Oral reading fluency is a key indicator of reading proficiency. But it’s got some issues, as it’s currently implemented in some schools. One of these is that we have a cadre of kids who are getting the wrong message: we’re teaching them that they can fast talk their way into college and career success.
Overselling reading speed at the high end
The wrong message is this: faster reading is better reading. And we’ve done a pretty good job of selling that idea to some kids and families these days. Millions of kids read aloud for one minute on grade level passages each season; teachers gauge their words correct per minute (WCPM) as a metric of fluency. If Sally’s “fluency” is 120 words correct per minute and Jane’s is 125, then both girls know who wins. And when Sally reads aloud for one minute next season, she’s going to be very focused on getting those words out faster than she did last time. When we teach kids that more and more WCPM is the goal, we steer them wrong on how literacy for college and career will work.
Unless, of course, their career aspiration is to become a fast-talking auctioneer.
Even back in 1985, proponents of fluency measurement were warning that without an associated focus on comprehension, the one-minute oral reading approach presents some risk of unwanted results (Deno, 1985). Sure enough: researchers have found that the pervasiveness of this isolated WCPM metric moves many teachers towards a “faster is better” orientation as they teach reading (Newman, 2009; Deeney, 2010).
Is oral reading fluency assessment bad? Heck, no. It’s an amazingly robust measure, used well. Revisit this blog for a recap.
WCPM taps into automaticity
Remember when your nephew was a new reader, finger pointing at each word as he sounded it? He made guesses at some words, read many of them wrong, looked at the pictures for help, self-corrected a bit.
Adorbs. And also, right in the sweet spot for watching how reading rate and accuracy climb.
For an early reader like your nephew, good reading instruction should result in him increasing his WCPM. We want him to recognize more and more words automatically, so he has some brain space available for understanding the story. If he is reading 10 or 15 words correct per minute, he’s not going to understand what he has read; if he’s reading 80 WCPM, he stands a good chance at comprehending. Higher WCPM—more automaticity—is a central goal, in this zone.
But higher WCPM is not always and forever the right goal.
WCPM does not tap into text complexity
Lots of schools assess all second graders in oral reading fluency, and they use a second-grade level of text. Sally and Jane are second graders, and as you might recall, they are zipping through. Do we really want to know how fast these girls can read, anymore? No—they’re both good enough on that front. We want to know what they can read with understanding. If they comprehend second-grade texts, let’s see what happens with harder text, of more complexity.
Maybe Jane has poor comprehension even on grade-level text, despite her automaticity. Maybe Sally can keep right on reading with accuracy and solid comprehension, even when we bump her up to fifth-grade text.
Now that’s news you can use. Jane may read a bit faster, but Sally’s instructional reading level is significantly higher than Jane’s. We need these girls—and teachers—solidly oriented toward this kind of growth. The goal is not to read faster and faster. The goal is to read harder and harder text with good comprehension. And to get there, we need two critical adjustments to our oral reading fluency assessment approach:
- If we want kids to know that reading is for comprehension, then we need to ask them to demonstrate comprehension of what they read.
- If we want to frame growth in reading as understanding harder and harder text, then we need to get beyond assessing all kids only on grade level text.
What we measure matters, especially in terms of the message it conveys to kids and families. Let’s start sending better messages about what constitutes good reading—and stop feeding the school to auctioneer pipeline.