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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.

Clearing Up a Couple Important Misunderstandings about Fluency

July 15, 2020

Teacher question: Our school uses XXXXXXX [widely used commercial program] in the primary grades to teach fluency. I don’t like it because so many children can read fluently but don’t understand what they are reading. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on reading comprehension?

Shanahan's response:

Thanks for your question. I’ll answer it, but I suspect your premises may be wrong.

I don’t buy the idea that our instructional choice is fluency or comprehension. We need to teach both. The simple view of reading emphasizes the important role each plays (Gough & Tunmer, 1987), and there is a substantial body of evidence showing the value of instruction of each (NICHD, 2000). Both of these constellations of skills are necessary to successful reading, but neither is sufficient.

If students cannot decode text fluently, they won’t comprehend it — no matter how advanced their intellectual and linguistic abilities. (If you don’t believe me, try to read text written in the Cyrillic alphabet). Likewise, no matter how well students can decode, they won’t comprehend a text if they lack adequate language development (oral and written) and world knowledge.

We need to emphasize explicit daily teaching of comprehension and fluency (along with work on word knowledge — decoding and morphology, and writing). When I visit classrooms, one of the most frequent gaps that I see is the lack of explicit teaching of text reading fluency; there just isn’t much of that. Perhaps that’s why your district purchased that program.

These days many districts monitor children’s reading development, evaluating skills like letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, decoding, and oral reading fluency. If a child does poorly in one or another of these, then the youngster gets extra instruction (Tier 2) in the specific skill. Possibly that was the target of the purchase of that program — for use with kids who lag in oral reading fluency.

That’s not an unusual approach, but it often means that kids get a lot of skills work without comparable emphasis on language development and reading comprehension. That may be the source of your complaint: the disfluent kids get a dose (or an extra dose) of fluency instruction… but without instruction aimed at building up the other strand of abilities.

If the problem is the latter, then I cheer your school for doing what it can to enhance text reading fluency. I’m on their side; that is a smart move. Research shows that fluency instruction pretty consistently improves reading comprehension.

But, like you, I jeer them for only monitoring decoding, while neglecting the language side of the equation. Kids should be receiving daily classroom instruction focused on vocabulary, morphological knowledge, syntax, cohesion, text structure and the like. And, there should be Tier 2 and 3 interventions with that kind of focus, as well.

There was another premise in your letter, and let me express some doubts about that one, too. You say a lot of primary grade students at your school can read fluently but without comprehension. I hear that claim often, usually from “experts” trying to denigrate fluency instruction. It’s fashionable.

The problem with the claim is that it doesn’t match well with large amounts of empirical data. Oral reading fluency tends to so closely correlated with reading comprehension, particularly in the primary grades, that there just can’t be large numbers of those children.

One possibility is that your criterion for determining that a child is “fluent” may not be sufficiently rigorous.

Some teachers consider a reader fluent if he/she can read many of the words right. But it also matters how easily the student is able to do that. If students must devote a lot of cognitive resources to figure out words, then there won’t be enough left over to think about the ideas.

Reading rate is used to estimate that ease, though the point isn’t fast reading as much as automatic reading. If students can easily and relatively quickly read the words, that won’t compete with comprehension.

Not long ago a second grade teacher was showing me a student who she thought to be adequately fluent; he was reading accurately (that is, he pronounced the author’s words correctly), but he did this at about 40 words correct per minute. That means he was as fluent as an average late year first-grader, not a mid-year second-grader (look at the Tindal & Hasbrouck norms on this site under Resources). She thought he was fluent, but the data said, “no.”

It also matters if the reading sounds like language. Are the students pausing in the right places — paying attention to punctuation and meaning? Or, are they just reading lists of words that are laid out horizontally?

Kids are reading fluently when they are easily decoding words accurately in a way that sounds like language. I’ll bet some of the kids you are judging to be fluent, really aren’t.

The research on this is clear: (1) we should teach text reading fluency — in the classroom, in interventions, and in special education programs; (2) the teaching of fluency doesn’t take the place of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, or writing instruction — it is just one, along with those others, of the important things that needs to be taught; and (3) students’ text reading fluency needs to be accurately estimated — considering accuracy, automaticity, and expression simultaneously.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller