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  • Writer's pictureSusan Koehler

The Reading Race

Runners, take your mark. Ready. Set. Go! Sprinters break from the blocks and explode onto the track. Arms and legs alternate in a visual blur. Just seconds after the start, the fastest runner on the track crosses the finish line and wins the race! If you’re a sprinter, speed is the goal. The fastest runner wins. But that’s about running.

What about reading? Does the fastest reader win? Is speed the goal of reading? Of course, the answer is no. Comprehension is the goal of reading. However, comprehension and fluency are intricately related. Young children learn to decode and recognize individual words. Therefore, it’s very appropriate to the process of an early reader to read. word. by. word. like. this. This early reader is practicing. It’s a necessary step in the process of becoming a reader.

As readers develop automaticity – automatically recognizing words upon sight -- they develop speed. Along with that speed, they start putting words together into phrases. They recognize punctuation and pause appropriately. They add inflections and expression. The ability to read with automaticity, phrasing, and appropriate expression is called fluency. And fluency is a very necessary part of reading competence.

Teachers who are experienced with emerging readers have an intuitive sense of when a child crosses the bridge from reading word-by-word to becoming a fluent reader. It’s a magical moment. The child takes off. It’s like removing the training wheels from a bike. Finally, the child is free to create meaning from text, which is, after all, what reading is all about.

The problem is that the teacher’s intuitive sense of a child’s reading fluency is not measurable. That’s why when behavioral psychologists became highly involved in the field of reading, they developed a way to measure reading fluency. Suddenly, measuring “words per minute” became a centerpiece of evaluating reading proficiency. True, once children cross that proverbial bridge, they read faster. When they are reading connected units of text they comprehend better. So, to a point, reading more words per minute correlates with increased comprehension. This point has been supported by research. However, continually increasing words per minute does not continually increase comprehension.

Misunderstanding and misuse of fluency tools can hinder independent reading and comprehension skills. In many classrooms, teachers are required to assess fluency by holding a stopwatch and having a child read a grade-level passage for sixty seconds. (There can be a lot of discussion about the meaning of “grade-level passage,” but we’ll save that for another time.) The words read accurately per minute are recorded and usually a few comprehension questions are asked. These assessments are done periodically and reading progress is monitored by the recording of these scores. What could be wrong with this system?

Well, one huge problem is that students begin to confuse speed with proficiency. The fastest reader in the class feels like the winner. However, after a child has crossed the bridge from word-by-word to fluent reading, speed is not as important as the other aspects of fluency that tend to become disregarded or devalued. Fluency, we must remember, also refers to appropriate phrasing and expression.

I recently assessed a fifth grade student whose mother reported he was struggling with comprehension. The child exhibited excellent word recognition and automaticity when reading words in isolation. However, during passage reading, he read very quickly, in a monotone voice, and with no regard for punctuation. When asked comprehension questions, he struggled. Out of curiosity, I inquired, “Do you have timed readings at school?” His enthusiastic response was, “Yes, and I’m the fastest one in my class!”

Another danger of regularly scheduled timed readings is that students are supplied with “grade level” reading passages. Students who are already fluent readers probably do not benefit from this constant progress monitoring. Students who score poorly on timed readings are often assigned repeated readings of similar grade level passages. Repeated readings can be very helpful, but what if this child is not “on grade level” as a reader? The problem might not be fluency at all. A better strategy is to find a level at which the student is proficient and begin there. Reading is a process, and we need to work within a child’s level of competence if we want the child to move through the process.

If we recognize that a child truly struggles with fluency – that a child lacks automaticity, phrasing, and appropriate expression – continually timing the child may not be the most effective strategy for creating a reader. Instead, there are many meaningful activities that build real fluency and can also engage children in the reading process.

1. Reader’s Theater – Students practice their parts (repeated reading) and rehearse the delivery of their lines (phrasing and expression). There are many great reader’s theater resources, both free and commercial. Additionally, you can create your own reader’s theater scripts using familiar stories and poems. Students can even write their own scripts, which adds meaning and ownership to the activity.

2. Read to the Beat – Fluency is inherent in music. Song lyrics must adhere to the rhythm of the song. Post lyrics in your classroom, practice classroom karaoke, and create songs together. Raps and poems also contain rhythm and meter. Reading along to the beat is a great way to practice fluency, and repeated readings take on a fun, new meaning.

3. Echo Reading – In this strategy, the teacher reads a segment of the text from a shared book, chart, or display, and the students repeat what was read. The teacher reads with deliberate phrasing and expression, and the students echo those elements of fluent reading.

4. Choral Reading – Choral reading, like reader’s theater, requires children to practice their parts and read with fluid phrasing and expression. However, in choral reading, two or more voices are reading in unison. The practice (repeated reading) of proper phrasing and expression becomes peer-supported.

5. Reading Buddies – Reading to younger children in your school puts your students in the position of practicing fluency with a purpose. They should rehearse the picture books they will be reading so their phrasing and expression is performance-ready. This purposeful practice is extremely useful for your students who are reading below grade-level because they can work in their area of reading competence.

6. Develop Sight Words – If we want students to cross that bridge from word-by-word to fluent reading, common words need to become automatic. Develop sight words with intention through games, repetitive texts, songs, poems, and student-made books. Practice daily, and continually add to the list.

7. Model Fluent Reading – For parents and teachers, reading aloud should be a daily exercise. Listening to the phrasing, expression, and automaticity of a fluent reader acquaints the child with the sound of fluent reading. Modeling is perhaps the most important tool for creating fluent readers.

Fluency. It is essential to the reading process. Timed readings can be effective progress-monitoring strategies if used with caution. However, overuse and misuse leads to a misguided understanding of the reading process. Be sure to keep fluency checks to a minimum, and embrace the phrasing and expression of fluency as well as the speed. Never lose sight of the fact that the goal of reading is to create meaning from text, and the goal of the reading teacher is to nurture and support the development of lifelong readers.

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