The problem with ‘reading along’

It has become an unwritten law of teaching that when reading aloud to students, the teacher must ensure students are reading along in their own copy of the text. This is, I contend, a bad idea. To understand why we need to consider working memory in some detail.

It’s well-known that the capacity of working memory is strictly limited – estimates range from anywhere between 4 to 9 items at any one time – but it’s less well-known that working memory is almost certainly not a single edifice. Baddeley and Hitch‘s widely accepted working memory model contains four distinct components. The central executive* (CE) focuses our attention on the information we want to process. Where there are competing stimuli – listening to the teacher vs. making sculptures out of the contents of a pencil case – it will decide which should be attended to at any given moment. As every teacher knows, even if students are determined to pay attention, they’re liable to switch focus if a bee flies into the classroom or someone farts. The CE uses three dynamic sub-components to process information. These are the phonological loop (PL), which deals with verbal information, the visuo-spatial sketchpad (VSS) which processes visual information and the spatial relationships between objects, and the episodic buffer (EB) which integrates new information from the PL and VSS with information already stored in long-term memory.

Despite the bottleneck of working memory, we are capable of holding information in the different components without too much difficulty. For instance, images processed in the VSS can be used to anchor verbal instructions and explanations, held in the PL. So, if I were to explain what a sepulchre was whilst also showing an image of what one looked like, working memory would not be in danger of becoming overloaded; in fact, the image would support the explanation. The general rule is that while we should avoid over taxing any of the individual components, visual and auditory information can be processed simultaneously without creating additional cognitive load.

So, what about reading? There’s no doubt that text read aloud will be processed by the phonological loop, but is text on the page an image processed by the visuo-spatial sketchpad, or is it sounded out internally and therefore processed by the phonological loop? This is important, because if it’s the latter then asking students to read along at the same time they are being read to runs the risk of over-burdening working memory and leading to cognitive overload.

For most of my career I uncritically accepted the self-evident truth that children must be made to ‘read along’ whenever I read aloud. I often found this problematic. Some children, typically the more able readers, often wanted to read ahead and I had to invest time in preventing them from doing so. (I should be clear here that by ‘more able’ reader I’m referring here to reading fluency and not comprehension. As I explain in this post, there is no link between reading fluency and intelligence.) Other children, often weaker readers, would tend to put down their books and just listen as I read. I developed various techniques to nip these minor acts of defiance in the bud because I knew that was in my students’ best interest.

I now think this was misguided. Silent reading is a relatively recent innovation. St Ambrose, 4th century Bishop of Milan, was considered unusual in that when he read he made no sound:

…his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud. (Augustine, Confessions Book Six, Chapter Three)

So called ‘silent’ reading actually involves turned print code into sounds internally, and thus all language whether read as text or listened to is processed in the phonological loop. The loop represents a system made up of a short-term store in which memory is represented phonologically, and a rehearsal process which preserves and refreshes the information, partly through the process of ‘subvocalisation‘.

More able readers will attempt to block out my voice so that their phonological loop can be used solely to process the text they’re reading silently to themselves. Weaker readers are often distracted by their lack of fluency – their phonological loop is divided between trying to decode phonemes and trying to attend to my voice. To resolve the issue, their central executive will switch focus away from the text so they can better listen to me. Whenever teachers insist students follow along as text is read out loud, they run the risk of over burdening students’ working memories.

For able readers this isn’t too much of a problem – as long as they’re not discovered to have been reading ahead they will have processed the text and transferred much of it to long-term memory. But for weaker readers this practice can be disastrous. Switching between different components of working memory may well induce a ‘task-switching’ penalty. Additionally, so much working memory capacity is tied up with trying to decode that there is little room left to think about meaning, when we add in the need to also block out the distraction the teacher’s voice, the battle is almost always lost.

Although ‘reading along’ is well-intentioned, it’s important to remember that students who have not stored the knowledge of phoneme/grapheme relationships in long-term memory as automated schema will not acquire this vital knowledge by being made to read real texts in classroom situations. Most children in this position require specific, targeted interventions before they can be expected to read fluently. Far, far better to allow them to dedicate all their attention on listening so that they have greater capacity to think about meaning, draw inferences and make hypotheses.

To be absolutely clear: reading aloud to students, especially weaker readers, is a good thing to do. Prosody – the sound and rhythm the words make – really aids comprehension, especially with difficult texts. The problem comes when children are expected to follow along at the same speed. Because they lack the fluency to do this their working memory overloads and derails comprehension.

