Reading Difficult Texts Aloud: Fluency For Advanced Students

Most of my students are advanced English speakers. Advanced, enough, in fact, that they might easily get away with calling themselves "fluent." They can carry on complex conversations in English. They can conduct business transactions, and even have actual business meetings, without trouble. They don't often hesitate, looking for a word, and they don't have to ask their interlocutor to slow down.

So why are they still taking English lessons? Because they know in their hearts that something is missing. They aren't truly "there" yet.

So what's the solution? Advanced grammar exercises?

In my experience, advanced students are often bored by grammatical exercises. In fact, some of them already know the rules of English grammar so well that they will explain their own mistakes before I can.

"Yes, yes," they might say. "The second conditional is used to talk about events in the future that will never take place. I just forgot the exact structure for a moment."

Well... okay, then. Does someone who talks like that really need a teacher? And if they do, what's the best way to structure the lessons?

I've found that the solution, for many such students, is guided reading. I pick an authentic text, usually a magazine article, that I think will be both challenging and interesting to the student. Then, the student reads it out loud while I follow along. I only interrupt to correct major mistakes in pronunciation or emphasis. But the student can voluntarily pause at any point to ask for help.

So why is this useful? Why can't the student just read the text themselves?

The answer is that often, they simply don't. The text might be just far enough out of their comfort zone that reading it alone would be annoying and frustrating. Having the teacher along for the ride adds a bit of motivation. But that's not all.

The text, if it's challenging enough, contains slang, cultural references, and linguistic tricks that are outside the realm of textbooks, even dictionaries. The student is capable of getting a general sense of what's being said, but to understand at a deeper level would involve a frustrating series of time-consuming online searches that might not always be productive.

The process is a bit like going to the gym with a spotter; someone to stand nearby and lend a hand for those last difficult reps. You don't *need* a spotter, but without one, you can't really push yourself beyond your current limits.

No matter how advanced the student, I have never had one give a perfect reading.

Usually, there are pronunciation mistakes. This is to be expected. If the student is so advanced that they don't make real pronunciation mistakes, then I correct deeper inflection errors. A native speaker will hold their breath at certain moments to create parenthetical tension. A native speaker will "insert" commas where there aren't any, in order to create a dramatic pause. This type of change is only executed by someone comfortable enough with the context that they feel ready to make decisions about how the words should actually sound.

But in many cases, something far more interesting happens: the student accidentally changes the text.

What do I mean by "changes the text"? Well, sometimes a word is added. Sometimes a word is taken away. Sometimes the letter "S" is added to the end of a word where it shouldn't be, and sometimes there is an "S" that isn't pronounced.

This happens unconsciously. Even very advanced students do it. And once I point out the changes they made, they immediately admit to the mistake, understanding it perfectly, often embarrassed. So why does it happen?

It's like sleepwalking, or talking to yourself without meaning to. The restructuring of the text reflects the student's unconscious desire to rearrange the language so that it's more like the one they're used to. And that shows us what we need to work on.

Russian students, for example, tend to skip over articles: a, an, the. So if I present the sentence:

"The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."

The student might read it aloud as:

"Quick brown fox jumped over lazy dog."

This happens a surprising amount of the time, even with students who are quite clear on the meaning of the word "the." The issue is not that the student doesn't understand the concept; it's that they haven't yet overcome their own psychological resistance to its use.

Ultimately, guided reading results in the student hearing themselves read the text aloud, correctly. And the memory of that experience serves as a reinforcement of correct pronunciation - and grammar - that cannot be achieved through independent study.

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