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Literacy Expert: Weak Readers Lack Fluency, Not Critical Thinking

Washington

Students who are far from reading on grade level should not be expected to meet the higher expectations of the Common Core State Standards in a year or two, literacy expert David Liben told a group of school leaders here today: "This is a five- or 10-year project."

Liben, who works for Student Achievement Partners, a professional-development group founded by the lead writers of the common core, discussed how to support readers in the new, demanding context of the common standards.

"You should not get down on yourselves, you should not get down on your students," he told the 250 or so principals and other administrators gathered for an all-day PD session.  

He began with a rhetorical question: "What characterizes our weakest readers and what does not? There's a great deal of confusion around that."  

One thing that does not characterize them is an inability to think critically, Liben said. "[Students] manage to think critically about what they want to think critically about," such as music, sports, art, "and they certainly think critically about us," he said, to much agreement from the crowd.  

A failure to understand comprehension strategies, such as making predictions and inferences and synthesizing information, isn't what's holding them back either, Liben said, stressing again that they use those skills all the time in their own lives.

Understanding Struggling Readers

What does characterize weak readers? A lack of fluency, insufficient vocabulary, insufficient knowledge, and not seeing complex texts, according to Liben. 

The fluency piece is a big one, he noted. (For a primer on fluency, see "Reading Fluency Viewed as Neglected Skill" from our recent literacy report.) "Fluency does not guarantee comprehension, but a lack of fluency guarantees almost all the time a lack of comprehension, especially with more complex texts," he said. 

It's also "low hanging fruit." Liben recommends having students follow along with their fingers or a pen as the teacher reads aloud, and having students read the same section of text several times, a research-based technique called repeated reading. Teachers should be doing those things in social studies, science, and English to boost fluency, he said. 

Liben also talked about using multiple texts on the same topic for vocabulary instruction (see "Under Common Core, Students Learn Words by Learning About the World" for more on text sets). "In K-2, the simplest way to do this is through read aloud—don't read one book on bats, read several texts on bats," he said. "And make it a required part of 7th grade earth science that you read X amount of books on volcanoes or earthquakes."

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