Shadow-reading experiment

I’ve recently done some research into shadow-reading and at some point I promised myself that I’d soon experiment with it a bit in the classroom. I was curious to see what this technique, which I had never heard before, looked like in practice, and I wondered what benefits there were related to this method.

Let me briefly describe what we did in class earlier today:

1)  Ss listened to a short recording, following the transcript silently. This helped them understand the gist of the text as well as see how the text was chunked.
2) I played the recording again and asked Ss to read along with the speaker. However, they could only mouth the words silently.
3) I played the recording for the third time; this time Ss were asked to read along with the speaker, quietly.
4) Finally, Ss read the text along with the speaker at a normal volume, trying as much as possible to mimic their intonation, stress and pronunciation. I turned the volume of the recording up and down at this stage, and at some point I even switched the sound off completely.

As this was only a singular trial, I can’t draw any definite conclusions as to the benefits of this procedure. However, I noticed a few interesting things. Apart from the fact that all the students were fully engaged in the activity, there were some directly observable learning outcomes.

The enormous differences between English and Czech, especially those related to suprasegmantal features of pronunciation, make it very difficult for Czech learners to learn to speak this L2. First of all, we normally speak with a rather flat intonation, which may sound impolite, even rude, to other speakers of English. Worse still, what we say may easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted. In addition, Czech has fixed stress – the lexical stress almost always comes on the first syllable of a word. In English, unfortunately, the position of stress in a word is variable and thus less predictable; it must be memorised as part of the pronunciation of a particular lexical item. Then there is sentence stress, i.e. patterns that apply at a higher level than the individual word. Furthermore, whereas English is a stressed-timed language, Czech is a syllable-timed one. This means that, unlike in English, every syllable is perceived as taking up approximately the same amount of time. The situation is only complicated by the fact that in English, vowel reduction may occur when a vowel changes from a stressed to an unstressed position.

During shadow reading, all the above features of English pronunciation were practised. I should point out that regardless of age, Czech learners often find it slightly embarrassing to imitate English intonation, probably because it moves up and down in such a funny way. When shadow-reading, however, they seemed to feel more comfortable, perhaps due to the fact that they all spoke at once, so their imperfections and/or exaggerations were less audible. Nevertheless, I could hear each and every student quite clearly whenever I focused a bit. Also, they had to get the stress and rhythm right, including all the reduced syllables, if they wanted to keep up with the speaker. The fact that they could not stop whenever they made a mistake made their speech more rhythmical, as well as cohesive. The recording they heard in the background helped them stress the correct words and syllables, so it finally almost turned into a chant.

Based on my observations, apart from practising supersegmental features of English pronunciation, the students also learnt to pronounce a few separate, tricky words (refugees, heroine, to name some). In the follow-up lesson, I’d like to give them a test to see if they can read the text as fluently as they did last time (I’m going to concentrate on suprasegmental features again), plus I’d also like to get them to write the tricky words to see whether this technique has had some influence of their spelling skills. Finally (or alternatively), I’d like to give them a short vocabulary test to find out if having encountered certain lexical items in context multiple times has helped them remember them. In other words, I’d like to see whether the technique was beneficial for their L2 acquisition as opposed to conscious learning.

I had learnt that there is also a karaoke version of the shadow reading technique. So in today’s lesson, as a bonus activity, I chose a popular English song for children with a wordy lyric. We followed the same procedure described above, but this time with a fun tweak; in the end I asked the kids to take out their mobile phones and record their voices as they were singing. Normally, this would be a problem and nobody would agree to sing aloud in front of their peers, but as each and every student felt kind of camouflaged among the singing crowd, they didn’t find it embarrassing to perform publicly. Then I asked them to listen to their recordings and it was rewarding for me to see them burst into genuine laughter once they heard the outcomes.

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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

3 thoughts on “Shadow-reading experiment”

  1. As you know, I'm familiar with both versions but I wasn't so scientific as you – I never followed up with later tests. My French students had a lot of the same problems you describe with Czech speakers.

    With teenagers I did a lot of songs and I think they never realised I can't sing myself. I noticed that it helped them relax and feel more comfortable speaking English in class which is often difficult for people of that age in a monolingual group.

    I even used it with distance learning students. They had to sing along with a song of their choice on When they felt they were ready, they had to record themselves singing – making sure I could hear the recording in the background. Then they had to send the recording to me as “homework”. Naturally, I didn't grade them on the quality of their singing, just the fact that they'd done the exercise. I mean, 100% if they sent it in, nothing if they didn't.


  2. Dear Glenys,

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment on this post. I'd also like to thank you for the inspiration because I think it was when I read your blog post about shadow-reading that I first got 'infected' by the idea. I’m familiar with the fact that, like Czech, French is a syllable-timed language so I imagine your students face similar difficulties when learning English. We have to keep this in mind and we can’t simply introduce one-size-fits-all activities in every class (this is one of the dangers of coursebooks).

    By the way, earlier today I did the first part of my follow-up experiment; I asked a couple of students to read the same text we previously shadowed, and most of them did really well – much better than if we had worked with the text the usual way.

    As far as English songs are concerned, my younger learners love them, so I’m glad I’d come across the karaoke activity. Today, when I entered the classroom, the kids actually greeted me with the song we recorded last time and they even made me sing the song for them (because they know about my musical past). Later on it occurred to me that we could also dramatize the lyric, which we did and it was fun. But more importantly, it helped the students to recycle the language.



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