The Potential Benefits of Round Robin Reading

Sharing a book with those you love is a great way to build a love of reading.

Do you remember being read to when you were really little? Can you think of any stories that were your favorites? I don’t have the book anymore, but one of my favorites was from a collection of stories, and it was “The Little Lonely House,” about a house whose family had moved away, and it watched people come and go on the street, and there was lots of description of that. But then, eventually, one of the cars turns, and it comes up the drive, and it stops at the house, and a family gets out and goes inside. And the house was filled with noise, and light, and laughter. I still remember the final sentence: “And the little lonely house wasn’t lonely anymore.”

I want you to think about the feelings that are associated with those memories. Hold onto them for a few moments. 

And then, I want you to think back to the first time YOU were asked to read out loud. It was probably in school, maybe in mid-elementary school. And everybody opens their books to the same story, and the teacher starts on one side of the room, at the front of the first row, and that student reads for a while. And then it’s the next student’s turn. And then the next. Do you remember counting, and then looking ahead in the story to see which section you would have to read?

Or maybe it was the variation called “popcorn reading,” in which each reader got to name the next student to read, and then that student had three seconds to begin reading at the right spot. That’s a strategy that teachers would sometimes use to make sure that students DIDN’T read ahead, and everyone read through the whole story. 

Think about those feelings. And think about how they may have influenced your attitude toward reading. What effect they had on your classmates. 

Reading aloud individually is often the second-most feared classroom activity, right behind standing in front of the class to give a presentation. And according to the Chapman Survey on American Fears, public speaking is the most common fear among American adults, affecting over a quarter of the population. 

For students, reading out loud in class, in front of their peers, can create stress and humiliation
that leads to decreased interest in reading.

Children’s interest in reading peaks around age 8, according to the Kids & Family Reading Report, which found that “35% of nine-year-olds report reading 5–7 days a week compared to 57% of eight-year-olds.” One girl in the study explained, “In second and third grade, I read above my grade level and I felt really proud of that. But then the books got bigger and bigger, and it got more intimidating.”

This decline continues throughout middle and high school. It’s inaccurate to place all of the blame on schools; the most often-cited reason for a reduced interest in reading was that students have “so many other things that I now enjoy more than reading,” chosen by 60% of respondents. As kids get older and experience more activities, many of them find new things that they like better. And that’s okay. 

As an English teacher, let me go ahead and just say it: Reading shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life. I really, really hope that your health and your connection to people who care about you are a higher priority, at the very least!

By the time they’re sophomores in high school (age 15-16), most students are ambivalent readers at best. Add to this the hormones and teenage drama and social anxiety, and the idea of being put on the spot to do perform, in front of your classmates, without having had any chance to prepare? They’d probably rather get a root canal.

Humiliation is a miserable experience. So the key to making round-robin reading a useful practice is to sever the connection between public struggle, or even public failure, and humiliation. Breaking this connection has long-term positive effects for students. Students who can view failure as an opportunity, and a normal, occasional part of life, are more likely to be curious, to be willing to try new strategies and ideas, and to persist through challenges. 

The fact that round-robin reading IS so strongly associated with struggle, failure, and humiliation is exactly what makes it so useful in building this sort of resilience.

So here are the guidelines I give students.

The first is the minimum amount of reading for each reader. Each student has to read at least one sentence. One sentence. Granted, sometimes a sentence will be long…ish. Might have multiple clauses. But it’s still just one sentence, you know? Just one. That’s not SO bad. So that helps to reduce some of the pressure, right there. 

The second is what they should do when they come across a word, or especially a name, that they’re not sure they can pronounce correctly. I tell them they have to give it their best guess, and to state that guess confidently. This almost always prompts the question “How will you know it’s our best guess?” If it doesn’t, I ask it rhetorically. Basically, the guess should make sense. If there’s a reference to Don Quixote and they say “Doan Quiz-Coat,” I’m perfectly fine with that. However, if they said “Doan… Something,” well, that makes me question where they got the pronunciation “something” based on the letters that are on the page.

