Reading Aloud: When Should Students Read Along With You

How to use working memory effectively without forcing cognitive overload ⎮3 min 30 sec read

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Like many people reading this blog, I have been working from home for about 3 and a half months now. One of the things I miss most about working face-to-face with my colleagues are the random conversations you just fall into when you are around your work buddies. For example: during one of those random conversations (about 5 months ago), my work buddies and I figured out that we didn’t know the answer to what seems like kind of a basic question that involves cognitive psychology and reading comprehension. I decided to send the question to some cognitive psych folks (from the CogSciSci group), and the responses were fascinating.

Here’s the question we asked:

Question: which of the following scenarios would dual coding/working memory/cognitive load theory predict might be more useful?

  • Scenario A: students listen to audio of their teacher reading a passage WHILE the students look at the passage, then answer reading comprehension questions about the passage (students process the audio and printed text in their working memories at the same time).
  • Scenario B: students listen to audio of their teacher reading a passage THEN they look at the passage on their own, then answer reading comprehension questions about the passage (students process the audio in their working memories and then the text).

This seems like kind of a basic issue, right? If a teacher is going to read out loud to students, should the students have a copy of that text and read along with the teacher, or should the students listen first and then try to read the passage?

The cognitive psychologists we consulted surprised us: they immediately replied and they all agreed that cognitive load theory predicts that Scenario B is most likely to work the best. A couple quotes from their responses:

  • “Scenario A would run the risk of the Redundancy Effect (both sources of info using phonological loop).”
  • “Scenario B is better from a purely CLT perspective. It's also better as the students get two exposures to the content instead of one. In the real world there might be reasons that A is preferred like time constraints or the importance of linking the words spoken to their written words, like pronunciation”

One of these responses referenced this thorough and fascinating blog post from David Didau: “The Problem with ‘Reading Along” (bonus: this blog post manages to reference a 4th Century bishop AND farting!). 

The diagram below may help explain the consensus response we received: in Scenario A, students listen to audio of their teacher reading a passage WHILE the students look at the passage. This scenario might overload the verbal processing (aka “phonological loop”) part of students’ working memory systems because the verbal processing part of working memory has to do two things at once: comprehend the audio of the teacher’s voice and try to decode written words. In scenario B, students listen to audio of their teacher reading a passage THEN they look at the passage on their own. In this scenario, the verbal processing (aka “phonological loop”) part of students’ working memory gets to listen and process the teacher’s words, THEN looks at the written passage and reads, avoiding the “overload” (aka cognitive load) issue in scenario A. 

Image by Dkahng - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47294949

I love that cognitive psych (specifically Cognitive Load Theory – CLT) can point us in the right direction about many of these “basic” questions about pedagogical choices. When we’re reading out loud, we should think about what our goals are (reading comprehension, or linking spoken works to written words), and use CLT to figure out whether students should read along with us or listen first and then read it on their own.

Rob McEntarffer

Assessment/Evaluation Specialist, Lincoln Public Schools

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