At its core,
the skill of reading with comprehension is comprised of two component
skills. In order to read with
comprehension a reader must simultaneously be able to automatically and
fluently decode the text and competently understand the language in which the
text is written. This has been
characterized as the "Simple View of reading" (Gough and Tunmer,
1986), and is often summarized by the notation R = D x C, where R represents
the level of reading comprehension, and D and C represent decoding fluency and
general language comprehension skill respectively (See S is for Simple View). Given this formula, a person's ability to
read and comprehend text at high levels depends upon that person's ability to
comprehend language at high levels as well as that person's ability to decode
written text into a comprehensible linguistic form with adequate ease and
fluency. People lacking in either
decoding fluency or general language comprehension skills have been shown to
have correspondingly impaired reading comprehension abilities (Hoover and
Gough, 1990). This Simple View of
reading has served as the foundation for most cognitive models of reading
comprehension (see for example Wren, 2000).
Multiple studies of young children
and children with reading difficulties have suggested that most emergent and
struggling readers (especially at the younger grades) have language
comprehension skills that exceed what their decoding skills will allow them to
read (Bertelson, 1986; Conners and Olson, 1990; Frith and Snowling, 1983; Hoover
and Gough, 1990; Juel, Griffith and Gough, 1986; Perfetti, 1985; Stanovich,
1986, 1992). That is to say, these
children can easily understand the concepts, vocabulary, and information
contained in text -- yet they are still unable to read that text independently. When these children are relieved of the
burden of decoding text (by having the text read out loud to them by a skilled
reader), their comprehension of the material is considerably enhanced. Put in terms of the simple view of reading,
their ability to read and comprehend text is primarily limited by their lack of
fluency in decoding the text.
Countless other studies have shown
that students' ability to fluently, automatically decode text is linked to
higher levels of text comprehension (Bell and Perfetti, 1994; Bruck, 1988,
1990; Cunningham, Stanovich, and Wilson, 1990; Perfetti, 1985; Roth and Beck,
1987; Stanovich, 1991), and students who develop good decoding skills at a
young age are typically better at comprehending text in subsequent grades
(Juel, 1994). Arguably, for most
struggling readers decoding fluency is the bottleneck preventing reading
comprehension. As Michael Pressley
(on-line document) put it, "Word-recognition skills must be developed to
the point of fluency if comprehension benefits are to be maximized."
Betts (1946) argued that students
who labor through passages of text, making many errors as they read, are unable
to adequately comprehend what they are reading.
Betts further suggested that a student reading a passage of text with
less than 90% accuracy is unable to gather any useful information from the
text. Even students reading with 94%
accuracy will be frustrated, and will have only marginal comprehension of the
text. It is not until students are
reading with 98% accuracy that students can read and extract even superficial
information explicitly stated in the text (see also Barr, Blachowicz, and
LaBerge and Samuels (1974) and
Perfetti (1985) have extended Betts' insights, arguing convincingly that fluent
reading with comprehension is comprised of multiple processes, each demanding a
share of finite cognitive resources.
Cognitive resources that must be spent on decoding and identifying
individual words in text are resources that are not available to dedicate to the
task of examining and understanding the content of the text. Thus, readers who have developed the ability
to decode text fluently and automatically have an more cognitive resources
available to focus on the task of comprehension. But struggling readers who are still
expending limited cognitive resources to the task of laboriously decoding and
identifying words simply have few cognitive resources available to dedicate to
comprehension and meaning (see also Samuels, 2002).
Stanovich (1980) described this in
his interactive-compensatory model of reading comprehension. According to Stanovich, there are multiple
sources of information available to a reader to assist with reading
comprehension. Ideally, word
identification is so rapid and fluent that the reader can devote full attention
to the message of the text, allowing phonological, orthographic, semantic, and
syntactic information to reinforce each other to improve the overall efficiency
of the reading comprehension system.
