Reading, reading fluency and vocabulary

For those people who think cognitive load theory is useful, and I certainly do, think about the intrinsic load placed on a child whenever they read. Over the past couple of years I have really wanted to improve the reading, reading fluency and the vocabulary sizes of the children at my school. I have wanted to make it so that when children read they can enjoy the things that are reading. Like all other teachers we have not wanted the reading to so difficult that it puts the children off. The teachers at the school where I work are fully dedicated to improving the life chances of children. We have successfully turned some children’s lives. I have seen children who can’t read turn into children who can read and then turn into children who want to read.

We decided on attacking reading over 3 main fronts. Increasing the volume children read; improving the fluency in which children are capable of reading and finally by trying to increase the understanding of vocabulary.

Reading volume

Nagy and Herman 1987, a child who reads at 200 words per minute and reads for 25 minutes a day over the course of 200 days would encounter 1 million words. This means that children would encounter between 15,000 and 30,000 unfamiliar words. If 1 in 10 of these were to be learned, the yearly gain would be about 750 to 1,500 words per year.

  • This is what we have done to try and increase reading volume. All geography, history, science and RE lessons start off with a text. This text is then used to teach the children new knowledge and information. The teacher reads the text to the children, providing explanations as they go. The children are given the opportunity to read aloud to the class. They are allowed to read the text in silence. By doing it this way we develop children’s confidence, reading and understanding. Each text is around 100-300 words. We don’t shy away from year 1 children being exposed to difficult texts either. Nor do we consider them too young to engage in this sort of reading.
  • We have an army of volunteers who listen to children read. This is especially prevalent in Key Stage 1. We have parents listen to children; we have people from the local church come in and listen to the children read; and we have governors listening to the children.The opportunity for these children to read to an adult is fantastic and if it weren’t for these selfless people, some of our children would go without the pleasure of reading to an adult. They have adults smiling to them whilst they’re reading.
  • On a daily basis children will recite poetry. I may be sad but I really like to listen to the whole class reciting a poem. First they have the poem in front of them. They learn the words. We break down difficult words and we explain difficult words. All of that language is then stored in the long term memory for use in other lessons.

I have set a target that the children should be exposed to at least 1,000 words per day. I’d say that we have exposed our children to far more.

Reading fluency

‘Fast and accurate word reading is hypothesised to facilitate reading comprehension becuase it releases a readers cognitive resources to focus on meaning’ (La Berge and Samuels 1974, Wolf and Katzir-Cohen, 2001).

  • I’ve already blogged about reading fluency here

I don’t think I ever really thought about reading fluency until very recently. I kind of just thought that they develop their reading organically. I overlooked the importance of spelling. Chang and Rossi (2017) found that spelling accuracy and reading fluency were strongly correlated. Reading fluency, like reading in general, is a huge jigsaw puzzle that needs carefully piecing together. There isn’t a silver bullet. There isn’t a magic pill. It is just lots and lots of hard work.

Having looked at our Key Stage 2 results last year I found that those children whom had a reading fluency score of 154 and above achieved greater depth. To achieve an expected score the children needed to read at a rate of around 110 WPM. Like always there were outliers.


E D Hirsch has said that vocabulary size is the single most reliable correlate to reading ability. OK so we get our children to read lots and lots. They come across words, lots of unfamiliar words, especially in non-fiction. Do we just let the children read without understanding what they’re reading? The answer has to be no. Children may be able to mechanically read the words but unless we explicitly teach the children what words mean then it would be like giving children an o

  • Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) said that when vocabulary is pre-taught new language has more chance of being learned. By pre-teaching you also improve the chances of children understanding the text that they are reading. I try to follow these simple steps for pre-teaching words.
  1. Write the new word on the board and give a brief explanation.
  2. Present this new word with a picture. Having an interactive whiteboard makes this fairly easy.
  3. Give further examples of this word. I often give examples of what it isn’t.
  4. Pupils generate their own explanations.
  5. Children draw their own pictures.

I certainly do numbers 1-3 every lesson. Doing 4 and 5 would certainly help the children even more. The research clearly shows that images with new words works best. Powell (1980) found that it showed the strongest gains.