For more detail on all this it’s worth reading the following:

* The existence of a central executive has been called into doubt by Sweller, Ayres & Kalyuga (2011) who suggest its theorised functions are performed in long-term memory. They argue that “an independent central executive disassociated from knowledge held in long-term memory results in an infinite regress of central executives.” Although this is currently a minority opinion, I find it convincing. 

57 Responses to The problem with ‘reading along’

  1. […] post The problem with ‘reading along’ appeared first on David Didau: The Learning […]

  2. Felicity says:

    I was wondering about that the other day after reading about dual coding. That’s going to change up what I do in class…

  3. Interesting reading. For me, getting the children in my class to read along (with a black cardboard reading strip and a pencil to dot unfamiliar words) does a few things:

    1. Helps children to clearly identify new vocabulary that needs further explanation
    2. Like an audiobook (which helped me to learn to read), matches phonemes/graphemes to good enunciation (which I model). I find that it is easier to learn and understand French/German films if there are subtitles so that I can easily pick out individual words rather than have the odd few ‘bleed’ together; a similar situation does seem to occur in young children’s writing where you can see that they have heard a phrase and sort of know how to use it, but have erroneously mashed two words together to make a new one!
    3. Helps children to learn how to focus

    The first item is really important because I want to expose the children, particularly the disadvantaged children, to higher lever texts and find a way to efficiently teach them new vocabulary. Just letting the children bumble through would mean 20 of the same questions about the same word and if there are 10 new/interesting words, then that’s a lot of questions scatter-gunned at me!

    The second item can be expanded to include understanding of intonation and how to add a little flair.

    Lastly, the ability to focus on just one thing is absolutely possible even for young children, but it doesn’t come naturally: we need to train them. If we allow for distractions, then children will not only be disturbing their own learning, but that of others too.

    I do get what you’re saying though about working memory. I try to do some pre-teaching for those who are not able readers by letting them have an extra session where they firstly just listen and can ask questions. This seems to get round the problem of overburdening working memory.

    • David Didau says:

      1. I think there are more efficient, effective ways of identifying deficits in vocabulary. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading Bringing Words to Life:

      2. I understand the point of modelling enunciation but this will take attention away from comprehension. I suppose this depends on why you’re asking children to read. As a secondary teacher I assumed it aided their concentration. If you want them to understand the text you’re better off not asking them to read along.

      3. Learning to focus is important but to think that the best way of doing this is by inducing cognitive load is absurd. Why not teach them to focus by having them listen attentively and then answer questions?

      4. Pre-teaching for weaker readers is a very good idea, if time consuming. Depending on the importance of understanding what is read, it’s probably worth the cost. However, I don’t see how that can justify asking children to overburden working memory.

      • Hello David, an interesting reading!

        After reading your article and the Quirky Teacher response I have the following questions:
        1. If what we want to work with the kids is to improve decoding (matching phonemes/graphemes for good enunciation), reading along following the teacher will be a good activity?

        2. If the aim is to build vocabulary and help kids to understand a text, it would be better to read it aloud making boys only to listen for answering questions later?

        I’m a second – third grade teacher, and I’m very interested in this debate, because building a good vocabulary and understanding and improving decoding are both very important things!

        • David Didau says:

          1. Then do so using SSP. It may also be useful to arrange 1-1 sessions where you conduct a miscue analysis.
          2. Better to read aloud: definitely. I see no reason to treat boys differently to girls though.

          Thanks, DD

          • andresbellodeharo says:

            Sorry! I didn’t want to say ‘… making boys only to listen’. I am spanish and I used ‘boys’ as a synonim of ‘kids’. It was a mistake…

            Thank you for your answer!

          • A really interesting debate. One point: I’ve never understood the need for miscue analysis. When decoding is weak, go back to the drawing board with appropriate decodable readers – ensure that all foundations, especially decoding accuracy, are in place, gradually building up confidence/fluency.Keep things as simple as possible to maintain focus on reading… A competent volunteer can do this when TA is not available.

  4. Erin Little says:

    “Silent reading in fact involves turned print code into sounds internally, and thus all language whether read as text or listened is processed in the phonological loop.” Do you have any evidence of this?

  5. […] this post from @DavidDidau this morning was useful, if only to remind us that there is a massive amount of […]

  6. Very useful summary – thanks! The logic is compelling; is there research providing empirical evidence of the effect on comprehension, in actual children, as it were?

    • David Didau says:

      If you mean, are there any classroom based studies where the effects of reading along is compared with ‘just listening’? Not as far as I know although thise would seem to be a very straightforward area in which to conduct an RCT.

  7. thinklish says:

    “Weaker readers are distracted by their lack of fluency – their phonological loop is divided between trying to decode phonemes and trying to attend to my voice.”