However, when a reader is unable to rapidly identify words in passages
of text, that reader must try to examine each word and try to use orthographic,
phonological, semantic, and syntactic information for basic word
identification. As the reader shifts
cognitive resources to examine these sources of information for basic word
identification, the reader has insufficient cognitive resources available for
Other researchers concur, when word
identification becomes sufficiently fluent and automatic, the child does not have
to concentrate on the basic identification of words and can concentrate fully
on the meaning of the text (Chall, 1996; Dowhower, 1987; Ehri, 1995; Ehrlich,
Kurtz-Costes, and Loridant, 1993; Goodman, Haith, Guttentag, and Rao, 1985;
Guttentag, 1984; Guttentag and Haith, 1978; Guttentag and Haith, 1980; Kraut
and Smothergill, 1980; Lyon, 1995; Rosinski, 1977; Samuels, Schermer and
Reinking, 1992). To develop adequate
reading fluency that facilitates comprehension processes, children must pass
from an emergent stage of logographic reading that involves recognizing words
as wholes or recognizing some salient feature associated with the word, through
a stage of alphabetic reading involving applying letter-sound knowledge to
laboriously sound words out, to a mature orthographic stage that is
characterized by very fluent and automatic recognition of familiar words (with
both regular and irregular spellings) as well as rapid, virtually effortless
identification of unfamiliar words (see Ehri (1996) for review). The path to the third stage for children
involves some explicit instruction and guidance in the mechanics of text and
the conventions of the English writing system, coupled with hours upon hours of
practice reading with feedback and guidance (LaBerge and Samuels, 1974;
Perfetti, 1985; Reitsma, 1988; Stanovich, 1986). Unfortunately, many children experience
difficulty along this path, stalling before reaching the fluent orthographic
stage, and as a consequence suffer a life-long struggle with reading (Stanovich,
Providing children with ample
opportunity to practice reading appropriate text with feedback and guidance
should be the goal of every educator of young children. Unfortunately, as Allington (1977) and
Biemiller (1977) have pointed out, students in most classrooms typically do not
actually have adequate opportunities to practice and refine their reading
skills, and struggling readers actually have fewer opportunities to practice
than skilled readers. Biemiller found
that the best readers are typically given the most opportunity to practice
developing decoding fluency and reading skills in class and that the worst
readers -- the ones who arguably need the most practice -- are given the least
opportunity to develop decoding and reading skills. Allington (1984) examined classroom practice
in detail and found that struggling readers were asked to read as few as 16
words during one week of reading-group instruction while students in the more
advanced reading group were reading close to 2,000 words in the same week.
Nagy and Anderson (1984) examined
the independent reading habits of skilled and struggling readers and found
enormous disparity between the number of words that skilled readers read in a
year (close to 4,000,000) versus the number of words that a struggling reader
might read in a year (less than 100,000).
The opportunities to practice and develop fluency are staggering for the
skilled readers, and the lack of opportunity to practice and develop fluency is
crippling for the struggling reader (See V is for Volume).
This practice variable is one of the
factors that gives rise to what researchers (Stanovich, 1986; Cunningham and
Stanovich, 1998; Walberg and Tsai, 1983) have dubbed the Matthew Effect in
reading and education (See M is for Matthew Effect). In short, children
who have advantages in the early grades (e.g., more developed early reading
skills) tend to build on those advantages and thrive in education while their
disadvantaged peers are left behind. The
Matthew Effect has implications in decoding fluency, reading comprehension,
background knowledge, vocabulary development, and general academic
Advantaged students not only thrive
of their own accord, but as the work by Allington and Biemiller indicates, they
are also given more attention, support, and opportunities by their teachers
than their disadvantaged peers. It is an
insidious paradox in education -- students who need the most support,
instruction, and opportunities to practice and develop knowledge and skills are
typically given the least. It is a
frustrating state of affairs that led Allington (1977) to write, "If they
don't read much, how they ever gonna get good?"
The simple fact of the matter is
that developing reading fluency requires practice, but struggling readers in
typical classrooms are given few opportunities to practice. Instead of the strong, effective
instructional interventions such as those that have been identified by the
National Reading Panel review, namely guided oral reading and repeated reading,
struggling students are often relegated to less effective activities such as
filling out worksheets. This is likely
due to the amount of time and effort involved in providing guided oral reading
and repeated reading instruction to individual struggling readers.
