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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.

First You Have to Teach Them to be Disfluent Readers

June 23, 2020

Teacher question: You say that one-quarter or one-fifth of the reading instruction time should be spent on oral reading fluency. But I teach kindergarten and most of my kids can’t read, so fluency instruction doesn’t make any sense. What should I do instead?

Shanahan's response:

When we talk about oral reading fluency — or what I prefer to call text reading fluency — we’re referring to the ability to read text accurately, with automaticity, and appropriate expression or prosody.

As such, text fluency is a mash up of a plethora of applied skills including decoding ability, knowledge of high frequency words, ability to multitask — processing one word while moving along to look at the next, and while this is going on, trying to construct meanings, and so on.

Often, text fluency instruction focuses on reading speed; trying to hurry kids along (since we use reading rate as an index of automaticity).

A better way to think about text fluency instruction, however, is as a coordination task that requires the reader to integrate and consolidate their abilities to orchestrate several skills and abilities simultaneously.

Unfortunately, we don’t talk much about the roots of text fluency.

I think the basic idea that many people have is that when students learn to read words fluently, then they’ll be able to read text fluency. If you can do the first, you will certainly be able to do the second. At least that’s what they claim.

Consequently, they recommend staying away from text fluency work altogether, or at best they suggest it is something for later (like the second half of first grade). Leaving kindergarten teachers, like you, off the hook. If text reading is no different than fast individual word reading, then that would be an appropriate approach. 

But research suggests a more complicated picture… and, that’s where things get interesting. Of course, those skills that allow kids to read word lists fluently contribute to text reading fluency, too. But there’s more to it than that (Jenkins, Fuchs, van den Broek, Espin, & Deno, 2003).

At what point do children begin to integrate the various skills and abilities that become reading? Certainly, much earlier than when they can actually read text fluently.
That brings me to what constitutes fluency instruction in a kindergarten classroom: “fingerpoint reading.”

Fingerpoint reading refers to the ability to point at written or printed words as they are being said. Usually the way this plays out in classrooms and in the studies of fingerpoint reading, is that the children memorize a short piece of text, perhaps a nursery rhyme or song. Then they are given a printed version of that text and are asked to recite it while pointing to each word that they say.

There is a lot of variability in students’ ability to do fingerpoint reading accurately, since it requires some knowledge of words, phonology, syllabication, print awareness, and other skills. I myself did a study like that as part of my master’s degree almost 50 years ago. My first graders sometimes pointed at the individual letters, sometimes they thought the printed words corresponded to the pronounced syllables, and so on.

Ehri and Sweet (1991) did a neat study of this trying to figure out what skills were required to sustain fingerpoint reading and what it, consequently, contributed to reading development. They found that to be a proficient fingerpoint reader you needed develop some knowledge of phonemic segmentation, some beginning sounds and the letters they correspond to, as well as a knowledge of at least a few words. Kids who lacked these skills simply weren’t very good at fingerpoint reading.

However, studies also point out the difficulties in applying phonological knowledge to text without a clear understanding of the “concept of word,” the idea that those groups of letters that are separated by spaces and punctuation marks refer to words and not to syllables (Morris, 1983; Morris, 1989; Morris & Henderson, 1981). In other words, students have to coordinate what they are learning about segmenting phonemes with these ideas of the concept of a word and how print works.

Clearly, this complex early literacy task entails those things, but it also includes left-right and top-to-bottom orientation, familiarity with written language structures, realization that spoken language corresponds to written language along with those decoding and word reading skills already noted (Bowling & Cabell, 2018; Ehri & Sweet, 1991; Mesmer & Lake, 2010).
What does this mean instructionally?

It means that we should be spending time in kindergarten (preschool, and early Grade 1) intentionally teaching students to read disfluently initially.

That’s one way to look at it, since reading the words and pointing to their counterparts tends to be a bit choppy. However, until students develop those initial abilities to match speech and print, it is unlikely they’ll be able to develop fluency in its more traditional form.

There are studies showing that the same tasks that we use to evaluate fingerpoint fluency can be used to teach students to engage in it successfully (Shepherd, 2011). For instance, having students memorizing poems or songs or predictable texts and then having them trying to point to the words as they “read” them — but with teacher support and coaching.

Another popular fingerpoint reading task is when teachers read big books to the children, pointing to the words as they are read. Teachers often engage the students in helping with this activity either chorally or individually.

Additionally, I’d recommend things like working with language experience stories. In the language experience approach (LEA), teachers transcribe student dictations, typically reading and rereading these to the child — pointing at the words all the way. Then the children try to read them, too, both pointing at the words as they read, and trying to find words that the teacher says. Early on, I separate the words pretty far apart, but over time they get closer together.

The point of all of these activities are multiple: they help the students to build memory for language; to track print; to coordinate oral and written language; to apply phonemic segmentation in a reading situation, and so on.

In the instructional scheme that you refer to, I argue that 25% of instructional time should be devoted to word learning (the decoding and meanings of words and parts of words), 25% to fluency, 25% to comprehension and learning from text, and 25% to writing. Or, in another version, I would divide that pie in 5 pieces and add oral language to the mix.

Clearly, fingerpoint reading is closely connected to the word work that kindergartners should be engaged in (phonological awareness, alphabet, letter sounds). Research also shows it to be closely tied to the invented spelling that would commonly be a part of beginning writing (Uhry, 1997). I suspect, because of its verbal memory demands, that it is also related to certain aspects of oral language development.

As I wrote above, fluency is about coordinating all of these systems. That is also true when these skills are first starting to develop. When students can read in a conventional manner, typical oral reading activities with feedback and repetition are likely to be the best route to increased coordination of decoding and meaning. But before we can get to that, activities like fingerpoint reading, that require the coordination of language and print belong in that fluency slot.

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"Books to the ceiling, Books to the sky, My pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them." —

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