I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry recently upon discovering a video from the University of Canberra called “Echo Reading”.
OK, I thought, Whole Language/Balanced Literacy has finally jumped the shark.
In this video, an adult reads a book that is too hard for a student aloud, pausing after each sentence for the student to repeat the sentence:
If you are the sort of person inclined to notice things such as emperors not having any clothes, you will have noticed that all the student has to be able to do to succeed at “Echo Reading” is be able to repeat spoken sentences. They don’t even have to look at the text.
In Speech Pathology and linguistics circles, we call this skill “verbal imitation”. Not “reading”.
I found another Echo Reading video on the internet in which an instructor actively discourages a child’s attempts at independent decoding, and encourages the child to listen and copy what she says, in the name of fluency:
In neither video was there any tracking of text with a finger, or apparent expectation or requirement for the student to decode, although in the second video, the child clearly could decode pretty well, and kept trying to do so.
In another Echo Reading demonstration the teacher does point to the words and encourages the child to do so on his turn. So at least she knew the child was looking at the words, though it’s not clear from the video whether he could decode them himself, or was just copying her spoken words and her pointing.
Another video shows a teacher reading a repetitive “Big book” to a class, and then she gets them to “Echo Read” it. Again, she points to the words, but as the print is small, the group is large and young, and many of the words are quite hard (“butterfly”, “giraffe”, “elephant”, “orange”), so most children are probably just verbally imitating, not reading.
In another video called Choral and Echo Reading, the emphasis seems to be encouraging a child to decode with or after an adult, using books that seem to be around or a little above the child’s decoding level.
So this is better than the previous videos, but instead of helping the child sound out words, and pointing out useful patterns like the “ay” in “strays”, the teacher just says whole words for her. Yet this child clearly knows a bit about sounding out, and might have been helped to blend “s+t+r+ay+s”, she might even know the “ay” pattern since she did seem to decode the word “stays” (but perhaps she just remembered when the teacher said it).
I also found a video in which Echo Reading was used to teach a child who could already decode the text to read with more expression:
I don’t have any problem with Echo Reading used like this, as a strategy for improving phrasing and reading expression in children who can already decode. Indeed a brief Google Scholar search suggests that this might have been the original point of Echo Reading, if only I were an academic, I’d be able to easily access the articles, and tell you more (late edit: see Mary Gladstone’s comment below for details of the origins of Echo Reading. Thanks, Mary!)
A teaching strategy is only as good as the theory or rationale behind it. I was teaching a six-year-old stutterer to speak smoothly and slowly yesterday, so I got out a book containing short words, simple spellings and an interesting story, and read it sentence by sentence to him, and got him to copy the way I was talking. I guess some people watching would have called that Echo Reading. I wouldn’t, the purpose of the activity was smooth speech.
Any use of Echo Reading as a substitute for decoding, a means of discouraging decoding or a means of encouraging children to memorise whole written words rather than decode them, is really very worrying. Children need to learn to decode to become successful readers.
I also don’t see how Echo Reading “is a great strategy to take the stress and anxiety out of reading together”, as suggested in the first video.
The struggling readers I know aren’t interested in engaging in reading-like-behaviour, they’re interested in actually learning to read. They will probably be stressed and anxious until they can do it, and fair enough. The best way to reduce their stress and anxiety is to get their reading foundations in i.e. teach them to decode. Once they can decode a bit, they’re the ones nagging you for time to do more practice.
Instead of “Echo Reading”, students with poor decoding skills should be doing two separate reading activities:
1. Reading books containing the sounds and spellings they have been taught. As additional sounds and spellings are mastered, books which include them can be tackled. A list of books with simplified spellings intended for this purpose, and suitable for a range of ages, is here.
2. Listening to adults read interesting books that are too hard for them to read independently, for comprehension, vocabulary and enjoyment. There’s no need to say every line twice. That would just be annoying and mess up the story.