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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Oral Reading Fluency Is More than Speed

October 28, 2016
Letter to Shanahan:
 
I found these troubling quotes in the Report of the National Reading Panel:
 
"Fluency, the ability to read a text quickly, accurately, and with proper expression..."
 
"Fluent readers can read text with speed, accuracy, and proper expression..."
 
My dismay is due to (a) listing rate first in both statements, and (b) using "quickly" and "with speed" rather than "rate" (or "appropriate rate" as in the CCSS fluency standard). I wonder if this wording may have encouraged folks who now embrace the notion that "faster is better" (e.g. "better readers have higher DIBELS scores wcpm")
 
In my own work I often refer to Stahl & Kuhn (2002) who stated that "fluent reading sounds like speech" smooth, effortless, but not "as fast as you can."
 
Who’s right?
 
Shanahan's response:
 
Well, first off, let me take full responsibility for the wordings that you found troubling. I took the lead in writing that portion of the report, and so I probably wrote it that way.
 
Nevertheless, I doubt that my inapt wording was what triggered the all too prevalent emphasis on speed over everything else in fluency; that I’d pin on misinterpretations of DIBELS.
 
I, too, have seen teachers guiding kids to read as fast as they can, trying to inflate DIBELS scores in meaningless ways. What a waste of time.
 
But, that said, the importance of speed/quickness/rate in fluency cannot be overstated — though it obviously can be misunderstood.
 
The fundamental idea that I was expressing in those quotes was that students must get to the point where they can recognize/decode words with enough facility that they will be able to read the author's words with something like the speed and prosody of language. 
 
Old measures of fluency — like informal reading inventories — looked at accuracy alone, which is only adequate with beginning readers. The problem with accuracy measures is that they overrate the plodders who can slowly and laboriously get the words right (as if they were reading a meaningless list of random words). 
 
DIBELS was an important advance over that because it included rate and accuracy — which is sufficient in the primary grades, but which overrates the hurried readers who can speed through texts without appropriate expression. Studies are showing that prosody is not particularly discriminating in the earlier grades, but as kids progress it gains in importance (probably because the syntax gets more complex and prosody or expression is an indicator of how well kids are sorting that out — rather than just decoding quickly enough to allow comprehension).
 
Fluency instruction and monitoring are very important, and I agree with your complaint that it is often poorly taught and mis-assessed by teachers. I think there are a couple of reasons for that.
 
First, I think many teachers don’t have a clear fluency concept—and stating its components (accuracy, rate, and prosody) — in their order of development won’t fix that. Fluency is not a distinct skill as much as it is an amalgam of skills. It is part decoding, part comprehension.
 
Kids cannot read if they can’t decode and recognize words; translating from print to pronunciation. That’s why we teach things like sight words, phonological awareness, and phonics.
 
However, recognizing words in a list is a very different task than reading them horizontally, organized into sentences, with all the distraction that implies. Speed (or rate or quickness) don’t really matter when reading a list of words. But when reading sentences, it is critical that you move it along. Slow word reading indicates that a student is devoting a lot of cognitive resources to figuring out the words, and that means cognitive resources will not be available to thinking about the ideas. That’s why speed of word reading is so important; it is an indicator of how much a reader will be able to focus on a text’s meaning.
 
But fluency is not just fast word reading. It includes some aspects of reading comprehension, too. For instance, fluent readers tend to pronounce homographs (heteronyms) — desert, affect, intimate — correctly without needing to slow down or try alternatives. Fluent readers may have no advantage in thinking deeply about the ideas in a text, but they do when it comes to this kind of immediate interpretation while reading.
 
Another aspect of comprehension that is part of fluency is the ability to parse sentences so that they sound like sentences. Someone listening to your oral reading should be able to understand the message, because you would have grouped the words appropriately into phrases and clauses. To read in that way, you, again, have to be quickly interpreting the sentences—using punctuation and meaning as you go.  
 
Teachers who think that fluency is just reading the right words, or just reading the right words really fast, is missing the point. Stahl and Kuhn are right: fluency has to go, not necessarily fast, but the speed of normal language.
 
Second, I think many teachers don’t understand assessment. Reading assessments of all kinds try to estimate student performance based on small samples of behavior. Accordingly, the assessment tasks usually differ from the overall behavior in important ways.
 
With fluency, that means measuring some aspects of the concept, e.g., speed and accuracy, while not measuring others, e.g., prosody.
 
Given the imperfect nature of these predictor tasks, it is foolish, and even damaging, to teach the tasks rather than the ability we are trying to estimate. It is like teaching kids to answer multiple-choice questions rather than teaching them to think about the ideas in text.
 
As long as teachers try to teach facets of tests rather than reading we're going to see this kind of problem. The following guidance might help.
  1. Tell students to read the text aloud as well as they can — not as fast as they can.
  2. Tell them that they will be expected to answer questions about the text when they finish — so they will read while trying to understand the text.
  3. Pay attention not just to the wcpm (words correct per minute), but to whether the reading sounds like language.
 

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