  • Morphology/etymology has had a huge impact on my teaching recently. I’m going to give the example of shape. By teaching the children what ‘oct’ means in my phonics (phase 6) lessons, I noticed how easily the children could solve shape problems in maths. It didn’t matter whether the shape was irregular the children could explain confidently why the shape was an octagon. In the recent key stage 1 test not one child got the shape question wrong. They weren’t confused because the etymology was taught and now they could apply. I also teach many other prefixes explicitly and the difference is incredible. Whenever we come to these words in texts the children are beginning to organise in their heads what these words mean. I’ve mentioned in the other blogs that Lyster (2016) found morphological awareness had a positive effect on comprehension abilities. If this training is started early on then by the time they reach grade 6 they have more word knowledge about word meaning and they can apply this when reading more demanding texts.

The mathematical language I teach outside of maths and before I teach them the topic include: uni, bi, tri, quad, pent, hex, hept, oct, non, dec, cent etc. In year 2 a few weeks ago we had a great conversation about October and December. This was initiated mainly by the children. I also teach a wide range of prefixes that I feel will be important to them moving forwards.

Reading is difficult. The brain already has phonology and semantics hardwired into the brain and is ready to be filled. These two components of the brain have already evolved over many thousands of years. What hasn’t had time to evolve in the brain the third component to reading is the graphemes that represent the sounds. I guess I just believe that children should be reading reading reading. They shouldn’t just be reading stories, I believe they should be exposed to loads of non-fiction and enjoy finding out stuff.

I’m going to leave with a quote from our excellent year 6 teacher about the year 6 SATS tests. The reading paper was over 2,000 words long plus questions. She said,”The children weren’t at all phased by the sheer number of words because it is what they are used to.” When I stood in the room watching the children perform, it was incredible. They just motored through the paper with the minimum of fuss.

I’m not suggesting that we do what we do for a SATS test, we don’t. We have just helped to reduce the stress for the test but more importantly we have inadvertently taught our children to not be scared of lots of words.


I’ve just read a brilliant book by Matthew Walker called ‘Why we sleep.’ Over 17,000 research studies and still we don’t recognise sleep as one of the most important developmental stages of a day. We certainly don’t recognise the importance of sleep with children and the impact that this can have on a child’s performance in and out of the classroom. Children need more sleep than adults. It is recommended that children in primary schools have around 10 hours sleep per night (slightly less as they enter year 6). Adults on the other hand need around 8 hours of sleep.

During the day children have to learn lots and lots. They will probably have to develop their reading skills, writing, maths and maybe 2 other subjects such as geography and history. There are more semantic memories that the children learn. On top of this there is all the other learning such as events that we have experienced. These are episodic memories. All of this NEW learning is stored in the hippocampus, which is located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. It can only store a certain amount of information. As well as memories, physical movements are stored in here too. If a child is learning to play the piano or learning to swing a golf club then this is also stored in the hippocampus. ‘Muscle memory’ activities leave via a different route. They don’t go to the same place in the brain as episodic and semantic memories. There is not a massive amount of space in the hippocampus: it can be filled. It cannot store an infinite amount like the cortex which is where long term memory is located.

Now there are 2 forms of sleep that everyone goes through. You have NREM sleep (non rapid eye-movement) and REM (rapid eye-movement).  Although, NREM can be split into light and heavy NREM sleep.  Go to bed too late and children miss out on NREM sleep. Wake up too early and the children miss out on REM sleep. Missing out on either one can hinder the development of children. During the night people will drift in and out of REM sleep. However the REM stage of dreaming does occur more often before waking up. The NREM sleep stage is normally more pronounced in the first half of the sleep. That’s not to say we don’t experience NREM or REM in both halves of sleeping.

