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In Quest for Speed, Books Are Lost on Children

The current interest in reading fluency illustrates the complexities in the long national argument about how best to teach reading, dubbed the "reading wars."

Advocates of phonics and literature-based instruction have been at odds for years, with the argument only intensifying after a controversial 2000 report by the National Reading Panel. Many reading experts said the panel relied on a limited set of studies that supported, among other things, intensive drilling in phonics. Reading fluency also was one of the key areas for instruction, along with phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, comprehension, teacher education and computer technology. President Bush used the report as a basis for Reading First, a program to improve reading scores that became the centerpiece of his No Child Left Behind law.

Although fluency had long been identified by experts as important, it then became a hot issue.

Reading researchers began devising programs to help teachers improve students' fluency. And although there was no consensus definition of fluency, panels approving Reading First money accepted programs that used tools that stressed reading speed, according to some educators. A report by the Department of Education's inspector general this month slammed the grant-approval processing, saying it was riddled with problems and conflicts of interest.

The result, said fluency expert Tim Rasinski of Kent State University, was a message sent to schools to concentrate on speed. "The influence of No Child Left Behind has been such that even schools that aren't Reading First schools are doing periodic [speed reading] testing of kids," he said.

In Ottumwa, Iowa, Evans Middle School did it a different way. Evans was declared a school in need of improvement in reading in 2004, and Principal Davis Eidahl said he adopted a program focused on reading fluency using a model constructed by Rasinski aimed at improving comprehension.

Some students, he said, came into the school reading fast but understanding little.

"They read so fast, with no punctuation and no expression, that we'd go back and ask comprehension questions and they weren't very successful answering them. They hadn't understood what they read," he said.

To slow them down and teach them to talk with expression and comprehension, various exercises were used, including having children read passages to each other and listen to how they sound when reading, asking students to repeat passages, and adding 45 more minutes of reading time each day, he said.

The school has since been removed from the need-for-improvement list in reading. Now, 71 percent of the kids are reading at grade level, up from 58 percent two years ago. What worked, Eidahl said, was addressing all aspects of fluency, maintaining consistency and most importantly, having a quality teacher.

"It all comes down to the teacher," he said. "It's people, not programs."

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