Jul 21, 2011 by Jacqueline Egli
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Improving reading skills

A focus on core reading skills has recently been promoted in college coursework for beginning teachers, statewide initiatives for student achievement, and professional development for teachers across the curriculum in all levels of education. One of the five core skills, fluency, is still being heavily debated among the researchers, but is gaining traction as an instructional skill that is necessary to the efficiency of reading. Differences in word reading or naming speed, two aspects of fluency, have been identified as early as kindergarten levels in struggling readers (Wolf, Bally, & Morris, 1986), and can continue to be tracked into middle and high school (Meyer, Wood, Hart, and Felton, 1999). Many students who struggle and are identified as having reading deficits have difficulty with reading speed and accuracy. 

Although there seems to be a significant and growing body of research on reading skills, including fluency, there is still much to be learned about the impact of fluency on overall learning. The typical definition of fluency is “the ability to read connected text rapidly, smoothly, effortlessly and automatically with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading, such as decoding” (Meyers and Felton, 1999). Reading fluency problems of children with reading difficulties, according to Torgeson (2006), are a result of students’ difficulties forming large vocabularies of words that they can recognize “by sight” or at a single glance. If students receive “powerful and appropriately focused interventions many of them can become accurate readers and their reading comprehension improves as a result of being able to correctly identify more of the words in text” (Torgeson, 2006).

Bridges Academy, located in Winter Springs Florida, serves students with specific learning disabilities. The overall purpose of the program is to remediate the learning gaps for the students and to “bridge” them back into mainstream schools with mainstream curriculum. Ninety-nine percent of the students who attend the school have an identified deficit in reading and many are considered to be dysfluent readers. Several years ago, Bridges Academy incorporated a computer-based instructional tool, Reading Assistant software, that provided a highly focused intervention for fluency to address the skill development of reading fluency, as a trial implementation.

For the pilot program, 10 middle school aged students were selected to try the Reading Assistant program. Each middle school student was invited to participate, if they desired to do so, during their homeroom time at the end of the day. Homeroom time, of course, is a very social time and many of the middle school students looked forward to spending some time connecting with their peers before leaving campus for the day. Each of the students was asked to commit to no more than 10 days, so they did not feel that they were giving up their social time for the rest of the school year. 

To get familiar with the program and the process, each student was assigned a level of the computer program that was instructionally suited to their present independent reading level. The requirements were straightforward. Students were to listen to a selected story read aloud on the computer a total of three times. Then each student was required to review any words that were unfamiliar to them by selecting the word and seeing or hearing an example of that word in a picture or sentence. After this initial step the students were required to orally read the story selection. Words Correct Per Minute (WCPM) was tracked by the software and students were directed to complete a series of comprehension questions when done. One key component unique to this product was the requirement that the student listen to their own voice recording of the selection after each of the three required oral reading samples. 

The interest and enthusiasm amongst these 10 middle school students as the project began was very exciting to the faculty and administration. All 10 students shared information with their parents and their classmates about the project and the way the program worked. During their lunch break, they discussed the various stories that they were reading amongst themselves   and shared their present WCPM scores with their peers with tremendous pride!  These students would celebrate their promotion to a new story with a “high five” and pored over their data reports at the end of the week to see what types of gains in fluency they were making. What was most encouraging? All 10 of the students chose to work on the program for the duration of the school year, a period of eight weeks. One student even elected to come back to the campus during summer vacation to complete the stories he was reading, so he could reach his own set goal of 200 WCPM! 

The impact of this implementation of the Reading Assistant program is now being realized across the campus at Bridges Academy. All students who are reading above a second grade level are provided access to the Reading Assistant program two to three times a week, throughout the school year. Students who are preparing to “bridge” to a new school program are provided the opportunity to work four afternoons a week as an after school option, so that they may increase their proficiency rate with above grade level material in preparation for their move to the mainstream schools. Every January through April, 80% of the students eligible for bridging can be observed working in the afterschool program. What is most impressive is that these students have chosen to participate in this afterschool program! 

The assessments, data analysis, and individual summary reports built into Reading Assistant track the overall impact of the program in improving reading skills for student participants.  Bridges Academy staff and administration are pleased with the overall improvements in the students’ reading skills and confidence. The students perceive themselves as readers, and parents report that the students are now becoming more confident readers who enjoy reading-- many for the first time!

References:

Meyer, M.A., & Felton, R.H. (1999). Repeated reading to enhance fluency: Old approaches and new directions.  Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 283–306.

Meyer, M.S., Wood, F.B., Hart, L.A. & Fenton, R. H. (1999) Longitudinal course of rapid naming in disabled and non disabled readers. Annals of Dyslexia, 48, 89-114.

Torgeson, J.K. & Hudson, R. (2006) Reading fluency: critical issues for struggling readers.In S.J. Samuels and A. Farstrup (Eds.). Reading Fluency: The forgotten dimension of reading success. Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Wolf, M., Bally, H., & Morris, R. (1986) Automaticity, retrieval process and reading: A longitudinal study in average and impaired readers. Child Development, 57, 988-1000.

Related Reading:

Truth in Numbers: School Achieves Statistically Significant Improvements on TAKS

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency