Is oral reading still the best way to check your work?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

Though it happened over a decade ago, I remember the moment as if it were last week. I was in a classroom of third graders preparing to have them read their just-completed drafts out loud to themselves to check their Focus Correction Areas (FCAs) and hear how their drafts sounded. I asked the class, “When you’re finished with your draft, what is something your teacher always asks you to do before you turn it in or let someone else read it?”

I called on a boy whose hand went up immediately. “She wants us to look it over!”

“Well, yes,” I said, “but what does she want you to do when you look it over?”

A girl in the back of the room was waving her arm for attention. When I called on her, she said with great confidence, “She wants us to stare at it for a few minutes.”

I often tell this story in my workshops when talking about self-editing strategies for students. It always gets a laugh, in part because it sounds painfully familiar to most teachers.

Most of our students don’t have a strategy for reviewing their own drafts. Some actually do just stare at their drafts. Others re-read their work silently. But reading your own work silently is not very effective because writers tend to fix the draft orally as they read—adding missing words, changing verb tenses—without really noticing the changes that need to be made to the draft.

A core strategy of the Collins Writing Program is encouraging students to review their own drafts by reading it out loud in a “one-foot voice” to check on their FCAs and see how it sounds. I love long-time writing advocate Peter Elbow’s rationale for authors reading their drafts out loud to themselves: “Reading aloud gives us a glimpse of how readers hear us.”

Exactly! That’s the point of oral reading: You can hear what you actually wrote rather than what you intended to write. The strategy works for all modes of writing and for all ages of writers. Noted author and literary editor Diane Athill offers this advice, “Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).” Reading aloud is cited often by professional writers, so your students will never outgrow the strategy.

How do we get students to use this practical professional writers’ strategy? The following is my best advice on making oral reading part of your students’ writing process.

To establish oral reading as a habit with your students, you will have to do more than simply remind them to do it. You will need to explain and model the strategy for them. In fact, you may want to do it as a guided group activity several times so that they understand how it works and how it can improve their writing. When your students have completed a draft, ask them to read it in a one-foot voice before they turn it in.

I usually begin by explaining that this technique is used by professional writers to check their writing. Then I demonstrate the following steps and guidelines for oral reading:

  1. Keep feet flat on the floor, paper flat on the desk, and pencil in hand.
  2. Read the composition in a one-foot voice. A one-foot voice is a voice loud enough to be heard by the reader but not loud enough to distract others. Don’t worry: even with all students reading at the same time, the noise level will not be disruptive.
  3. Read all the way through without stopping; listen to how it sounds.
  4. Read it again, this time placing a check mark right above anywhere changes might be made (missing words, more information needed, punctuation, misspelling); don’t stop to fix anything, just keep reading.
  5. Go back to any check marks to reread and make the necessary changes.

Oral reading does more than improve writing; it also builds essential content knowledge. When students write about substantive matters—about the water cycle, how to round a number to the nearest hundred, how an author reveals a character’s personality—their careful re-reading aloud helps embed and reinforce important information or concepts. Think of oral reading as a true two-for-the-price-of-one strategy. It’s both an excellent editing technique and a useful study skill.