When I observe Bible classes for kids and teens, it often doesn’t take long before the teacher asks a child to read a scripture. While we strongly encourage Bible class teachers to read part or all of their lesson from the actual Bible, I usually cringe when a teacher asks students to read from a passage of scripture.
Believe it or not, I have met more than one person who left church and sometimes God because they were embarrassed one too many times when called on to read in class. There are situations though, when it is appropriate to ask students to read out loud from the Bible. So how do you know if it is a good idea to have students read a passage of scripture out loud in class?
Before you ask another student to read scriptures, I want to encourage you to ask yourself the following questions.
- What is the purpose for having a student read out loud from the Bible? If your answer is to engage students or involve them in the lesson, having one or more students read a passage out loud is actually one of the worst ways to accomplish student engagement. With the possible exception of a handful of students, most young people are not fluent or expressive readers. Let’s face it, even those of us who study the Bible a lot have trouble pronouncing some of the names and untranslated words in the Bible. As a result, student reading is often jerky, muffled and frustrating for both the reader and the listeners. If you watch student eyes while another student is reading, you can see them disengage one by one. I can’t remember the last time I asked a child to read in class and only do it with teens when there are numerous short passages (and my switching from passage to passage is more distracting than student reading) or if I have asked them to locate a type of scripture and have them read me an example they found. Unless you are teaching a faith-based language arts tutoring class, you generally need to be the one reading from scripture.
- Are your students consistent, independent Bible readers at home? You may be in one of those congregations where all of the kids regularly read their Bibles at home and are strong in Bible knowledge. If they already struggle with reading the Bible independently or having the enthusiasm to read the Bible regularly at home though, classroom reading by students is probably not going to get them excited about reading more at home. In fact, it will probably do the opposite. It will reinforce their idea that the Bible is a boring book to read. Which is sad, because the Bible is anything but boring.
- Am I asking for volunteers or am I assigning students to read? If you are using Bible reading as a classroom management tool, it will backfire on you. Students who are misbehaving are either already bored or are struggling readers hoping that acting out will keep you from calling on them. I don’t care how old your students are. Never assign a student to read a scripture. There are even many teens who struggle with reading for a variety of reasons. Introverted students will also have varying levels of stress if asked to take on such an extroverted task. Expecting them to read in front of peers, at an age when peer acceptance is so important to them, can almost seem cruel. Also be aware of the American Idol effect even if a child volunteers to read. Some young people are poor readers, but have been built up by others in an attempt to encourage them to practice reading. They may have a misunderstanding of how well they really read in comparison to other students their age. Encouraging such a child to read out loud in class can undo whatever progress their teachers may have made.
- What version of the Bible are students reading? Gone are the days in many churches when everyone had the same version. Even in a congregation where student Bibles are provided in the classroom, some children will bring their own Bible or want to use the Bible app on their phone. All but your most fluent readers are going to get hopelessly confused if someone is reading from a different version than their Bible. If you are reading, but want students to follow along, stop every couple of verses and talk about what those verses mean. It will help students who were distracted trying to keep up on a different version and help develop Bible reading comprehension skills. If possible, read from the NIrV version. The simpler reading level will help students who struggle understanding the Bible.
- Don’t forget the back story, culture, geography, religious terms and other important information. Whether you or a student is reading, it’s important to remember the Bible is about cultures about which your students may know very little. It is about a part of the world they have probably never visited. This may be the first time they have ever heard this Bible passage and they may have little if any Bible knowledge to which they can connect it for memory and understanding. Even if they have attended church their entire lives, many of the “religious” terms like justification mean little if anything to them. (Don’t let the fact that they can use them appropriately in sentences trick you into believing they really understand the terms. Most kids and teens have great learning coping skills and can fake knowing a term they couldn’t even begin to define in their own words.) Filling in the gaps every couple of verses, will keep students who need that information more engaged and improve understanding.
The next time you teach, don’t feel as if your students have to read passages from the Bible out loud to make it a legitimate Bible class. Ask yourself the questions above first. You may find it is really in the best interests of your students for you to read those passages instead.