    Is there a specific research base to prove this? Others might argue that the reading aloud provides a boost for weaker readers in the sense that the decoding and parsing is done for them. In effect, the argument would run it closes the gap between what they will have to do on their own rather than doubling their demands.

    • David Didau says:

      Reading aloud is absolutely beneficial for weaker readers. As you say, much of the heavy lifting is done for them. My point is that listening *as well as* having to follow along is the problem.

  8. Carl Badger says:

    Does it depend on what your goal for the children actually is? For example if the children are learning to read and the text choices are at a level where you are trying to improve fluency then isn’t a read along a good thing? By having the children read words with you at certain points in the text, as the video clips on teach like a champion show, it keeps all the children engaged, meaning i can then ask key comprehension questions. I’ve done lots of reading along so that the children are exposed to words all the time and know what the words are saying. I have seen a huge impact on my pupils as a direct comparison to my cohort last year. Some of my children this year have made over 2 years progress in word reading (sight reading) and it has had a huge impact on comprehension skills as they have been exposed to far more words than before and seem to now have a better understanding of the words. By doing this, I know it is a slight control thing, I ensure that my children are reading around 30 minutes per day and staying with me as the teacher. If I allowed for children to read by themselves, which I have done before, only a select few can complete follow up tasks. I think like most things read alongs have their place.

    My question is how do we allow children who’s reading ability is poor access new language and words without allowing them to join in with a whole class read? Would we just encourage the Matthew effect more?

    • David Didau says:

      To answer you question, we can work to close the gap in terms of vocabulary acquisition, background knowledge etc by reading aloud and letting students listen. You can still check for comprehension etc to ensure they’re listening. My contention is that expecting children to read along *as well as* listen will only widen the gap.

      • Carl Badger says:

        I don’t know if what I am doing is good or bad and the article has certainly given me food for thought. I generally give the children the text to read for themselves. I then do a me read and the children follow. We often stop for knowledge acquisition and identifying words that are not well understood to explain their meaning. After this I allow for the children to read it again by themselves before doing anything with it such as comprehension.

  9. Norwich Richard says:

    Hi David, I read your article this morning and I have been thinking and worrying about it all day. I rarely find myself disagreeing with you on educational matters, but on this one I was convinced you were wrong.

    It is important I get this right though because the way I frequently run a reading comprehension lesson with my year 5/6 class is as follows: everyone has a copy of the text; children follow the text as I read it; we stop at different places to check understanding or a particular piece of vocabulary. Once finished, I read question 1, the children answer question 1, and then we discuss the answer.

    However, if what you say it true, the children will not be able to comprehend the text with this arrangement as well as if they just read it independently, or if they just listened to the text, without having to follow it.

    Tonight I tested myself. My wife read out a page of a book out loud and I followed it in a copy. Then she asked me questions on it. Then we repeated the process on the next page but instead I read the text independently and in silence. Then she asked me questions on it. My comprehension was better in the second example. I think this is because in the first instance, I spent a lot of my time making sure that I kept up with my wife, and didn’t spend enough time comprehending what she (and I) had read. Also, we followed the text at a pace she determined rather than one at which I maximised my comprehension of the text.

    We tried one final routine. She read a page and I just listened. Then I read the same page on my own. In this situation, I completely comprehended the text. Now my comprehension lessons might be a bit longer, but I might shift to this next week and get the views of my class.

    • David Didau says:

      Wow! What dedication! I think your third option is likely to be a Rolls Royce solution but as you say, it will take longer.

      The other point is that weaker readers will not be able to follow along in the first instance because of fluency issues. Your third way might be a way of helping to improve this.

  10. @davowillz says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking. I’m not sure what to make of this yet, but I have questions. Firstly how do you teach tone without using the read along approach? Secondly are other approaches really more effective? I ask pupils to read along to try and ensure they are concentrating and reading with meaning and I think silent reading can often mean no proper reading.

    • David Didau says:

      How do you teach tone? By reading *aloud* and not expecting children to follow in their own books.

      Reading along to ensure concentration is a poor proxy. Asking them to read aloud is fine – up to a point (there are some obvious and well-documented pitfalls).

      If silent reading means “no proper reading” it’s probably because children can’t read well enough to do it without it being hugely arduous. Read to them instead and do your best to arrange for specific decoding interventions so that they can read independently.

  11. paulgmoss says:

    Really interesting. On another line, wondering if separate areas are equal in terms of how they receive info. If not, would that mean there could be a preference?

  12. Oh good.
    I never ask my y3 children to read along. The confident ones read ahead and the less confident get lost. Everyone else just suffers cognitive overload.