A teacher's time is very limited,
and guided oral reading requires a great deal of time investment in each
student, and repeated reading activities require even more. This is unfortunate because research
indicates that one of the best approaches to enhancing fluency is repeated
reading with guidance and feedback (Samuels, 1979). In fact a review of the research literature
lead Dowhower (1994) to conclude that the research on the positive effects of
repeated reading was so strong that repeated reading should be "woven into
the very fabric of daily literacy instruction." Not only should educators give struggling and
emergent readers ample opportunity to practice reading through guided oral
reading, but research indicates that struggling readers should be given the
opportunity to read the same passage of text several times for an audience that
provides feedback. Numerous research studies have documented the positive
impact repeated reading has on improving reading fluency and word recognition
accuracy and on reading comprehension (Breznitz, 1997a, 1997b; Dowhower, 1987;
O'Shea, Sindelar, and O'Shea, 1987; Rashotte and Torgesen, 1985; Tan and
Nicholson, 1997). Faulkner and Levy
(1999) have further disaggregated the gains that different students make from
this type of instructional intervention, and found that students who are very
poor, struggling readers tend to learn more about word identification
strategies while better readers tend to learn more about using appropriate
prosody and reading "with meaning."
repeated reading activities with individualized feedback and support can be
instructionally cumbersome (Jones, Torgesen, and Sexton, 1987). Rashotte and Torgesen (1985) suggest that
repeated reading instructional activities should be structured to allow
students to repeatedly read the same passage up to four times with feedback and
support provided with every reading.
They found that gains in fluency and comprehension were still detectible
even after four readings of a passage.
This means that to translate this research into instructional practice,
teachers would need to spend time individually with students, listening to them
read a passage up to four times, and monitoring progress and improvement with
Furthermore, there is evidence that
this time-intensive, individualized intervention should be sustained over a
very long time (or as Dowhower suggested, it should simply become a permanent
part of literacy instruction). In a
relatively short-term, three-week intervention with struggling readers,
Rashotte and Torgesen (1985) found that fluency was enhanced, but only for
passages of text that shared a substantial number of the same words. It is unclear how long gains, such as there
were, could be detected with passages containing familiar vocabulary, but it is
likely that the intervention would have had broader more generalized benefits
for unfamiliar text if it had been sustained over many months or years.
Unfortunately, it is apparent that
long-term, individualized repeated guided oral reading instruction with at
least four opportunities to practice each passage of text is too cumbersome for
most teachers to easily weave into the "very fabric of daily literacy
instruction." Some researchers have
sought ways to reduce the burden on the classroom teacher with some
success. For example, some have
experimented with peer coaching strategies wherein the students are taught to
listen to each other read and provide feedback (Schumm and Vaughn, 1991;
Schumm, Vaughn, and Saumell, 1994).
Typically in those interventions, the students read a passage
individually for the teacher once, and then practice with a peer (usually in
heterogeneous pairs) a few times before reading for the teacher a second
time. This relieves the burden on the
teacher and gives students a daily opportunity to practice developing oral
reading fluency with feedback.
technology also exists to allow students to engage in repeated reading with
feedback activities without creating a burden on the teacher to monitor reading
and provide feedback. Soliloquy has
created a software program called Reading Assistant that uses automated
speech-recognition technology to "listen" to students read aloud and
monitor their fluency and accuracy. With
this software, students read passages of text aloud into a microphone, and the
computer provides assistance as needed.
The computer also keeps track of performance, and encourages students to
repeatedly read the passage until they are reach a fluency goal. While more research is needed, early studies
suggest this technology is a useful tool to help students practice and develop
fluency and comprehension skills.