NREM sleep is the part where you go through a deep sleep. You enter complete darkness. This component of the sleep is crucial. Most people think of sleep and immediately think REM sleep and its importance; both REM and NREM are equally critical. It is during the NREM sleep that the hippocampus empties all the information into the cortex. In a simple study some students were taught some facts. Both groups had a 90 minute siesta. One group had a nap and the other group did other activities such as watching TV or playing computer games.  Both groups returned to learning. The group who had the nap proved to do better in remembering what they’d been taught. There was a 20% difference learning advantage at 6pm in the evening. In 1924 John Jenkins and Karl Dallenbach conducted a memory study. They decided to look at whether someone being awake was better at remembering compared to those who have been asleep. The subjects were required to remember different facts. After studying there was an 8 hour gap. One group had a sleep the other group stayed awake. It seemed that the group who had a sleep consolidated what it is that they learnt whilst the group who stayed up actually forgot lots of what they learnt. There have been lots of follow up studies. There is a range of benefits of learning advantage between 20% and 40%. 

During REM sleep the whole brain lights up leaving the rest of the body in total paralysis. If someone were to pick you up you would flop completely. The electrical brainwaves are very similar to a person who is awake and during this type of sleep dreaming occurs. I’m not going to go through why we dream but scientists seem to think that dreaming is crucial in improving creativity and rationality. During this stage of sleep the brain uses memories and information from experiences and puts them together to make a dream. A bit like you can’t talk about what you don’t know, or you can’t think about what you don’t know, you can’t dream about what you don’t know. The chaos of dreaming helps to link things together and is really quite complicated and sometimes you have dreams that are just plain weird. Really, it is unbelievable that we associate what we dream about with rationality. ‘The interconnecting helps to build an accurate model of how the world works, including innovative insights and problem solving abilities,’ Matthew Walker, ‘Why we dream’. It is also during this REM sleep state that helps children to manage their emotions. If children miss the REM part of sleep they are more likely to be moody, stressed or suffer with mental health issues. It seems REM helps to control their emotion and helps people to see things rationally. When I think about myself, I think how irrational I can be. It’s just the same with children.

How many times have we taught children and they can’t remember what it is they learnt yesterday? There is the question that needs to be asked: did the child have enough sleep? I have taught a number of children who have come into the class not ready to take in new learning as they have not reached their full quota of sleep. They are emotionally not ready or they simply cannot remember anything that they learned the day before. Is this down to a lack of quality sleeping conditions?

I wish I could see inside a child’s head. Is it full? Is it full of the stuff I really want them to learn? is the hippocampus full. Am I banging my head against a brick wall?

The book has certainly made me think hard about my role as a parent and the information I give to parents as they seek advice.

Assessment of fluency

‘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)’

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. Children probably reach their limit when they read at about 180WPM; anymore and it just wouldn’t sound right. They would lose expression etc

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%.

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.

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.


What to record?

Weaker readers should be assessed more frequently. In our school we have lots of children who are reading very fluently.

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. We have kept it simple. As the class teacher I want to know what mistakes the children are making. Is it expression that slows them down? Is particular word classes? Is it they are inserting words that aren’t there? All these questions should be asked.


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.

How often?

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.

Year 1


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.

Year 5


This an extract from From ‘A Boy called M.O.U.S.E’ by Penny Dolan

Year 6


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’.

How to improve reading fluency

‘WCPM has been shown, in both theoretical and empirical research, to serve as an accurate and powerful indicator of overall reading competence, especially in its strong correlation with comprehension. The validity and reliability of these two measures have been well established in a body of research extending over the past 25 years (Fuchs, Fuchs, Hosp, & Jenkins, 2001; Shinn, 1998).’
(PDF) Oral Reading Fluency Norms: A Valuable Assessment Tool for Reading Teachers. Available from:

In my first blog here I spoke about the importance of reading fluency and the need for it to be assessed. I am going to begin this second blog with what I think is a cautionary warning. Whilst the evidence is strong that fluency is crucial in helping children achieving comprehension -it is only one aspect. Other aspects of reading need developing:

  • Knowledge of the wider world, including history, geography the arts and much more.
  • As I’ve already mentioned in my last blog, Chang and Rossi (2017) found that spelling is linked to reading speed.
  • Etymological awareness.
  • Morphological awareness. Morphology is one of the often-overlooked building blocks for reading fluency, reading comprehension, and spelling. Research is now demonstrating the importance of strong morphological teaching as early as first and second grade (Apel & Lauraence, 2011). Lyster, 2016 found that morphological awareness from early years onwards had a profound impact on children’s reading comprehension later on in their school life.
  • Much debate in the reading wars about phonics. I believe it is an integral part of improving reading.
  • Prosody. Children need to be taught emphasis and how to change their voices when reading.
  • Harnessing a love for reading.
  • There are others that I could add into this list but it would go on for ever.

