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Faster Isn't Better


In reading as in driving, speed isn't always the best indicator of skill. But the nation's NCLB-induced testing frenzy now often includes periodic classroom assessments of elementary students' reading fluency. The problem, experts say, is that these tests often don't get down to the real nitty-gritty of reading fluency—instead, they focus mostly on speed. So children who can read fast and score well on such tests may be missing out on understanding what they read. "They read so fast, with no punctuation and no expression, that we'd go back and ask comprehension questions and they weren't very successful answering them," said one middle school principal. The rebirth of reading fluency as a curriculum area can be traced back to a 2000 report from the National Reading Panel that became the basis for President Bush's Reading First program, a cornerstone of NCLB. The report recommended a focus on reading fluency, but didn't define "fluency," so federal Reading First funds were often awarded to programs that stressed speed over comprehension. "Fluent readers are readers who know how to dig into a book and pull out just what they are looking for," says longtime teacher Susan Marantz of Columbus, Ohio. Looks like it might be time to apply the brakes and start focusing on the scenery.


Yesterday, I watched my students as they raced to see how many words they could find on the reading fluency test. If the government wants a nation of students that hates to read for enjoyment, than speed reading is the way to go. I agree with Ms. Marantz, it is time to slow down and remember to teach reading as something that is first enjoyable. Without successful readers we will not have successful students. What are these tests really going to prove?

The fluency called for by the National Reading Panel is not speed reading, but -- as so often happens -- has been translated into such on the ground. Kids need enough fluency that they're not stumbling over words and sounding phonemes out individually. If they can't do this, they confound the working memory process and can't remember enough of what they've just read to reach comprehension. This type of fluency is indeed a noble goal, but what I see passing as required fluency in many classrooms makes a mockery of true reading instruction. As well, No Child Left Behind -- under the current administration -- seems to have been re-interpreted as No Critical Thinking Allowed. As in the Iraq war, education contracts go to political supporters of the current administration, and those are the ones with the one-size-fits-all reading programs. All the serious research indicates that the cognitive processes involved in reading are many and vary from child to child. We need to band together and get the cronyism out of education by replacing Congress on November 7th. Vote the idiots out and restore some sanity to education and the rest of society. Remember that when spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion!

Our District invited parents of GT identified students to come in and share their opinions about the education their children receive. In my group a third grade Latino boy was present. He can read English better than he can speak it but his native tongue is getting rusty. An administrator asked him how things were in school. Difficult, easy or just right? He said they were in the middle, in other words mixed. I was surprised to hear him even mentioning DIBELS! The test in itself was not perceived as difficult, but he did mention that grammar was difficult and he mentioned a few specific terms such as pronouns and others that I have already forgotten :)

I think his answer shows how reading has changed from a natural acquisition through enjoyment of the content to a very structured and abstract (and may I add boring!) approach!

This is an issue that calls for balance. Good readers read quickly. It doesn't take them hours--or all evening--to read an assignment. My state gives "unlimited" time on its high stakes test, with the result being many students spend upwards of five, six, seven, hours on the test. Are they better readers than the kids who finish in 90 minutes? No way. If it takes a student six hours to comprehend text other students understand in 90 minutes, that's not fluency. It's not comprehension. I wouldn't even call it reading. Speed is a part of fluency. We can easily go overboard and ignore comprehension for the sake of speed, but it's just as bad to ignore speed for the sake of comprehension.

Fluency is meant to be an indicator of a students reading ability, it is not meant to be the ruling method for reading. We assess our students using the Dibels measurement, but you must also consider many other factors for that student. (ie. decoding ability, comprehension, etc.) Teachers must understand and be able to monitor and teach students how to read fluently and "accurately", not rapidly. Training is the key to know how to monitor and use fluency for increasing the comprehension of students, because there are correlations to show that the two do go "hand in hand."

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