Reading-out-loud renaissance falls upon deaf ears

by Alice Gordenker

I’m a fan of “Doraemon,” the long-running children’s television show about a blue robot cat from the future, who lives with an average family on the outskirts of Tokyo. The Japanese is relatively easy to understand, and I love Doraemon’s magic pocket, from which he pulls amazing tools like the dokodemo door, which leads to wherever you want to go, and honyaku konnyaku — have someone who doesn’t know Japanese eat this and he will immediately speak it fluently! So I got a little excited when I heard that the woman who does one of the voices on the show would be visiting the Japanese elementary school my younger son attends.

Noriko Ohara has been the voice of Nobita, the luckless, lazy fourth-grade boy in Doraemon’s family, since the show’s inception over 30 years ago. Her second appearance at our school coincided with a gakko kokaibi (open-school day), so there was a big turnout of parents who, like me, were probably curious to see the face behind the famous voice.

But Ohara was there to share her love of reading out loud, and gave a lesson in rodoku (dramatic reading) to a group of third-graders. She ran the group through some simple elocution exercises to loosen their lips and encourage clear diction. She talked about breathing from the belly and projecting one’s voice. Then, she read aloud from a story in their textbook about an old man who thinks he’s cursed because he took a tumble while going over the “Three-Year” mountain pass. Legend has it that if you fall there you’ll only live another three years.

Wow, what a range of expression a professional voice actor can produce! Ohara really brought the story to life (and she only sounded like Nobita in a few places). When she finished, she had the children do the same passage, reading all together. She stopped them to point out how a strategic pause can make things easier to understand, and add a sense of drama. “Pay attention to the commas and periods,” she urged. “The author put them there to tell you where to pause.”

My favorite part was when she demonstrated how the sounds of words can create a picture in the listener’s mind. “Listen to the words!” she exhorted. ” ‘Kororin, kororin, sutten korori!’ Doesn’t that sound just like someone tumbling down a hill? That’s why the author chose those words. Use the power of the sounds when you read aloud!”

It was a great lesson, and I hated to see it end. We all clapped gratefully as Ohara left, and I returned to watch my son’s fourth-grade class. They, too, were reading aloud. But, what a difference from what I had just observed! There was no energy in the classroom, and the students didn’t seem engaged. It was a lesson in ondoku, which is when the students take turns reading aloud to the whole class. One child stands up and reads out three or four lines, then the child in the next seat takes over. The rest of the class is supposed to follow along in their textbook.

To be honest, I was surprised to see this method was still in use. I remember having to read aloud like that when I was a child in the United States, back in the Dark Ages, but my older son never had lessons like that when he was in U.S. elementary school. I thought this way of teaching was considered outmoded.

I left with another mother and mentioned that I found it odd the teacher had chosen that lesson for an open-school day. Usually teachers do exciting, impressive lessons when parents are observing. But the other mother assured me that the ondoku lesson was impressive. “These days, Japanese parents are really worried about gakuryoku tei ka (declining scholastic ability),” she said. “So they like to see kids learning in the old, time-tested ways.”

Later, I contacted Ryoko Tsuneyoshi, a professor of education at the University of Tokyo, who agreed. “There are certainly signs of revival in traditional teaching methods, including reading aloud in class,” she explained. “Part of it is a reaction to the yutori no aru (relaxed) education of the past few decades. Many people are looking for stricter standards and an emphasis on basic skills.”

That’s true in the U.S. too, so I was curious to see if this old method of reading out loud was back in fashion there. I contacted half a dozen teachers, all of whom reported that “round-robin reading,” as the kind of whole-class oral reading lesson I observed in my son’s class is called, is actively discouraged at their schools.

“Round-robin reading causes anxiety and embarrassment for many students, and not just less fluent readers,” one teacher pointed out. “It turns reading into an unpleasant experience.” Another teacher noted that although the other children are supposed to follow along, they rarely do. “The fast readers skip ahead, the anxious ones practice the passage they think they’ll have to read, and the slow readers get lost. Others just get bored and disruptive.”

Several teachers referred me to a book called “Good-bye Round Robin” (Heinemann, 1998) in which two professors of education, Michael F. Opitz and Timothy V. Rasinski, argue that round-robin reading is not as effective as other methods of oral reading, and that expecting students to follow along can actually inhibit reading development rather than advance it. Instead of round-robin reading, they advocate using a variety of different oral reading activities, including choral reading (when the teacher reads a passage and the students repeat it, reading altogether), adult-child pairing (when a teacher or volunteer reads first and the child repeats the passage), having a child read with recorded texts, and staging dramatic readings of prepared text (such as a play or radio show).

By the time I finished the book, I was concerned about how my son was being taught to read aloud. So I went to see his teacher and made some polite inquiries. Much to my relief, I learned that she doesn’t use round-robin reading often, and that she varies it with some of the very same techniques Opitz and Rasinski recommend, including paired reading and having kids read aloud at home to their parents. I felt better.

“But of all the techniques we’ve used this semester, do you know what worked best?” his teacher asked. “A lesson with Ohara-sensei on her previous visit to the school! She made the kids so enthusiastic about reading aloud. They’ve been working really hard to become readers.”

Now that’s a tool worthy of Doraemon’s magic pocket.