Fluency, then, is all about developing
a huge "sight vocabulary." Mature, adult readers like you and I are fairly
quick to read about 50,000 words -- words that we see often enough that
they are in our sight vocabulary (we only see them that often because we
read a lot, and we are exposed to more than 4,000,000 words a year -- see
V is for Volume). Struggling readers who are not fluent have very few
words in their sight vocabulary, and they must spend a great deal of time
and energy sounding out most of the words they read. Fluency instruction,
therefore, should focus on helping students who already know how to sound
out words to repeatedly read words (in real text) so they can read them
quickly and automatically. Repeated reading with feedback is one of the
best ways to do this, and silent reading for pleasure (with guidance and
monitoring) is another.
To learn more, I encourage you to
read the National Reading Panel report of the subgroups -- one of the subgroups
focused on developing reading fluency, and they had some insightful suggestions
that you might find useful.
Also, Jay Samuels has a chapter
in a book called "What
research has to say about reading instruction." The whole book is informative,
and Samuels' chapter focuses specifically on fluency.
Also, Kuhn and Stahl wrote a report
for CIERA on fluency. It can be downloaded at http://www.ciera.org/library/reports/inquiry-2/
(There are many informative reports on reading acquisition at the CIERA
site; scroll down the page and look for the one on fluency. Then
read the rest of them.).
Also, if you want a quick assessment
of decoding fluency, download
a copy of the Abecedarian for free. Research also suggests that
students should be regularly tested on their reading rates, and Richard
Allington, in his excellent book, "What
Really Matters for Struggling Readers" provides information about reading
rates, and what should be expected of different children at different ages.
trying to get a CWPM percentile table for adolescent and adult readers.
The best I have only goes through fifth grade. Do you know where I
could locate such a resource?
From 2nd through 8th grade, there is a fairly reliable formula I use --
multiply the student's age by 12 to get a target CWPM (Correct Words
Per Minute) -- so a 10 year old, should be reading about 120 words per
minute (give or take 10%). However, past 8th grade, the reading
rate necessary for comprehension levels off -- a 14 year old should be
reading about 168 words per minute, and that's fast enough for
reasonable comprehension into adulthood. A good reader with
practice CAN read faster than that, but it is not necessary for
Keep in mind, too, there is an upper limit. Reading faster than
350 words per minute (maybe 400, tops, with easy text) also undermines
comprehension. The ideal range for adolescent and adult readers
is 200 to 350 words per minute.
You might also check out the book Partnering for Fluency -- it has the tables you are looking for.
I enjoyed reading your extremely informative essay (about Fluency).
I agree with most of what I read, but the essence of how words
become sight words was not discussed. In my opinion, this is
the heart of the "reading debate."
a student has not learned the body of orthographic knowledge to easily
decode, then that child needs explicit instruction in this knowledge
and how to use it in decoding. Along the same lines,
children need to be able to segment and blends sounds in order to
read and spell.
am interested in research about fluency of segmenting and blending
and how it affects the ability to read fluently. If children
are unable to read fluently but can segment and blend rapidly and
have at least a 2nd grade level of phonics knowledge, then
repeated readings would probably assist children in gaining reading
fluency. However, without these essential elements in
place, I believe that repeated readings encourage sight word
reading of the logographic type.
You are quite right, I didn't talk about
"sight words" very clearly, and I do think that is very, very
important. I wrote an essay a long time ago called "Reading by
Sight" (See S is for Sight Word Reading)
that, I hope, addresses your concerns. As for segmenting fluency,
you might want to read some of the more recent work by Ed Kame'enui --
he is taking a long-term, developmental view of fluency, saying that it
starts with picture-naming speed, letter-naming speed, and phonological
processing speed. A recent review of fluency intervention studies
by Therrien (2004) suggests that all students get some benefit from
repeated-reading instruciton, but that the students who get the
greatest benefit are those who can sound-out words (i.e. they have
reasonable cipher knowledge), but who do so slowly and laboriously.
Therrien, W.J. (2004). Fluency and Comprehension Gains as a
Result of Repeated Reading: A meta-analysis. Remedial and Special
Education, 25 (4) 252-261.
You are quite right -- Tim
has distinguished himself as an expert in this field with much useful
advice to share. Thanks for the tip. I just created a fluency section for the professional books section, so I'll definitely check these out.
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