Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
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The conventional wisdom that one should learn to crawl before learning to walk has been ignored by those who consider that beginners should be encouraged to read in the way that skilled readers do (Goodman, 1973, 1974). The evidence on literacy (analogous to many other life skills) indicates the need to ensure that students develop instantaneous word recognition. For this to occur, teachers must first emphasise the minutiae of decoding, and ensure that all students obtain their requisite levels of practice to enable the achievement of that most important quality, automaticity. It is a state of skill development in which tasks that formerly required concentration to complete competently, having been practised to the point of over-learning, are now able to be completed without conscious attention (Baker, Kame’enui, Simmons, & Stahl, 1994; Thompson & Nicholson, 1998).
All readers have a limited amount of attentional capacity to devote to the reading task. If the basic process of extracting the words from the page is laboured (slow and usually error-prone), readers will lose track of that which already has been read (Mastropieri, Leinart, & Scruggs, 1999), and be unable to follow the text’s sequence of ideas (Kamhi & Catts, 1999). They will also remain essentially passive during the reading task, not able to bring their own experiences to bear on the all-important meaningmaking process, and hence their comprehension is doubly hindered. Because of the additional effort required, they are likely to be reading less than their peers and their resultant slower vocabulary development further impedes comprehension (Mastropieri et al., 1999). Sometimes these struggling readers are exhorted to pay more attention to meaning (Newman, 1985) than to the words in front of them – a cruel, if unintentionally so, diversion away from the problem source. With automaticity, all available attention can be directed to the meaning-making task, because the lower-level decoding process is effortless. Unsurprisingly then, research has shown that fluency and comprehension are mutually interdependent (Mathes, Howard, Allen, & Fuchs, 1998).
Some students who have reached the stage of reading grade level materials with accuracy may continue to be characterised by a slow and halting style, read without expression, and despite their excellent word recognition accuracy, comprehension may be compromised. Hence as reading accuracy becomes facile, the role of reading speed assumes greater importance. For some students, fluency (speed combined with accuracy) may develop simply from practice at reading, but can be enhanced when students’ attention is drawn to the goal of increasing their reading speed. The greater the volume of appropriately constructed text read at a student’s independent reading level (95 per cent accuracy), the more rapidly fluency is likely to develop (Lyon, 1998). Students whose fluency does not develop normally may require significant additional support, a circumstance easily overlooked unless regular fluency checks are an element in the reading program. Various methods have been employed to assist fluency further, including repeated reading, speed drills, computer-guided practice, and rapid word recognition charts (Mather & Goldstein, 2001). The general intention is to assist students to realise the value of more fluent reading, and to provide regular opportunities for them to test and chart their developing rate and accuracy. There has been ample research demonstrating that the number of words students read correctly in one minute provides a reliable and valid measure of overall reading ability (Baker, Gersten, & Keating, 2000).
While suggested rates vary, Howell and Nolet (2000) recommend the following benchmarks. From early Year 1 to late Year 1, the anticipated progression is from 35– 50 words correct per minute; whilst from early Year 2 to late Year 2, the target is from 70–100 correct wpm; and from early Year 3 to late Year 3 the progression is from 120–140 correct wpm. A slightly different trajectory is suggested by Binder, Haughton, and Bateman (2002). They anticipate a more rapid progression throughout Year 1 reaching between 60-100 correct wpm. They also provide additional yearly expectations: Year 2–Year 3 100–120 correct wpm; Year 4–Year 5 120–150 correct wpm; Year 6–Year 8 150–180 correct wpm; and Year 9 and above 180–200 correct wpm.
When the author was working in a Florida school in 2004, there was consternation about a new state 3rd Year reading comprehension test, known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). The alarming new mandate was that any student failing this test could not progress to Year 4, an eventuality that tended to attract schools’ attention and efforts. It was discovered that 91 per cent of students who read at or above 110 correct words per minute on grade level text achieved adequate performance on the reading section of the FCAT. Of students reading below 80 correct words per minute, 81 per cent failed the FCAT (Buck & Torgesen, 2003). Fluency suddenly became a firm focus for identifying at risk students and as a focus for intervention. Similar findings with respect to oral reading fluency and state reading tests have been reported in Michigan (Carlisle, Schilling, Scott, & Zeng, 2004) and North Carolina (Barger, 2003).
Reading Fluency is Amenable to Intervention
Students who seriously struggle with reading may have a developmental reading trajectory as little as half that of the average student (Wheldall & Beaman, 2000). This difficulty is clearly reflected in their fluency rates, and in the stagnation of those rates over time. In a two year study of 3000 students, Fuchs, Fuchs, Hamlett, Walz, and Germann (1993) found, with an effective reading program, that students in Year 1 to Year 3 should improve their fluency by two correct words per minute per week of instruction, whilst those in Year 4 to Year 6 should improve by one correct word per minute per week of instruction. This study did not focus upon low progress readers, and an important issue is the degree to which such readers can also display progress in fluency.
