve reading skills

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