Timothy Rasinski on fluency and equity in reading instruction

NWEA is excited to welcome award-winning reading instruction professor Timothy Rasinski, as well as our esteemed literacy experts Lynne Kulich and Cindy Jiban, for a webinar examining the relationships between oral reading fluency, access to grade-level texts, and equity. Dr. Rasinski centered his research on oral fluency and is now one of the nation’s leading experts on this foundational reading skill. A critically acclaimed author and scholar, he was even inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame in 2010.

I connected with him to learn more about his research and what’s on tap for the webinar, “Fluency and equity: Helping all kids access grade-level text.” His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

You began your career as a classroom teacher outside Omaha, Nebraska. How did you make the transition into research and scholarship?

I was teaching and working on my master’s degree at the time, at the University of Nebraska. I had a professor who looked at one of the papers I had submitted and called me into his office and said, “Did you ever think about getting a doctorate?” And my answer was no. I didn’t think I had it in me. He was very complimentary and said, “You’ve got to look into that.” It really illustrates the influence and power of a teacher. Whether it’s a teacher working with a child or a 28-year-old graduate student, teachers can influence the future.

What was it about oral fluency that captured your attention?

I was an intervention teacher working with struggling readers on word recognition, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension. I couldn’t seem to budge many of them off the dime. They could decode words, they had good vocabularies, and when I read to them, they understood. So what was causing these students difficulties in their reading?

It just so happened that I was working on my master’s degree and profs had us reading articles on reading fluency. I don’t think I even knew what fluency was, but suddenly it began to make sense to me. I began to apply some of the fluency methods I was learning about and, all of a sudden, some of them took off. It was really pretty dramatic.

At that time, I’m talking about the late ’70s, early ’80s, there really weren’t a lot of people doing a lot of research into reading fluency. So it was a really good chance for me to get into something I wanted to learn more about and do the actual research myself.

After years of research and study, how have you come to define oral reading fluency?

There are two main components. One is this thing called automatic word recognition, the ability to recognize words so effortlessly that you put minimal effort into word decoding. And what that means is we can devote most of our mental effort to the more important tasks in reading, which involve comprehension.

I was an intervention teacher working with struggling readers [and] couldn’t seem to budge many of them off the dime. […] I began to apply some of the fluency methods I was learning about and, all of a sudden, some of them took off. It was really pretty dramatic.

You and I, we’re the best examples of automatic word recognition. When we read, hardly ever do we have to stop and sound out a word or examine a word or think about the meaning of a word. They’re just automatically recognized. I have often used this saying when speaking about fluency: “The goal of phonics instruction is to get kids not to use phonics.” We don’t use phonics when we read, hardly ever, just when we come to a word we haven’t seen before.

So that’s one part of it, but there’s this other part to fluency. It’s this thing called prosody, or expression. Linguists call prosody the melody of language. In terms of reading, we’re talking about the ability to read with expression, to raise and lower your voice, to speed up and slow down, to have dramatic pauses, all these things that make reading sound like natural language.

For this webinar, you’ll join NWEA literacy experts to discuss a growing shift in the literacy landscape: The push to help struggling readers level up by focusing on fluency and scaffolding instruction so these kids have access to rich, relevant, grade-level texts as soon as possible. In your view, why is access to grade-level texts so imperative?

If students are having difficulty reading material at their own grade level, they’re going to miss out on a lot of content, whether it’s social studies, science, or mathematics. And we know that much of comprehension depends upon knowledge. If you can’t read the material that builds your knowledge, then when you get into that material, you’re going to have trouble understanding it because you won’t have the background knowledge to support it. So it just becomes this whole snowball effect where one thing leads to another and, all of a sudden, children are significantly behind and unmotivated and we run the risk of losing them.

With so much at stake, could this also be seen as an equity issue?

Yes. The whole notion of equity simply means we want kids to be able to reach their full potential. If you’re a fifth-grader reading third-grade material or a third-grader reading second-grade material, you’re behind your classmates. You’re behind the expectations. And unless we can find ways to accelerate those kids’ reading achievement, they will be permanently struggling in their academic achievement.

So much of making these changes to support early readers also depends on having a reliable way to measure where students are in their learning and monitor their progress. What tools or resources do you suggest?

A lot of it is just observation. If you’re looking at a kid who’s not a fluent reader and really behind in their reading development, you can simply listen to them read for a minute or two and tell they’re having trouble. That word-by-word reading and monotone, lack of expression, lack of enthusiasm are easy to spot as students read orally. But what we also need is a good metric to measure levels of fluency.

I have often used this saying when speaking about fluency: ‘The goal of phonics instruction is to get kids not to use phonics.’

A very popular way of measuring the automaticity component of fluency is by reading rate, so how fast kids read in a minute’s time. And it’s not a bad measure, to be honest with you. But the problem becomes when we flip it, when we turn this assessment into an instructional method. By that what I mean is, “Well, we measure fluency by speed of reading. Okay, then let’s encourage kids to read fast.” It is very understandable why well-meaning teachers and well-meaning school administrators emphasize, “Let’s get our kids to read faster to increase their reading rate and fluency score. Let’s spend 10 or 15 minutes of every day and try to read a passage faster than the day before.”

What happens is kids do read faster, of course, but you don’t always see improvement in real fluency and comprehension. I want kids to become fast readers, but I want them to become fast the way you and I became fast. We just read a lot. I don’t ever remember a teacher getting out a stopwatch and saying to me, “Let’s beat yesterday’s time.” We just read a lot. We developed automaticity and with automaticity, speed just came along.

That’s where NWEA has come up with some pretty good approaches for actually getting a handle on where kids are with fluency. The importance of actually having a measure is that you can identify where kids are at and then come back four weeks later to see if they’ve made any progress. If they are making progress, keep doing what you’re doing; but if they’re not, try something else. It’s important to have a good, reliable, and valid measure of fluency, even though we can easily observe kids to know whether or not fluency is a problem.

The whole notion of equity simply means we want kids to be able to reach their full potential.

In the webinar, you and our panel will detail specific practices teachers can implement to improve fluency and help kids access grade-level texts. But as Cindy Jiban wrote in a recent blog post for Teach. Learn. Grow., reading is really a team sport, with parents and caregivers doing work at home as well. What should educators recommend to families to keep their kids moving forward?

Probably the easiest thing is simply listening to their children read and being very supportive and encouraging.

I have, along with my colleague Nancy Padak, developed a program called Fast Start. It’s basically about using a short text, like a nursery rhyme or a poem, and we ask teachers or parents to go through this little routine where the adult will read the poem to the child once or twice and then invite the child to read with them once or twice. Then, finally, they’ll invite the child to perform it, to read it out loud to the adult. We have a little mantra: “Read to, read with, listen to your child read.” The child’s reading performance is then followed by a brief word study of some of the words from the poem.

What we can do as teachers, as educators, is provide that encouragement, that support, for families so they feel comfortable doing that with their children.

Finally, it’s not every day I get the chance to talk with someone in the Reading Hall of Fame. So I have to ask: When you get a chance to read for fun, what types of books do you enjoy?

Oh, boy. I hate to say it, but a lot of it is just academic stuff. I read journals and articles. I do like historical fiction and biographies. David McCullough, the professor who writes a lot of biographies of history, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. A lot of that stuff.

It’s interesting because if you look at my family, we’re all different. My wife likes fiction. My son likes science fiction. We run the whole gamut, and of course it’s all good. It proves we need to provide children with a wide range of material so they can find that sweet spot for themselves.

To hear more, watch “Fluency and equity: Helping all kids access grade-level text” on demand.

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