    I always read to the children first and then give them the text afterwards.

  13. Abena says:

    Interesting. Any research or ideas on how this relates to note-taking or annotating as a shared text is read aloud?

  14. Oliver Cav says:

    Really useful post David. I had an email conversation a few years ago with Ruth Colvin Clark (she of the references you give) about this very point. Yes, she was very clear about subvocalisation when reading. And, for that reason, she warned against many online courses that have text that is also narrated.

    Additionally, she said that determining one’s own speed of progress is a strategy that helps avoid cognitive overload. In this respect, your slower readers in your whole-class activity would always be vulnerable.

  15. You’ve convinced me David. I’m going to switch to reading aloud without following, then allowing time for silent reading afterwards.

  16. Mario says:

    Hi David,

    Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, writes the following:

    “Experimenters recruited 40 Princeton students to take the CRT [Shane Frederick’s Cognitive Reflection Test]. Half of them saw the puzzles in a small font in washed-out gray print. The puzzles were legible, but the font induced cognitive strain. The results tell a clear story: 90% of the students who saw the CRT in normal font made at least one mistake in the test, but the proportion dropped to 35% when the font was barely legible. You read this correctly: performance was better with the bad font. Cognitive strain, whatever its source, mobilizes System 2 [slow, conscious, laborious thinking], which is more likely to reject the intuitive answer suggested by System 1 [the immediate, unreflective thinking by which we make most of our minute-to-minute judgments].”

    Isn’t that a case of cognitive overload? Do you see a tension between Bjork’s desirable difficulties and Sweller’s cognitive load?

  17. […] David 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. […]

  18. Sam says:

    I only came across an alternative myself a few years ago, which I ‘think’ works well. Choral co-reading. In this instance, the teacher would read the section first to model intonation and help with decoding. After this, everyone in the group re-reads the same passage out loud at the same time (yes it is quite noisy!) In this instance you get overlearning by reading it twice, it has been modelled by the teacher, and the student has (had a go at least) reading out loud. This also aleviates some pressure from the shy children who wouldn’t want to read out loud by themselves in front of their peers. (And no, the children don’t always read it out at the correct time/with the correct words on the second part, which can be a bit odd to get used to at first). I’ve only tried this with younger children, not sure what teenagers would make of the madness.

  19. With poems, the reading situations may be ones where the poem is read and re-read in different ways at different times: e.g. teacher reads poem without children following along, teacher reads poem with children reading along, child reads poem to herself, child reads poem in chorus with other people, child reads poem out loud to others, child learns poem off by heart…etc etc and combinations of these. This can happen with 4 year olds or 14 year olds.

    • David Didau says:

      I’d accept almost all of this. The only thing I’d suggest is that the reading along condition will always be sub-optimal. Sure, you can search for ways to minimise the problems but why not eliminate them altogether?

  20. Ian E Charlesworth says:

    Very interesting. I’ve looked through the comments and i cant see this question having been asked. What do you do about Shakespeare where it would be confusing if i read all parts. Even most able readers struggle to get the tone and emotion just right. Would i be right in thinking that we could watch a scene from a performance (Patrick Stewart as Macbeth, where most of the original is included and delivered clearly) then the students read it themselves as a proxy to me reading the whole thing?

    • David Didau says:

      Watching a live performance would be best, a good quality film, second best. Reading a play round the room is often turgid. That said, preparing a student performance by reading a speech/scene to be them and then getting them to master it is tremendously worthwhile.

  21. […] on from a recent post on the folly of forcing children to read along as they are being read to, I presented my thoughts on reading fluency and the problems with ‘reading along’ at […]

  22. heatherfblog says:

    You’ve pretty much convinced me (bother – as it make class reading much harder). There is one thing I’m unsure about.
    In a post of my own I argue that lack of reading in lessons as an inverse example of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. I argue that the priority of teachers on comprehension of the topic in hand and therefore avoidance of reading in lessons is at the cost necessary reading practice. For example, I could show my Year 9 class a great film about the Battle of the Somme and their comprehension of crucial issues related to the battle would be better than if I require them to read an article on the same issues. My argument in my post is that to raise reading ages we all have to sacrifice some degree of short term comprehension of our subject for the common goal of raising reading ages and ultimate benefits.
    Reading along seems to also mean a similar trade off between comprehension and opportunity for reading practice. Should we assume reading along is actually unhelpful towards our common goal of improving reading fluency as well as making comprehension harder? I’m really not so sure about that. If reading along means some sacrifice in terms of comprehension but some gain in reading fluency because at least it means reading practice is happening then I’m not sure reading along is a bad thing.

