Echo reading

6 Replies

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.


6 thoughts on “Echo reading

  1. Mary Gladstone

    Rea Reason and Rene Boote (1994) used this method which they adapted from Young and Tyre,1983) to help children with specific difficulties. It was a 15 minute activity done daily. It wasn’t developed to teach children how to read. They called it Chorus reading.
    It had 6 stages: talk about the characters and story so far (2 mins), read the passage aloud with expression running a finger along the line of print (3 mins), read passage again with child joining in (3 mins), read the passage again together but this time pause occasionally for child to read the next word/phrase when you feel certain they can carry on (3 mins), the child reads the passage aloud, supply word or phrase if they hesitate (3 mins), praise the child for joining in for reading with expression for supplying the right word and for effort.
    The books used for this were meant to be below their level of reading ability.
    Are we taking a method developed to be used with children with specific learning difficulties, reinventing it to use to ‘teach’ reading. When will we listen to the research?

    1. alison Post author

      Thanks so much for this background, Mary. Amazing how something that does make sense can morph into something that simply doesn’t.

  2. Miriam Fein

    Hi Alison,

    I agree that echo reading could possibly be useful as a way to model fluent, expressive reading for students who can decode the text, but do so laboriously and word by word. But its use in these videos is deeply problematic.

    I recently came across an article defending the kindergarten expectations of the Common Core State Standards here in the US. There had been a recent report that claimed that it is not ‘developmentally appropriate’ to begin reading instruction in kindergarten (typically age 5-6). I disagree and so does the author, but I was surprised to read that his interpretation of the standard “Read emergent reader texts with purpose and understanding” was basically this same kind of echo reading. He says it is based on “New Zealand educator Don Holdaway’s classic “for-with-by model” to simulate “lap reading” with babies and toddlers. This teaching method has been used successfully in kindergartens for decades. The emergent-reader text is first modeled by the teacher for the students, then joyfully read over and over with the students, until eventually the easy book is independently read by the students with great joy and confidence.” He calls it a “memory reading” jump start and compares it to training wheels.

    This was not my understanding of the standard, so I guess I’ll have to clarify it with some Common Core experts here, but I thought I’d share it because it reminded me of your echo reading post.

    Also, it seems that “in the name of fluency”, teachers sometimes push kids to read faster than they’re ready to do, or to just read with exaggerated expression and call that fluency. I think fluency develops as decoding gets more automatic with lots of practice. Hearing lots of models of fluent reading helps and some repeated reading and phrase-cued reading can be very helpful for kids who struggle. Do you have any favorite ways to develop fluency?


    1. alison Post author

      Hi Miriam, I still have a problem with the term “memory reading” because the child is not reading, they are just verbally imitating and memorising. To me, getting the words off the page (whether decoding or, once a word’s been decoded enough times, recognising it) is a non-negotiable part of reading. If someone else is getting the words off the page for you, you’re not reading. I agree that fluency can’t happen till you can decode, so my favourite way to develop fluency in the first instance is to get the child decoding really well. I don’t usually get to do a lot of specific work on fluency, because as a Speech Pathologist I usually only see the student for one session per week or per fortnight for a short period, and must equip and rely on parents and aides to do the bulk of the work on a day-to-day basis. As soon as a student is reasonably competent at reading decodable books containing a variety of vowel spellings and some multi-syllable words, they tend to get pushed out the door by someone else who can’t decode at all or has other major communication needs. The intellectually disabled ones then work with their aide who I talk to over lunch if they need help/ideas, and the rest including the language-impaired students, who now get no funding in this state, usually have sink or swim at school, unless they are in a classroom with another student who has an aide and can all work together. I suggest repeated readings and timing oneself to get a Personal Best etc for fluency, and recommend a range of texts for building fluency/comprehension/vocabulary, but my main job is usually getting the kid off the ground in decoding and encoding. A lot of my students come from refugee backgrounds so are also on a serious vocabulary-learning curve too, so we are teaching them vocabulary (in my workbooks via the pictures and example sentences for each word, and we use Google Images a lot when reading to help explain vocab) as well as how to sound out and spell words.

  3. L

    I’m thinking of using echo reading for a child who has been learning to decode for the last few years, and can decode slowly, but struggles with confidence to read sentences, even when parts of the page are covered, or phrases are written outside the book.

    They’re neurodiverse and demand avoidant, probably some trauma from struggling, and more likely to engage with single-word games, word chaining, etc. (but can also be resistant with these).

    I don’t want echo reading to replace actual decoding, and will keep working on decoding with words and short phrases, but I think that echo reading (along with finger tracing) might help with confidence, tracking, and reading more words in context of sentences. I hope it could have some of the benefits that rereading has, but help with adding more texts rather than just repeating a few for so long.

    The child has always had good PA and spoken language, and vision/convergence are fine too.

    1. alison Post author

      I think when you have complex, neurodiverse, demand avoidant kids, sometimes there can be good reasons to use strategies that you wouldn’t use with other kids, so as long as you’re clear on what the goal is, and aren’t confusing verbal imitation with reading, all good. Alison


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