There are fluency-based instructional programs that have produced strong gains in programs for students diagnosed with learning difficulties (Johnson and Layng, 1992). The one correct word per minute per week of instruction figure was exceeded in the Wheldall and Beaman (2000) evaluation of the Making Up Lost Time In Literacy (MULTILIT) program for students from Year 3 to Year 6. An increase of 38 words per minute was attained by low progress readers after two school terms of intensive, systematic, direct instruction that emphasised phonological decoding skills, word recognition and supported text reading. Wheldall and Beaman argue that a reasonable target for low progress readers, when provided with effective remedial instruction, is a rate of 135 wpm corresponding to a mid Year 5 level, an attainment they consider represents functional literacy.
Both standardised and informal assessments of oral reading accuracy, rate and comprehension are recommended and referenced in the National Reading Panel Report (National Reading Panel, 2000). The report recommends guided oral reading as a valuable fluency enhancing activity, yet both fluency assessment and instruction are notably absent from the reading curricula of many schools. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that reading fluency is not mentioned in the English curriculum standards documents from at least three Australian states: Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland (Department of Education, Employment & Training, 2001). Teaching approaches that include a fluency component, such as MULTILIT (Wheldall & Beaman, 2000) and the Corrective Reading program (Adams & Engelmann, 1996; Gunn, Biglan, Smolkowski, & Ary, 2000) have demonstrated their effectiveness in this domain but have not yet achieved the mainstream recognition they deserve.
It is in reaching the stage of automaticity that the apparent magic of skilled reading becomes evident – whole words are recognised as quickly as are individual letters. The actual process of reading, of transforming squiggles into language, appears transparent – that is, the words seem to leap off the page and into consciousness without any noticeable effort or strategy (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). The issue of variation in the effort required to make sense of print has been addressed by employing neuro-imaging techniques when both capable and struggling students are engaged in reading. Richards et al. (1999) noted that the poor readers used four to five times as much physical energy as the capable readers to complete the same phonological tasks in the left anterior lobe of the brain. This difference was not observed when non-language tasks were presented. It is unsurprising that motivation to read is a serious obstacle to overcome with struggling readers.
For skilled readers, there is no further need to resort to the slow, unreliable process of prediction based upon context, followed by confirmation. Though it may remain of value in understanding the meaning of a new word, attendance to such contextual cues is not required by competent readers as a strategy for obtaining the pronunciation of words.
Isn’t skilled performance a wondrous thing? Wouldn’t it be marvellous if our brains were already wired for reading, so that teachers could simply evoke from students an existing but unexpressed reading talent (as was speech so evoked)? But, really, is there any area of skilled performance at a man-made task that does not require real dedication and serious practice from learners? The moral is that there is no fast and dirty way of avoiding the sounding-out sequence. Any such avoidance will divert students into a reading cul-de-sac, leaving them doomed to rely upon their memory for overall shape rather than for letter position, to look for pictures, or to second-guess the authors, and to be forever battling with novel and technical words throughout their life.
Morphemic sources of information are also useful in coping with the challenges caused by the different (and sometimes contradictory) spelling conventions of English’ parent languages. Given that more than half the words in written English are derived from Greek or Latin (Henry, 1997), then much benefit in reading fluency, comprehension, and spelling can be gained from a systematic study of prefixes, suffixes and root words. This benefit is even more evident in the decoding and comprehension of technical words.
Older Struggling Readers
Intervention for older students requires far more intensity and duration than that for younger students (Swanson, 2001; Torgesen, 1998). Intervention programs for older students have thus far provided little cause for optimism, particularly those that involve “eclectic approaches to teaching reading that were provided in an inconsistent fashion and for relatively brief periods” (Shaywitz et al. 1999, p.1336). In fact, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olsen (1997) claim that reading improvement typically occurs twice as fast in first grade as it does in third grade, whilst Hall and Moats (1999) report the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development finding that it takes four times as much assistance to improve a child’s reading skills if help is delayed until Year 4 than if it is begun in the Prep year. Apart from the efficiency gains for a system enabled by early identification and intervention, there are also pressing issues of social justice to be considered. Nevertheless, progress is achievable for older students when systematic research-validated approaches are well implemented (Wheldall & Beaman, 2000).
For older struggling readers, the focus of intervention remains the same, as the majority of reading difficulties displayed by older students are fundamentally phonological (Al-Otaiba & Fuchs, in press, cited in Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2002; Ehri, 1995; Lovett & Steinbach, 1997; Shaywitz et al., 1999). Thus, instruction should continue to emphasise letter-sound correspondences, blending, segmenting, and adequate practice (Bruck, 1998; Shankweiler, Lundquist, Dreyer, & Dickinson, 1996). As it is for younger students, it is only through such laborious letter-by-letter decoding can precise letter-order become entrenched in the orthographic representation that forms the basis for accurate spelling and fluent reading (Adams, 1990; Jorm & Share, 1983; Williams, 1991). Of course, older students may also require attention to vocabulary enhancement, metacognitive strategies, and, possibly, motivational supports – the Matthew effects having added to the student’s burden. For example, it can be difficult persuading students to discard their existing focus on context-and-initial-letters in favour of careful attention to all the letters and their positions in words. It usually involves a temporary slowing of the students’ reading rate – a price that some students are loath to pay (Apel & Swank, 1999). Subtle persuasion may be initially necessary, and the intensive daily practice over a period of a year or more (Swanson, 2001; Wong, 2001) is eventually considered worthwhile by the students, when they begin to appreciate that reading actually can be enjoyable and meaningful. At this point, decoding skills and comprehension exert influences that assist each other (Berninger, 2001).
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