What Happens Below Zero: Meaningful Growth for Kids Who Read Zero Words Correct Per Minute

What Happens Below Zero: Meaningful Growth for Kids Who Read Zero Words Correct - TLG-IMG-03082018

It’s been cold here in Minnesota. Now for some parts of the country, cold means 30 degrees. But in Minnesota, I’m talking about subzero temperatures. Before wind chill, even. To tell the truth, below zero can be a lot of fun. You can freeze the bubbles you blow, and you can make mom-made snow come out of your kid’s pump-action water gun. You can also feel your nose hairs getting thick with ice. Only our biggest die-hards (like our winter bike commuters) find that last one energizing.

But there is a difference between -2 degrees Fahrenheit and -30. By -30, even Minnesota schools close—and even Minnesota bike commuters take a break.

So, what about in oral reading fluency, where we typically measure words correct per minute (WCPM): what happens below zero?

The other “below zero”: before kids can read from passages

Oral reading fluency assessment typically includes a measure of words correct per minute (WCPM). We’ve talked before about how increases in WCPM reveal increases in students’ automaticity with word recognition, particularly as they move from about 8 to 80 WCPM. But for a child who reads zero WCPM, and then two months later reads zero WCPM, this measure reveals no growth at all. However, most of those kids are developing rapidly on their literacy trajectories. So, what do kids grow on that matters, before they can read from passages?

When oral reading fluency was taking off, some researchers worked long and hard to address the subzero problem. The solution that is most widely recognized is probably DIBELS, which extends fluency assessment downward into other timed, oral tasks. In this kind of system, kids take one-minute fluency assessments in phonological awareness, letter knowledge, or early phonics.

What’s wrong with the current “extend fluency downward” model?

There are a couple of features worth noting about the “extend fluency downward” approach to the subzero problem. First, each measure is still typically designated for a particular season in a particular grade, so that a whole class might be assessed on letter sounds or phoneme blending—even the kids who are already reading. This is problematic because each of these targets of measurement are constrained skills—they only reflect meaningful growth for a particular, brief window in reading development (Paris, 2005).  Some kids in the class are not in that window at the time of the assessments.

For kids who mastered all their letter sounds last summer with Grandma, it is no longer meaningful to assess how many letter sounds they can name per minute now—we learn nothing from knowing if they are faster still than they were when they first mastered it. Instead, they might be ready for a measure of word decoding, or even passage reading. A better solution would place kids in assessment content not by grade and season, but by their stage in reading development.  A better solution would be individually adaptive.

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A second feature of the “extend fluency downward” approach is this: it focused all attention on the skills that feed word decoding. There are measures in letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, even nonsense word reading. What got left out? Oral language got left out, and that’s problematic. Remember the Simple View of Reading, from this blog (Gough & Tumner, 1986)? It reminds us that both decoding and language comprehension are necessary components for eventual reading with comprehension. Some kids are on track toward word decoding, but they struggle with understanding language as well as their typically developing peers. Demographic trends continue to show a rise in English Language Learners. We can’t just focus on phonics and decoding and expect that all kids will get to reading with understanding (Valencia & Buly, 2004; Foorman, Herrera, Petscher, Mitchell, & Truckenmiller, 2015). A better solution is to attend to vocabulary and listening comprehension, as well. A better solution would assess not-yet-reading kids in both early decoding skills AND in oral language skills. 

What now?

When NWEA took on the challenge of next-generation fluency assessment, we designed an approach that was individually adaptive. We focused on both decoding and language comprehension, including for kids who are not yet reading sentences. Check out our solution, MAP Reading Fluency, here and here.

As a Minnesotan, I can tell you that there’s a lot happening below zero degrees Fahrenheit. And—more importantly to families and educators in normal America—there’s also a heck of a lot happening below zero WCPM, for emerging readers. Let’s find and support the growth that matters.

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