    • David Didau says:

      You raise a good point. I really liked the blog you refer to ( and use the step up – watching a video vs. reading an article – to talk to teachers about their choices.

      But… you say: “Reading along seems to also mean a similar trade off between comprehension and opportunity for reading practice. Should we assume reading along is actually unhelpful towards our common goal of improving reading fluency as well as making comprehension harder?”

      This is, I would contend, wrong. Here’s why:

      1. Reading independently is an opportunity to practice reading comprehension.
      2. Listening to an article being read aloud is also an opportunity to practice reading comprehension.
      3. Reading an article is *not* a good way to practise fluency – this would be better achieved through a phonics intervention (grapheme flashcards is a good way to achieve fluent & accurate knowledge of grapheme/phoneme correspondences.
      4. ‘Reading along’ will not only provide no real opportunity to practise decoding, it will also increase the likelihood of overloading working memory and thus also reducing the benefit of practising reading comprehension.

      So, to answer you question, *because* reading along is sub-optimal for both decoding *and* comprehension I’m pretty sure it should be avoided. That said, we should really set an RCT to test this theory.

      • Heather Fearn says:

        Hmm. Now I’m really not sure… By the logic you’ve outlined I think there is no reason why comprehension should not just be practised by watching the film of the Battle of the Somme. After all that is the best way to increase topic knowledge and by that logic the best way to raise reading ages. After all, all the Year 9’s in my class had a reading age of at least 11/12. At most one or two would benefit from any form of phonics intervention that focuses on automaticity in recognising correspondences. Any further decoding practice they need is of the type they will only really encounter as they read contiuous prose.

        What is it that raises their RA further? Wider knowledge (which can be acquired watching films instead of reading) is certainly needed. Something is missing here. The same something that explains the research of Jeanne Chall which found that reducing the RA of textbooks over the years correlated which reductions in RA of children. The same something that Michaela school appear to have given their pupils through requiring enormous amounts of reading (often aloud).

        I like this explanation about the sort of texts encountered as you progress thorugh secondary school: “Text becomes more syntactically embedded, and comprehension disintegrates. Simple English sentences can be stuffed full of prepositional phrases, dependent clauses, and compoundings. Eventually, there’s so much language woven into a sentence that readers lose meaning. When syntactically embedded sentences crop up in science and social studies texts, many can’t comprehend.” (Greene, J.F. 1998)

        I think there is also something in the idea of ‘reading stamina’ and of course the sort of vocab we encounter in books goes well beyond what is used in speech.

        It strikes me that reading along provides accessible exposure to new vocab in use, complex syntax etc. So while I think the point you make about loss of comprehension is a very powerful one and needs consideration when making teaching choices I’m still not sure it is the full story here. SOMETHING beyond basic decoding or increased knowledge of the topic must be practised to raise RAs or our teenage kids could all just watch films to learn and once in a blue moon just flip open a book, if needed, with no difficulties.

        I think the question is whether reading along leads to such overload that no new vocab is learned or complex syntax appreciated. If so then it is never worthwhile but I’m not sure that is true.

        We know that we can’t give our pupils chunks to read silently that are very challenging. I’m open to the idea that exposure to new contextualised vocab, complex syntax etc could all be achieved through the teacher just reading aloud – but I’m still not sure.

        • David Didau says:

          I don’t at all see why you need ‘reading along’ to get what you want. Independent reading practice is important for all the reason you mention. It’s *just* the reading along bit I’m suggesting is problematic.

          You’re right to say that it’s probably not the case that reading along would result in NO new vocab or syntactic structures being learned, just less. Why would you want less?

          • Heather Fearn says:

            My problem is that independent reading practice doesn’t provide the same support/access from the teacher which would rule out the use of more demanding texts by students in lessons. You’ve really made me wonder just how much the student is capable of taking in when they read along and just how ‘crippling’ this is for weaker readers. I think the question of degree is crucial here and how far teacher input as you read along can mitigate against the weaknesses of this approach that you highlight.

          • David Didau says:

            Have you seen this by Sig Engelmann? Looks like a valuable way forward

  23. Alan says:

    I usually enjoy reading your articles but I must say I didn’t agree with this one and noticed myself feeling a little defensive by the end. I don’t want to be a teacher who does what he feels is right, regardless of evidence so I did a mini-trial among my similar classes. One class read along and the other didn’t. Both read the text themselves afterwards (I couldn’t bring myself to completely sacrifice the lesson for either group of guinea pigs). It seems there is is a difference and I was wrong. I’ll be following Norwich Richard’s lead and doing a lot more reading about working memory.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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