‘One day in 2007, six-time World Speed Reading Champion Anne Jones sat down in a popular bookstore on Charring Cross Road, London, and devoured the latest Harry Potter book in about 47 minutes (World Speed Reading Council, 2008). That worked out to a reading rate of over 4,200 words per minute (wpm). She then summarised the book for some British news sources. Another speed-reading enthusiast and promoter, Howard Berg, professes to be able to read as many as 30,000 wpm (World’s Fastest Reader on Pelosi Bill, 2011)’
Surely we want our children to read 4,200 words per minute? Think of the benefits to this. Children would be able to devour a novel a day- possibly 2. I am joking of course. The average adult reads at around 250 words per minute. The average college student reads at around 350. Remember this is in your head. Attempting to get children to read at 250 WPM would probably sound ridiculous. The average adult speaks in conversation at around 120-160 WPM so I think that the upper limits of around 160 WPM would sound about right, any more and it would sound garbled.
There are many websites out there that say that they can improve reading speed but what they do is rubbish. What they don’t do is get to the crooks of reading. Some try and improve speed by getting people to move their eyes quicker. Well I can tell you that this doesn’t work. It’s a ridiculous idea because even good move their eyes across the text in all sorts of directions. Often looking ahead sometimes rereading. Eye movements only improve as a child becomes better at reading. The average first grade child would have about 191 eye fixations per 100 words and the average adult has around 91 fixations per hundred words. Again the length of the fixations are also much longer in a grade 1 student who would hold a fixation for around 355 milliseconds whereas an adult reader would have a fixation for around 233 milliseconds (Robert Seidenberg, Language at the speed of sight). There are better ways to teach reading than focus on eye fixations. One way to help the children is to help them with the top 150 words that appear in texts. The reason I say this is because they make up around 50% of reading. The top 2000 words make up about 90%. I’m not going to go into how we teach those words here.
Assessment of reading has always been contentious. In the past I’ve given them a QCA test, got a level and reported their score. This is not assessing reading. We could continue to give the children comprehension tests such as those found on Twinkle or NFER. I think these assessments have a place. In fact I think that they are important. I’m just not 100% convinced that it is possible to use the data and track it as such. I do think, however, that tracking the fluency of the children is more important. See my 1st blog, ‘ why reading fluency is important,’ here, and, ‘how you can improve reading fluency,’ here. I know there will be lots of schools assessing against the national curriculum objectives. I don’t believe that this is the right way to go. I think time would be better spent recording their fluency. Being fluent will help the children tackle those curriculum objectives. I’ve assessed against the objectives before and for me it never helped me once. I tried to teach children to locate information in the text. Most could do it because they were fluent. Some couldn’t do it because they weren’t fluent or accurate enough with their reading. I probably knew that anyway but I didn’t have the information I do now. The information I gather from this assessment is much more useful. I talk to staff about specific multi syllabic words the children get stuck on. I noticed a pattern in one class whereby children couldn’t get past words that had the prefix ‘ex‘. They would say a word that was in their vocabulary range and guessed. So much information and it took 1 minute, no marking and no filling in piles of tracking data.
Remember getting children to read quickly won’t actually improve reading fluency. To improve reading fluency you have to spend time teaching children how to read. The assessment is supposed to be an indicator as to where the children are. This assessment is fairly quick. It took 3 staff around 13 minutes to test 30 children. The test doesn’t take much preparation. All it needs is a text, a class list and a timer.
How often to assess.
Weaker readers should be assessed more frequently. In our school we have lots of children who are reading very fluently. In fact we have a number of children who are already meeting end of year targets.
As well as fluency you are also looking at accuracy. Remember to record what their score was out of. There was a child who read to me and scored score an impressive 95 words in a minute. However when I realised that he had actually read 32 mistakes, I realised that just having words per minute was not good enough. This child in question is now making fewer errors and is actually reading slightly slower. As far as I’m concerned accuracy has improved so progress has been made.
Here is how we record the scores.
As you can see there is a wide fluctuation between the weaker readers and the stronger readers- some 62 WPM. When fluency is under 80 WPM comprehension becomes virtually impossible.