I think it is really important as well to emphasise the point that getting children to read fluently does not mean getting the children to read fast. As well when we are reading fluently we are looking for accuracy with reading.

Anyway back to reading fluency. I’ve put together some ideas I’ve used in my classroom to help with reading speed.

To become a fluent reader, reading widely is not going to be enough. For the children to become fluent they need practice. They need to be repeatedly reading a text and learning what the words say. If the children are repeating a text and over learning it, then the children have more chance of the words sticking. If the words stick then they will transfer their reading to new reading material. In Daniel Willingham’s ‘The reading mind’, he explains, ‘The more frequently you encounter a word (or a clump of letters), the richer the visual representation. When you become familiar with letter clumps- working memory stress is reduced’.

You will notice that in most of the ideas for improving fluency a model needs to be provided for the children.  I think that the ideas fall nicely in line with Barak Rosenshine’s principles for instruction.

  • The expert models
  • Scaffolds are provided for the children before they are removed
  • There is a high success rate
  • Opportunities for independent practice
  • There is a weekly or monthly review

It is important that the texts that you read with the children are accessible to most of the children. Ideally 95% accuracy is what you are after. I still think it’s worth children with who find reading difficult to be part of it because the amount of scaffolding involved makes it more accessible. I am a believer in helping children believe that they are a reader.

Ideas for improving reading fluency:

One to one reading

The adult reads a passage to the child. The child reads the same passage to the adult (with that adult). The child repeats the same passage until it is fluent. What I will do is, when the children get stuck on a word, I model the word for them. They repeat the word until firm. The child then repeats the whole sentence again at least 3 times until I am satisfied that they can say it (obviously I would go through sounds etc).

Passage reading

The children are given a passage to read. What I’ve tended to do is give the children the text and a ruler. The children follow along whilst I read to the class. Before reading I do tell the children tricky words that they will come across. If it’s non-fiction these may be tier 3 words (See Isabelle Beck for tiered words). The next time the children will read the passage with me. The final part is that the children read the text by themselves. During this reading I do not ask the children comprehension questions as I have already mentioned the phonoligal loop (working memory) cannot cope with the demands of an adult reading and the questions. I do ask questions after fluency has been achieved.

Choral reading

Choral reading is when you have a larger group of children. The teacher read a text. This is critical, as it allows the children to listen to what fluency sounds like. The passage that a teacher chooses needs to be short but can be part of a longer text. The text that is chosen needs to be accessible to most of the pupils. After reading the text the children read with you. You, the teacher, begin to withdraw yourself from the reading the more you read it with them. Remember if the children are reading alongside you then comprehension will be very difficult. There are other forms of choral reading. If you have a poem/song then the poem may start off with one table then on the second line a second table of children join in and so on. Or you could do it in reverse so the number of children reading reduces after each line. You could cold call children to read a line at a time.

Partner reading

This may be the weakest idea out of all of them. You are relying on stronger readers to work with weaker readers. Anyone who has read Graham Nuthall’s,’The hidden lives of learners’ will tell you how children will teach each other wrong things. It could be as simple as sounding ‘th’ incorrectly. However, the realism of everyday classroom teaching may require this to happen. Essentially the strong reader reads to the struggling reader and then they read together before the weaker reader reads. I often use this after I have done the modelling myself. I allow the children time to read to a partner or the rest of the table. The other children listen out for mistakes and we talk about them. This sounds quite daunting but if handled sensitively the children really like it even the ones being listened to.

