Teachers often use the practice of popcorn, or "round-robin," reading strategies in a number of ways. These include cold calling or randomly calling on students to read using sticks with student names on them or by teacher choice, calling on volunteers to read, or having one reader call on another student to begin reading where they left off.

However, multiple studies prove that this practice does not work. In fact, round-robin reading likely does more harm than good, especially when utilized with English learners or students who are not proficient readers yet.

English learners may feel stigmatized by when forced to read in front of an entire class, as their reading skills in English as well as encountering new words as they read may cause them to not read the text with fluency or prosody. The teacher may be tempted to provide corrections in this context, or help students pronounce unknown vocabulary.

This, in turn, weakens the comprehension of the students that are listening to the text being read aloud, as fluency is interrupted. In addition, there is little to no evidence that the other students are actually listening to the student that is reading.

The round-robin or popcorn reading approach, while well-intentioned, does not work. Thankfully, there are many alternatives that can be used in the classroom to help English learners practice reading skills to build fluency and to build comprehension skills.

Frontloading Vocabulary

It can, of course, be helpful to begin with teaching some of the key vocabulary that will come up in the reading. By teaching some of the general academic and domain-specific vocabulary words before reading, and helping students to both practice pronouncing the words as well as comprehend the meaning, they will be more equipped to read the word when encountered in text and will have to focus less on the decoding of the word and more on the word in context and the meaning of the passage.

When choosing words to teach before reading, be sure to focus on words that will be difficult to comprehend within the passage. In other words, do not choose vocabulary that will be defined in the text, or words that students will be able to infer given the context. The words chosen should be those words that will impede comprehension of the text.

Once you have decided on the words that you feel the students will benefit from learning before reading the text, teach the words using vocabulary instruction techniques that you are familiar with and word will for your students. It is helpful to build in the following steps with whichever vocabulary teaching strategy you use:

  1. Present the word in writing.
  2. Pronounce the word and have the students read and repeat the word several times.
  3. Tell students the word class (i.e., part of speech) and whether it is formal or informal, high-use or rare, etc.
  4. Explain the meaning of the word in student-friendly terms, utilizing synonyms and antonyms.
  5. Provide two or more concrete examples that help students to create mental images or anchors. Include pictures, sketches and gestures to make the word more comprehensible.
  6. Engage the students in an application task with a partner.
  7. Utilize a sentence frame to guide application of the word.

Remind students that they will encounter the word in the context of the reading. Once students have the key vocabulary, they can move to practice reading.

Alternative Reading Strategies

Once you are ready to have the students read, you can choose from one of the following strategies that help more students at any given time to read and practice fluency and comprehension skills.

Choral Reading

Choral reading refers to having all students read a section of text at the same time. Choral reading benefits students as each student in the class is practicing reading at the same time.

For English learners, it allows them to practice reading in a low affective filter way. When practicing choral reading, be sure to instruct students to read at the same pace and cadence as you do, so that the reading sounds somewhat uniform.

Students may want to read more quickly or more slowly than others, which creates a cacophony of words and noise that can be difficult to attend to. In addition, be sure to read the passage with fluency, so that students are able to practice reading the text at the appropriate rate and with prosody.

Echo Reading

Just as the name implies, in echo reading students echo what the teacher has just read. Echo reading can be done in the context of a teacher read aloud, or as the teacher is presenting material to the students.

Begin by reading a section of text, and then having the students echo, or repeat the section of text read. Echo reading allows students to hear the text being read first by a proficient reader (the teacher), and then practice reading it themselves.

When choosing text to echo read, use text that has the key vocabulary you taught earlier, sections that provide key details, or sections that are central to comprehension of the text.

Partner Reading Strategies

There are many partner reading strategies that can be employed to have students practice reading. When students read in pairs, half of the class is reading at the same time. When considering having students read in partners, build partnerships based on student proficiency levels or reading skills.

Students benefit from hearing more fluent readers and speakers, but they also can get frustrated by working with a partner that is far above or below their proficiency or reading level. When students read in partnerships, they can take turns reading a sentence, paragraph or section of text.

Students can take turns summarizing what was read, based on what they just read or what their partner just read, and discuss the key concepts and ideas in the text, take notes, or create a sketch or visual representation of what was read. As an alternative, have students face away from each other, either sitting or standing, for ear-to-ear reading.

Creating some variety will help students to keep interest in continuing reading practice in the classroom. Reading, or course, has many, many benefits to English learners, and maximizing the time that students spend on reading text will help them increase their English proficiency while also learning key vocabulary, academic language and content.