Monday, February 22, 2016

I spoke with a parent the other day who explained to me that she did not grow up with a love of reading. However, she realized as an adult that life would be so much easier if she had been more interested in reading, so now she “fibs” to her child by saying that reading is “fun.” This caring mother made a nightly habit of sharing a book with her child, and she came to look forward to that time. For all her careful parenting choices, she has a first grader who is an on-track reader but who still cannot see the joy in the act. Rather, her child reportedly is so tired of practicing reading all day and for the nightly homework that bedtime has become a blissful escape from reading rather than a chance to share a book with Mom.

What went wrong? It seemed from the mother’s description that there were lots of good intentions at school, but a few misunderstandings about recommendations for best practices. As a follow-up to January’s blog on universal screening, this segment will address making instructional decisions aligned to screening data.

More Evaluation Is Not Better

Universal screening occurs three times per year to determine whether students are (a) on-track in their reading development or (b) in need of supplemental intervention to accelerate their growth. Students who receive reading intervention need to have their progress monitored regularly in between the screening waves, but students who are meeting benchmarks do not require more frequent evaluation with oral reading fluency measures such as the FAST CBM-R. Data on all students’ performance already is being collected on a daily basis as part of the regular classroom activities. This should be used to plan appropriate reading instruction. If the instruction is only a replication of the test, teachers will have a one-dimensional picture of students’ abilities. Reading is multifaceted, so instruction needs to be varied and purposeful.

Determining What to Teach

Students who do not meet a fluency benchmark may be experiencing difficulty with a number of different skills. The way to improve students’ performance is to determine the specific skills with which they need assistance. Simply drilling students’ rate and accuracy may be a futile exercise if the real problem is, say, with decoding or with oral language. Similarly, the way to keep an average or above-average reader on track is not to make them continue to rehearse their fluency. On the contrary, fluent reading for these students is more likely the product of a strong vocabulary, an understanding of English syntax, a growing bank of background knowledge on different topics, and an ability to make inferences (Oakhill & Cain, 2012).

For those students who do need to work on their reading fluency, there are a number of instructional activities teachers might try: echo reading, reader’s theater, partner reading, and phrase-cued reading. Probably the most common fluency activity is repeated reading. This has a strong research base for assisting students who have reading difficulties (e.g., Lee & Yoon, 2015), but there are important elements to keep in mind. First, students should be practicing with easier (i.e., instructional or independent level) rather than harder text (i.e., frustration level). Second, three repetitions are optimal. And, third, providing feedback after each reading can ensure students do not continue practicing errors or begin reading so fast they could not possibly attend to the meaning of the passage.

Regardless of whether the fluency test is assessing students’ ability to read syllables, words, or passages, teachers should not have students rehearse the exact items on the test. The only exceptions are when the fluency test is assessing letters or irregular sight words (i.e., high frequency words that are not decodable such as “some” or “to”), which we intend students to memorize. Other than that, memorizing undermines the point of the test. In an assessment situation, we want to know how students can handle unfamiliar material because this indicates their actual reading skill rather than their recall ability.

Reading Practice at Home

The mother who spoke to me could only describe her perspective on the reading instruction and homework her first grader was experiencing. It may not be what the teacher was truly doing or intending. However, the child told Mom several things that could lead to unproductive practice:

  • “I have to read it really fast.”
  • “If I don’t memorize all the words, I can’t move on to the next words like everyone else.”
  • “You have to initial that I read this five times tonight.”

The mother also perceived her child as being evaluated “all the time.” I realize the misunderstanding may be on her part and not the school’s, but it is heartbreaking nonetheless. Children who are not experiencing reading difficulties should have no reason not to enjoy reading. Instead, the child of this mother was motivated to be a “good reader” in a way that is not consistent with being an “engaged reader.” In other words, the child was motivated to do well on the reading tasks assigned but not to be meaningfully involved in the act of reading or deeply processing text. Making wise instructional decisions on the basis of screening data as well as classroom data should address these issues as much as the foundational skills that facilitate getting to a place where reading can be fun.


Lee, J., & Yoon, S. Y. (2015). The effects of repeated reading on reading fluency for students with reading difficulties: A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, [online first]. doi: 10.1177/0022219415605194

Oakhill, J., & Cain, K. (2012). The precursors of reading ability in young readers: Evidence from a four-year longitudinal study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 16, 91-121. doi: 10.1080/10888438.2010.529219