Singing songs and reading poetry

This is a personal favourite of mine. I know it sounds old fashioned but I love to hear children reading poetry and singing songs together. Anything that involves rhythm and rhyme is an excellent way of helping children to be fluent readers. Like the other methods the children listen to the adult first. The children follow along with their fingers so they know what the words are saying. The second stage is for the children to read along with the adult until it is firm. Once it is firm, the children can have a go at reading the text themselves. This can be incorporated in a one to one reading session or similar to a choral response with the class. Recently I did a lesson where the children were reading the poem ‘Solomon Grundy’. Whilst reading the poem I noticed that children kept on inserting an extra word to lots of the sentences.

Solomon Grundy
Born on a Monday
Christened on a Tuesday

I noticed mistakes when I heard the children read the poem in small groups or as individuals. The children kept on inserting the word ‘a’ into all the sentences. As well lots of the children struggled to say words such as ‘christened’ and buried. Through discussion and rehearsal the children could say the words. The next stage is to leave that poem and come back to it at a later time. 

Picture books

Lots of picture books fit into helping children reading fluently. If you take Julia Donaldson books for example, there is a simple scaffold that the children can follow. So like with all the other ideas the children rehearse the words until it is firm. I always begin with the expert modelling.

Syllable word reading

Show the children a longer word and explain that words can be broken down into smaller sections called syllables. Break the word into smaller parts and add 1 syllable each time.





I love this activity as children find multi syllabic words difficult. I would not just stick to one word I’d run this activity with several words in 1 session, returning to each word again.

Overall I use a mixture of techniques and there is not just one way. I use the choral techniques for poetry and the non-fiction reading. In my school we teach morphology. We teach reading fluency. We have volunteers and teaching assistants listening to children read and fluency (including prosody etc) is a key component that we are looking out for. We do reading across the curriculum to help build knowledge.

Hopefully you can see that there is a scaffold at each stage. I know lots of schools do comprehension sessions with the children and’or guided reading. I’m a year 2 teacher and I haven’t done any formal comprehension or guided reading sessions at all. I have only ever got the children to complete more formal comprehension sessions after Christmas when the children have got to grips with fluency and the mechanics of reading. ‘Comprehension strategies provide a few pointers when readers are stuck, but that’s as far as far as they go. The most convincing evidence is that 50 lessons on comprehension (reading strategies) don’t seem to be any more effective than 10 (Daniel Willingham and Gail Lovette, 2014)‘. I have been working on reading fluency instead. Normally my sessions last around 20 minutes and like I say the results have been great. Yes I still ask comprehension questions and we discuss language, in particular those tier 2 words that are crucial for development. And in other lessons we do comprehension tasks. Every science, history and geography lesson begins with me sharing a text that will help the children learn about the world.

Remember that this is not the actual assessing stage. You wouldn’t need to do reading fluency assessments at this point. All of the above is about improving children’s fluency and prosody. My next blog will be about the assessment stage with some example texts that I have used with the children. You can find that post here.

Reading fluency

Getting children to read is a passion of mine and has been for a long time. For a long time I had been getting the assessment of reading wrong. In the past I had been looking at reading comprehension. Having read Daniel Willingham’s, ‘The reading mind’ and Doug Lemov’s, ‘Reading reconsidered’, I realised that this was wrong. I never thought about knowledge as being important to comprehension. The now widely accepted ‘Baseball Study by Recht and Leslie’, was a watershed moment when thinking about how I should test children’s reading skills. I decided that I can’t use comprehension as a means to assess accurately children’s reading. 

So it was a case of what next? I knew that in year 1 the children had the phonics screening check. I know that in year 6 they would be having a reading comprehension test. I also know that when they leave year 6 and go onto Secondary school and University, that reading well is the key to their success. How do we move the children from the phonic screening check to reading well. Well the answer lay in getting children to read at a rate so that they didn’t have to use up their working memory in order to work out the what the words say. I’m sure that you’ve all heard those children that are stuttering and have long pauses between words and sentences. These children are the types who struggle with comprehension because they are having to decode slowly thus is taking up far too much of their working memory. “When word recognition is laboured, cognitive load is occupied at the expense of understanding,” Bashir and Hook 2009.

Reading fluency is absolutely crucial if children are to have a chance of understanding a text that they are reading. Reading fluency is the bridge between a readers phonetic skills and their comprehension (Pikulski and Chard 2005).

