In Quest for Speed, Books Are Lost on Children

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Your fourth-grader is galloping through Lois Lowry's utopian novel "The Giver," and you marvel at her reading speed.

Stop marveling. Most likely she has little idea what the book actually means.

In many classrooms around the country, teachers are emphasizing, and periodically testing, students' reading fluency, the current buzzword in reading instruction. The problem is that speed isn't the only element to fluency, educators said. Key elements are also accuracy and expressiveness.

"The food was delectable" is different from "the food was detestable," and Shakespeare should not sound like a chemistry textbook.

It is a complicated process teaching students to recognize enough words and read at a consistent rate so they can spend their time concentrating on meaning rather than decoding, educators said. And when tackling a book such as "The Giver," one that deals with a boy's discovery that his utopian world comes at the expense of the stifling of intellectual and emotional freedom, meaning is critical.

"Fluent readers are readers who know how to dig into a book and pull out just what they are looking for -- whether it is information, a part with strong language, a part with good character development, or just a chance to read for fun," said Susan Marantz, a longtime teacher now at a suburban school in Columbus, Ohio.

Yet a combination of politics, insufficient teacher development and an inherent difficulty in capturing all aspects of fluency have led to questionable instruction practices, according to Richard Allington, a reading researcher and University of Tennessee professor who first wrote about the importance of fluency in the early 1980s.

Many students are asked by teachers to reread the same passages over and over -- often with constant interruptions from the teacher. And some struggling readers are given books -- including textbooks -- that are above their reading level and soon become a source of frustration.

"You can make any adult a disfluent reader by giving them books that are too hard and jump in and interrupt them a lot," Allington said. "What do you think it does to kids?"

As a result, some kids are motivated to read only to beat a test clock, he and other researchers said.

"Are kids responding well to fluency exercises?" asked Kylene Beers, a senior reading researcher at Yale University's School Development Program and chairwoman of the National Adolescent Literacy Coalition.

"The more important question to ask is: Are teachers focusing on all three parts of fluency?" Beers, vice president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, wrote in an e-mail. "When fluency is only about building automaticity (and therefore speed), then some [teachers] do mistakenly believe that the point of reading is fast decoding. That's no more the best measure of a skilled reader than fast driving is the best measure of skilled driver."

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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