Allowing Our Pupils to Listen

Man_inserting_earplugsDavid Didau has been at it again, slaying educational sacred cows . . . he has argued that it is not beneficial to require pupils to follow along when reading out loud to them, because it overloads their working memory by asking them to do two things which they cannot in fact do simultaneously.

This is a great example of how Didau reexamines our common teaching practices from first principles. The first principles in this case are:

  1. Working memory is extremely limited.
  2. No-one can multitask.
  3. Reading means hearing, either mentally or out loud.

Didau’s argument is that when we read silently, as pupils must do if they are actually to be following along, we are actually ‘hearing’ the words in our thoughts. To hear them properly, we must block out the voice of the person who is reading aloud to us, because we can’t focus on both at once. So when it appears that pupils are following along well, what they are actually doing is successfully blocking out our voice and reading the text themselves, with the additional mental burden of having to check periodically that they are at the same place as we are in the text. They can manage to do this if they are confident readers, but if they are not so confident, they are likely to end up either failing to follow and just listening, or getting in a hopeless muddle between trying unsuccessfully to follow and also half listening to the person reading aloud.

I’m not the only one of Didau’s readers who reacted against these conclusions when I first read his blog post. It’s worth reading the comments as well as the post to see how the discussion developed over there. I was going to comment, but I had so much to say, I thought I’d better write my own blog post, working through the objections that occurred to me.

1. Following along builds vocabulary and improves comprehension

It may seem that weaker readers need to listen and follow along, because we want them to be connecting the sound of the word with the word on the page, and building up their familiarity with the appearance of a wider range of vocabulary than they are capable of reading independently.

But this depends upon the fallacious idea that reading is a visual activity, when it is in fact aural. If we want weaker readers to be able to comprehend a larger vocabulary on the page, we need to give them the space to do one thing at a time. They can focus all their attention on listening to begin with, and later they can be given time to re-read the text in silence. Having already encountered the new vocabulary aurally, they are more likely to be able to decode it when reading the text themselves.

It’s not the following along which improves understanding for weaker readers, it’s the listening. And if we really want them to listen, we shouldn’t require them to follow along.

2. Following along ensures pupils are paying attention

We have to ask here, paying attention to what? Pupils cannot be paying attention to the spoken voice and reading simultaneously, so they must be doing one or the other, or a more or less muddled mixture of the two.

I’ve often asked pupils, “What’s the next word?” if I think they are not following along. I’ve expended a fair amount of effort monitoring this, because I want to insist that everyone is paying attention. But there are other ways of doing this, if we are not requiring pupils to follow along. We can ask them a quick comprehension question about what we have just read to them, for example. This is actually a more sophisticated way of monitoring attention than the mechanical focus on whether the are on the right line or the right page.

3. Pupils need to follow along so they can annotate

No, they don’t. If we are going to study a text in depth, we can begin by reading it aloud without following along, then require pupils to re-read it in silence, then go through it together as a class, discussing it in detail and annotating it. Let’s just do one thing at a time!

4. It’s the only way I can make sure they read

But following along doesn’t actually make sure they read. If they are strong readers, this isn’t an issue anyway, and if they are weak readers, they will be unable to block out your voice and concentrate on decoding, so they will end up in a muddle.

5. I prefer to follow along, so why shouldn’t my pupils be allowed to?

This is an interesting one. I must admit that when I want to study something in depth, I don’t like just listening to someone read without the anchor of the text in front of me. But what am I actually doing when I have the text there? In fact, as an advanced reader, I am impatient to begin reading the text independently and figuring it out for myself. So this actually illustrates the main point. I want to have the text in front of me because I don’t want to listen. If I’m going to listen properly, I’d better not be looking at it!

Conclusion: let them hear!

I would be very interested in further objections and counter arguments, but I can’t think of any which refute the fundamental principle that if we want to do things properly, we need to do them one at a time, and following along requires pupils to do two things simultaneously.

This is not an argument against reading out loud. Far from it: it’s a principle which gives reading out loud its proper place, without muddling it with other practices, which are also very beneficial, but need to be separated from just listening to the text.

If we allow our pupils just to listen, they can really, really listen, as I used to listen to my father when he read stories to me as a child. The main reason I have a wide vocabulary is that I began by listening to him. The main reason so many of our pupils have lower vocabularies is because they have not been given such opportunities really to listen to the voices of articulate adults.


4 thoughts on “Allowing Our Pupils to Listen

  1. I completely agree. And related to this: at Mass, where everyone has a ‘Missalette’ which prints out the liturgy and the Readings, I find myself almost the only one who has his head up, is looking at the reader and listening to his words. Everyone is staring down at this piece of paper in their hands. Sometimes I am the reader, and it’s peculiar to look out across a sea of averted faces.

    There’s power in the spoken word: more obviously when it comes to the Scriptures, but actually in every uttered word. It seems to me if we are really to receive words into our hearts, we must pay attention to the one who speaks and not be reading something to ourselves at the same time.


  2. 1. One of the things that I am yet to see unpacked is the focus in primary schools on speaking and listening. This is a skill, 100%, and it often is used as a substitute for knowledge teaching (and I realise that this seems like I am making an opposing point to yours). I won’t be able to unpack all of that statement now but here are a few things:

    a) In a pro-knowledge environment you might resist working on (please save me from online attackers) content which has been dumbed-down and dressed up again as speaking & listening. By that I mean, insist that teachers read books as the author wrote them. Do not allow teachers to re-tell stories in their own words. Avoid explaining (or removing/adapting) every bit of tricky vocabulary as you read aloud. Avoid having mini discussions every few minutes. Avoid over-dramatising the text (so that kids listen to your screams, whispers, laughs etc instead of the author’s words) Read the text, in a calm slow voice, as the author wrote it.

    In assembly, I dare you to open a book and just read to the children. You (probably) soon find that there are words, phrases, settings, characters, periods and subtleties that the children simply can not understand – the first time you read aloud. You will then wrack your brains to figure out a) how to continue reading aloud to the children and b) getting them to be able to understand what you are reading.

    2. I’m not a fan of D.Didau. I think he splits educational hairs into things that don’t matter and (in the process) misses the things that do matter.

    Making kids follow along is only as bad as what you are comparing it to. If you have a focussed, quiet classroom where pupils are accustomed to following every word you say then spending a lesson actually listening to the story of Shahrazad and King Sharyar is beautiful. It is a better thing for them to listen than for them to follow along with their rulers.

    If your pupils half-listen as you read from the white-board, if they fiddle and rock backwards and get up to use the toilet then making them follow with a ruler as you (or they) read aloud is a better thing.

    3. Really? You want the text because you want to block out the teachers voice and read ahead? Reading is fundamentally aural? Is it? Let’s think about …a foreign language. If my teacher is singing to me in German, I need the text as a ..stepping stone/walking stick/aide. The teacher’s words disappear into the air. I can’t always make out whether a pause is a gap between syllables or a different word. With the text and the teacher showing me exactly which word she is saying – I can.

    4. But maybe I have misunderstood D.D. I was rather tired when I read his post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can remember always being in trouble at grammar (2dy) school when we were ‘doing’ Shakespeare in English: i would be so annoyed at the boys who read with such little comprehension and so slowly, I would be lost in the text and the action of the play in front of me, and so far ahead, not at all aware of what was read, that I would be totally lost when called upon to read aloud.
    The other point to be borne in mind is the physiological differences between the male and female brain: males have only one speech centre, which largely switches off listening when reading and vice versa, so following a written text whilst listening is almost impossible for most males; females have two, interconnected, one in each hemisphere, so can talk and listen at the same time.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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