“Fast and accurate word reading is hypothesised to facilitate reading comprehension because it releases a readers cognitive resources to focus on meaning,” La Berge and Samuels 1974.

Hasbrouk and Tudal researched fluency and have come up with targets that children should be aspiring to. The great thing about this is that it is free. Data and analysis can be drawn up quickly. Children who are struggling can be identified and an intervention can be set up quickly with a clear focus. Other than phonics interventions there are not many good reading programmes out there that would have the same impact.

If you were to assess this, you could find that the difference between the best reader and the slowest reader could be over 100 words. Now if the children were reading for 10 minutes the best reader could cope with about 1500 words. Your poorest readers could be reading only 300 words. In that same time period a good reader could be reading 1200 more words than a child who is struggling. Think about all those scenarios where children are asked to read. Silent reading or whatever you want to call it. Who is going to benefit? Is a child who can only read 30 words per minute going to benefit from 10 minutes silent reading? In fact I bet during that time they don’t even read at that rate. What about during lesson time when they have a textbook to read. So much of their working memory will deciphering the words that context and vocabulary building will be out of the question. Another scenario and dare I say it is- tests. A good reader in the 60 minutes could read about 6000-9000 words accurately in that time. This gives this reader time to reread sections etc. A poor reader could only cope with about 900 words- at best.

There are a few factors that will affect fluency:

  • The text that the reader is reading. If it is unfamiliar then reading fluency will be naturally slower. A study has shown that a group of scientists were given unfamiliar material and this slowed their reading down quite considerably. If it can happen to them then it can and will happen to the children that we teach.
  • Lack of phonetic knowledge. If children can’t recognise the sounds that different phonemes make etc then this will slow down their ability to read efficiently.
  • Practice. If children don’t practice their reading aloud then they will not be able to read proficiently. Children who have poor fluency need good models as well. Peer modelling is not sufficient as the long term gains are not as profound as an expert who models.
  • In 2017 a study was conducted by Rossi and Chang. They found that there was link between reading speed and spelling accuracy. You would need to think about your spelling programme.


Administering the assessment is not that difficult. All a person needs is a standardised text, appropriate to the year group, and a stop watch. You time 1 minute and then do a some deductions if errors are made. This can be repeated every week if children are not fluent or every few weeks if they are doing well.

In my school I have trained some volunteers to administer this simple assessment. As a literacy lead myself I have listened to lots of the children read and I can tell you first hand watching their faces when they can see that they have made improvements is great. I have seen in just a few short weeks children go from reading 32 words per minute to reading over 70 words correct per minute. For too long we have assessed reading wrong in my opinion.

P.S there is a health warning. Some children will see reading fluency as a challenge to read and morph all of the words into 1 and forget that any full stops exist. I always say to the children read as you would speak. As much as we want the children to read quickly and efficiently, if a child reads too quickly then comprehension can be affected as much as a child who reads too slowly.

Retrieval in year 2

Retention of information is something that has bothered me for a long time. Since I read up on retrieval practice and all of the science behind it I have seen an improvement in how much my children can remember.  I don’t just mean remembering at the point of teaching either. I’m talking remembering stuff that I taught weeks and weeks ago. Remember for 6 and 7 year-olds to remember stuff from a few hours ago is difficult let alone a few weeks/months.

There are lots of little things I have changed in my lessons. I have changed how children record their information for example. If you were to look in my books you would see children doing lots and lots of drawings of plants (dual coding). For example they have dual coded the functions of roots; the children have also used pictures alongside writing sentences for our history topic, ‘The Great Fire of London’. Other things I have changed is what the children write. I now give the children writing stems and the children finish off the sentences. For example,

‘The fire  spread because…’

I get the children to do this 3 or 4 times, with a picture. This type of sentence writing is the sort of stuff that can be found in the ‘Writing Revolution’.