In fact, if a reader makes a guess that’s incorrect but reasonable, I’ll ask the class to pause after that student finishes reading, and I’ll point out that I noticed the pause, and that I appreciate and admire their courage in making a guess. I’ll give the correct pronunciation – but also point out the way they used their understanding of phonics to sound out a guess that was reasonable based on the spelling. I will praise their bravery, and thank them for being willing to let me see their thinking process.

The final guideline is that when it’s not their turn to read, they should be reading along silently. We have a discussion about this; what will I, the teacher, SEE that makes me THINK they’re reading along? They start off with things they shouldn’t be doing: don’t be on your phone; don’t be talking to someone else. But I pursue that: what would you reading along look like to me? With some nudging and encouragement, they come up with some good specifics: looking at the book, being on the correct page, turning the page at the correct time, etc. I tell them that I should be convinced by what I see that they’re reading along. If they can fake it and fool me, that’s good enough!

Then I ask them what they think they should do when they hear someone else stumble or pause at a word, phrase, or name that they know how to pronounce. Generally there’s hesitation here, because they can tell that there IS a ‘right answer,’ but they’re not completely confident about what it is. So, for guidance, I ask them to restate “rule three” – what they should do when it’s not their turn to read. They’ll usually start off with “read along,” so I add, “read along what?” expectantly. 

Tentatively, a few of the students will mumble “… silently?”

I’ll smile, give a double thumbs-up, and then say, “Okay, EVERYBODY now: read along what?” and prompt them until the chorus of “SILENTLY!” is significantly more confident.

Then I’ll ask, “So, CAN you correct someone, silently, while you’re looking at the correct page?” They start thinking about how they might manage this – sometimes I get some really creative replies – but then I shake my head, and say gently, “No. It may be hard, but you need to let them struggle. If we only ever do what’s easy, we don’t improve.”

Prior to class, I’ve checked my roster to see which of my students are also in weight training for phys ed. I’ll ask one of them what their max is for squat, which tends to be one of the higher lifts. It’s not that hard to get up into three digits; some of our athletes squat over 400 pounds.

So let’s say they answer “Two-fifty.” Okay. I ask them how much the bar weighs. “Forty-five pounds.” Then, I ask them, what would happen if they did the same lifting routine they usually do, using just the bar. Would they struggle? “No.” Would it be easier? That usually gets a chuckle, as well as “Yeah.” And I follow up with, “then why don’t you do that? If it would be easier.”

“Because then I wouldn’t get any stronger.”

I hold that student’s gaze for just a few seconds. And then I nod. “Not all struggle builds strength,” I tell everybody. “But struggle at the appropriate level, with appropriate support, that’s what does.” I point to my ‘Challenge Yourself’ poster, which is one of my oldest ones; that construction paper? That used to be royal blue. I tell my students that the reason it’s over the door is that once they leave this room, they will have to challenge themselves. But while they’re here, I will challenge them. This class will often not be easy. But also, I will do what I can to make sure that the challenges I provide are at an appropriate level for them. And I promise that I will support them. 

This poster over the classroom door has faded from age. It used to be blue!

So, ultimately, in my classroom, round-robin reading isn’t about the reading at all. It’s about small struggles: just one sentence. And about victories that are equally small, but meaningful. My hope is that students begin to regain some of their confidence in themselves. They learn that failure doesn’t have to mean humiliation. And they learn that – with support – they can do things that challenge them.

And that’s one of the most important things they can learn in my class.


You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.


Here are some articles I found useful:

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/why-round-robin-and-popcorn-reading-are-evil/

https://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-now/2014/05/07/what’s-really-wrong-with-round-robin-reading-

https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/survey-american-fears.aspx

https://www.theschoolrun.com/11-reasons-read-bedtime-story-every-night

https://www.edutopia.org/article/developing-love-reading-students

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