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).