Jun 7, 2011 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.
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Oral reading fluency

As we head into summer break, the farthest thing from most of our minds is the first day of school. That said, that day is surely on its way. And while day one is always unpredictable, the kindergarten and first grade teachers know that better than anyone: you never know what skills those students will have when they come in the door.

While evaluating each student’s capabilities is by no means an easy task, we can get a head start through having a solid understanding of how the brain learns best and under what conditions. If we can understand that, we can more effectively direct children’s learning and give them what their hungry brains need so they learn with optimal effectiveness.

When it comes to reading skills, children show up on that first day of school with an incredible variety of experience. Many have parents who have read to them every day since day one. Many have constant access to books and other materials to promote pre-literacy. At the same time, many have parents with busy lives who have not made that commitment to reading, or parents who simply do not understand the importance of these early literacy experiences and simply to not cultivate these skills. Judgment aside, it is up to educators in these classrooms to apply the latest research-based knowledge to ensure success for each student and bring the class along as a whole as effectively as possible.

Of course, standardized assessments help us to zero in on needs. But even once we understand those needs, how can an educator focus their efforts to cultivate success for a group with disparate skill levels? One way, as stated above, is to understand the brain and how it builds skills. What are the first skills that educators should focus on in terms of reading skills so that students can continue to build success?

A study in 2010 by Young-Suk Kim, Christopher Schatschneider and Barbara Foorman of Florida State University and Yaacov Petscher, all in association with the Florida Center for Reading Research, posed this very question. Their study looked at how growth in oral reading fluency, vocabulary, phonological awareness, letter-naming fluency, and nonsense word reading fluency skills related to reading comprehension skills.

Interestingly, through their study of all these skills areas or “predictors,” they learned that the greatest predictor of a child’s ability to develop comprehension skills by the third grade was their growth rate in oral reading fluency early on in the first grade.[i]

This study tells us that, as early as possible in first grade, educators need to both get a bearing on each student’s oral reading fluency capabilities and encourage development of those skills as quickly as possible to lay the foundation for the development of subsequent skills.

That said, from a practical perspective, what kinds of activities are best for developing oral reading fluency? Here are a few:

  • Modeling: Reading to children allows them to hear the sound, rhythm and phrasing of language.
  • Vocabulary Development: Since fluency depends upon the reader’s ability to quickly recognize and decode words on sight, having a solid vocabulary foundation and a bank of sight words to draw upon is key.
  • Choral Reading: Reading along out loud with a student and following along in a text together allows educators to help students experience hearing and sounding out words at the same time.
  • Silent Sustained Reading (SSR): Through SSR students get the freedom to develop their own taste for reading, unfettered by the pressures and anxieties of reading aloud. SSR both increases motivation and ability to focus.
  • Guided Oral Reading: Oral reading by a student with guidance and feedback from a patient coach allows children to apply and build their phonics skills to sound out words and helps them crack the alphabetic code. Repetitive oral reading helps these children increase their familiarity with vocabulary and pronunciation while increasing reading fluency. The connection between reading fluency and comprehension is strong, in part because it facilitates the efficient use of language working memory.

Part of the wonder and excitement of being an elementary school teacher certainly comes from that experience of getting to know the new set of students, with all their smiles and faults, talents and deficiencies. If we can focus on—and have some fun with—developing oral reading fluency with our youngest students, research shows that we should be setting each individual, as well as the class as a whole, on the road to reading success.

For more detail on the above methods and access to helpful reading resources and to learn how computers can provide accurate, patient guided oral reading for all students, visit http://www.scilearn.com/products/reading-assistant/.

[i]Kim, Y S. Petscher, Y. Schatschneider, C. Does growth Rate in Oral Reading Fluency Matter in Predicting Reading Comprehension Achievement.Journal of Educational Psychology. 2010. 102:3. 652-667.

Related Reading:

Engaging Children in the World with Words

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function