Most of these children are working at least 10 words below the 50th percentile. These children are now working in a small intervention group 3 times per week. They are singing songs, reciting poetry, reading phrases and working on multi syllabic words as well as other things.
What about children who are working way below the expected standard? What about those children who can’t read? Is it worth doing the assessment? Yes. Give them a reading assessment that is below their year group. How far you fall is completely up to your professional judgement. I would only really do this for those children who fall below the 10th percentile. You will probably know who they are anyway.
This completely depends on which children you are talking about. The children who are reading fluently and already reading the correct WPM you only need to assess those children once every half term or even once a term. For those children who are reading below the 50th percentile I would be assessing far more regularly. We are assessing every 3 weeks.
What to do when they have reached the required fluency level
Reading fluency is something new in our school. We have some children that are doing really well, however we can’t just leave the children and say, “Well done, we don’t need to hear you read because you are fluent”. We need to move them on. During the assessments the children need to be pushed on their expression (stressing certain words, fluctuation in their voice, emotion and smoothness). We still assess them but less regularly. We also change the text to something unfamiliar. This just gives us an indication that it was not just a one off.
Do you keep the reading assessments the same?
Yes. I keep the reading assessments the same until they reach the expected fluency rate and are showing signs of reading with expression etc. Those children who have met the required level need to have a new text to see if their fluency is maintained and transferred. You will see fluctuation as I’ve explained in my first blog. When children or adults read texts that they are unfamiliar with, the reading fluency drops. With those children working below the expected level of text you would expect the children to move onto the next year groups text when they are ready.
What texts do you use?
This is the hardest part. It is important to gather texts that are challenging enough for each year group. You don’t want to give you children a text that is too easy. Imagine the consequences of that. All your children reading fluently and you as a school are happy. A false impression is given. Make the texts too hard and you may find yourself crying as none of your children will meet the right levels. What you will notice is that we haven’t given used any pictures with the texts. The reason is we don’t want the children to use picture clues to read the words. Here are some sample texts that we have used across the school.
We have tested our year 1 children and I have to say they did remarkably well. We had some children reading over 100 words per minute. Lots of children are reading well above the 50th percentile in our school and this is because of the teacher putting in lots of work on reading fluency as well as the super start the children had in Reception with reading. In this class the children are singing songs together, reading poetry as well as other things. I’m in the classroom next door to these children and each day I hear them sing and recite poetry with enjoyment.
This an extract from From ‘A Boy called M.O.U.S.E’ by Penny Dolan
How to conduct the assessment
Ok then, the rules.
The children have 60 seconds to read what they can. If they become stuck on a word I move them along. At the end of the text I do talk about the word they got stuck on.
Rule 1. Word incorrect deduct 1 from their final score.
Rule 2. Word omitted deduct 2 from their final score.
Rule 3. Adding in a word= no deduction as they have slowed their reading down anyway.
Rule 4. Word replacement means you deduct 2.
I will absolutely guarantee that the children will do something unusual that these rules don’t cover. For example we had one child completely omit a line. All we did is get them to do this again. I think as long as you have a whole school consistent approach to reading fluency I think you will be fine.
The texts are only examples. You could use a text from your reading scheme. It is often better to use a story as non-fiction doesn’t allow you the same level of prosody that a story might. We are not completely happy with the texts we are using and it something I will be monitoring.
Remember what the goal is with reading fluency. We want the children to be able to enjoy reading and be able to absorb what it is they are reading. If reading is broken, then how can they enjoy reading. Whilst I jokingly mentioned at the start of this piece, about reading Harry Potter at the rate of knots, we don’t necessarily want this. It is unrealistic to expect anyone to continuously read at say 4 or 5 words per second for a prolonged period of time. Things like daydreaming, disturbances, rereading a paragraph, losing your sentence or misunderstanding something, turning the page, pausing to reflect in what you have just read are all important parts of being a good reader. What I want to do is give children the chance to get to this stage without having the struggle.
I’ll leave you with this quote taken from Robert Seidenberg, Reading at the speed of sight.
‘Children who struggle when reading aloud do not go on to become good readers if left to read silently; their dysfluency merely becomes inaudible. Reading aloud and comprehension are causally connected because they both make use of the phonology – semantics pathway’.