When did Round Robin Reading Become the Antichrist?

A recent blog posts on Edutopia mentioned Round Robin Reading as “a strategy that doesn’t work.” I read that and was startled. We’re still talking about Round Robin? This was like that moment when you hear a great great aunt had died. And you had forgotten they were alive.

Telling us not to do Round Robin is not new. In fact they were telling us not to do Round Robin Reading when I did my teacher training in 2008.

Why Are We Still Talking about Round Robin Reading?

My question as to why this became such a problem was answered when in the break room I asked a colleague what she thought of all the dispute.

“I would never ask a kid to Round Robin reading,” she said. “I was that kid who when they did that, I dreaded it. I would spend the entire class reading time trying to predict when I would be asked to read and to read the passage beforehand.”

It’s Not Actually Only Pedagogy. This is Personal.

Looking into the matter further I found a Cult of Pedagogy post discussion of why you should never use Round Robin Reading. Some poor innocent teacher-souls dared to question this edict in the comments, saying that they had material they had to get through and Round Robin helped with that.

Another teacher asked how we’re supposed to do with whole group instruction in middle school with kids that can’t actually read … Round Robin, it was argued, allows us to scaffold the students who struggle while simultaneously maintaining classroom control.

This was very illuminating to me. I had my answer. The reason people keep talking about how bad Round Robin is, is that they remember it so well. And not in a good way. The reason people keep doing it is, it solves a problem.

A Shocking Admission

The truth is, in first grade, I do sometimes have each child read a sentence of the decodable that we are working on. I felt worried when I heard the words “Round Robin” again that I had become weak, soft, and was traumatizing someone. But I don’t think so. Since I am an interventionist working with a group of students who are on the same level, the dynamic that is so hated — having a student struggle over a passage that others can read easily — doesn’t happen in my groups.

Actually, I think pretty much all the kids in my groups enjoy reading aloud for their classmates, and perhaps that’s because they’re all successful. The text is at their level.

And also it’s only 5 minutes we’re doing this. Apparently in the full manifestation of round robin reading it takes an entire class period.

So: What Type of Reading Are We Talking About?

There is this dichotomy here: I work mainly with second grade and below. These students are learning to read. Later on, they will read to learn. It may be that it is at that point that Round Robin becomes so problematic for some. Apparently, teachers “have to get through the material” and Round Robin reading does that. At the expense of some student’s self esteem.

Looking back on the days when I had my own classroom, I remember sometimes having students read from a passage. But it was never compulsory. And for efficiency, I was likely to choose the better readers for this job. I also read aloud myself. So what is it that made Round Robin the antichrist of education routines?

Why Round Robin is So Bad:

  • First of all, Round Robin is inefficient in that the best and clearest readers are not utilized, and have to wait for the rest of the class.
  • Second Round Robin is reviled because it embarrasseds people.
  • Third, is the problem that inexperienced readers don’t convey the content very well.
  • Fourth, is the claim that it impairs comprehension. This one I can 100% agree on. Listening to struggling readers forging uncertainly through the text is hell on comprehension.

I get it. This is not what we’d call a “best practices” strategy for instruction.

But Isn’t Every Classroom and Situation Different?

But here’s my question: isn’t there a number of possible objectives of a reading routine? Isn’t it possible that an individual teacher might find a certain technique works for her in a way that it doesn’t for other teachers?

One thing that troubled me about some of the anti-Round Robin posts was the *tone* of the writers. Some teachers commented that Round Robin reading had helped them in one way or another, and the bloggers and scholars tried to reteach these errant souls. “I’d encourage you to take some time to do some research … ” suggested a moderator to a first time teacher who apparently took a struggling class of 8th graders in midyear and is having trouble getting them to sit down and listen, and who had discovered that Round Robin could actually get the class engaged.

Moderator Lady! Everyday teachers do no have time to do research! But beyond that … stop patronizing us, please. This poor young teacher is trying to get through the year. She may never come back. And comments like that make it all the more likely that the horrible feeling “I can’t do this” will be her final conclusion.

We’re Dealing with a Lot of Variables in Reading Instruction

The truth is, you can’t reliably improve instructional practice by recommending or censuring learning routines without coming in the classrooms, because there are too many variables working in the individual classroom for outsiders to understand.

For example, if the choice in the commenting teacher’s classroom is between Round Robin Reading or no reading at all because the teacher can’t yet get the students to do individual stations, guess what? Round Robin is the best choice! It’s poor practice or no practice here …

This Plays into Why so Much of Ed Research Isn’t Useful

I remember years ago when a imperative swept the elementary school I was working at, and every teacher had to post an objective for each subject. “Just one?” asked our red headed master 5th grade classroom teacher.

“Yes, just one,” was the answer.

“But I’m a reading teacher!” she shot back, “I teach about 50 objectives in every reading lesson! There’s fluency, prosody, compare and contrast, vocabulary, summarizing, word attack skills, advanced phonics, prefixes, suffixes … the list goes on!” So many variables. What if a routine was strong for one variable,and weak on another? All the researcher has to do is focus on the variable that gives the results she’s looking for.

But a child is a whole person, not a group of variables. The things that make up a person are not really quantifiable, and they interact. That’s why teaching is an art, not a science.

I treasure the read headed reading teacher’s words, because it illustrates the difference between rich, living instruction and the stuff bandied about in textbooks and in research. You can’t ever be sure “the research” is going to work in your classroom, because … there are too many variables! We might know that such and such technique created a reading gain in research classrooms, but we don’t know if it will create the same thing in ours. After all, those classrooms didn’t have little Johnnie, the spitball thrower! Or what have you.

And your best defense against poor instruction is a well developed teacher who knows her class. Research is just research, but a human is something more.

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