My lesson structures now follow a very similar pattern. At the start of each lesson the children do a quiz about what they had learnt so far. It is really important that the children experience the quiz/test in different ways. Sometimes they have experienced it in the form of an online quiz sometimes in the form of paper. One of my favourite methods is to get the children to do a structured ‘brain dump’. Giving young children a blank piece of paper probably wouldn’t work. So I asked the following questions or complete the following tasks:

Draw a plant
Tell me the functions of the different parts to a plant
What does a plant produce during photosynthesis?
Draw the life cycle of a plant and label each part


I have been so impressed with their knowledge and yes we do use words like photosynthesis and respiration. The children love showing off their knowledge and what is great is that they are applying it to real life science. Today I asked them to draw what a good plant would like like and they spoke with such confidence. I then asked them to tell me about what a plant growing in bad conditions would look like. These 6 year old children were able talk about why it wouldn’t grow well because of photosynthesis. Also they thought that plants with more leaves would grow better than plants with a few leaves because more food could be made.

After the children have finished a quiz, they then read a text. I do lots of things with this but won’t go into it here. The final part of my lesson is where the children do picture drawing and simple sentence writing of what they have learnt from the text.


I think that retrieval practice and the research that has gone into it has made me realise how, me as a leader, should look at all the details of teaching to improve performance of our children.

We have many children who enter our school working below national level in speaking etc. Many of the children come from difficult backgrounds and they find making progress in school difficult. Don’t get me wrong we normally have around 10 children in each year group who will make some progress in each year group regardless of the teacher; they seem to have an innate ability to make things stick. To only have 10 children make progress isn’t enough and anyway could those children make more? What about the rest of the children? Don’t they have the right to a good learning and to have knowledge about the world that we live in?

Before going to teach in year 2 I had always worked in year 6 and spent a couple of years in year 4. When I was in year 6 I was always using test questions to review learning and giving them tests on stuff they’d learnt weeks before to make sure that they could remember it. At the time, I didn’t know that what I was actually doing was retrieval practice. I have a suggestion for most schools across the country- check out what your year 6 teachers are doing because I bet they are making stuff stick by doing lots of mini quizzes etc to see what their year 6’s know. I kept having these conversations with a colleague of mine and we kept saying imagine if every year group did this. Just imagine if every teacher quizzed their pupils on a regular basis then just think of the progress. By the time the pupils got into year 6 they would have a good idea about how good they were and what their own weaknesses were. The year 6 teacher wouldn’t have to waste time teaching them exam technique. I know this because I’ve been there.

Anyway I digress a little. I was asked to go into year 2 (teaching 6 and 7 year olds). It took me a little while to adjust to the children touching my shoes and children crying. Finding empathetic side took a little bit of retrieval but I got there. Before going into year 2 people would often tell me their too young to do this, their too young to do that; never have I been so determined to prove these people wrong. I decided that I would do what I did in year 6.

I set up regular testing. And yes I use the word. The children didn’t mind because they knew after talking to them that it was for their benefit. Anything they got wrong I assured them that I just needed to re-teach it for them. I wasn’t going to shy away from the word test because the children are going to have tests all their life and I don’t want them thinking of that word in a negative contexts. We as adults think of tests as bad because of our personal experience and I wasn’t prepared to put my experiences on them. I did have one boy who would cry all the time at the thought of testing. Again after talking to him and explaining that it didn’t matter. After a few weeks he changed his opinion completely; I had won over a 6 year old boy scared senseless by the thought of doing work independently and having to think hard by himself. Now he would cheer whenever I said the word I’m testing you to find out what you know about a subject. In fact the whole class did. All the tests were low stakes. I created tests in a number of ways:

I used Socrative (multiple choice questions is what I preferred);

I used testbase questions

SATS tests.

I used this method in maths at first because that was easy to do. To start off each lesson I would quiz the children about work that did the day before. I would write say 5 questions on the board but then in the middle of those questions I would ask them a maths question on something I’d taught them 6 weeks ago. To start off with this would throw them but eventually they grew accustomed to it. This method of teaching was not only taken from Barak Rosenshine but it is also taken from E D Hirsch. My main influnce without a doubt has been the Learning Scientists and their great work. This method of teaching maths has stuck with me and has seen amazing results with the children I teach. If you forget the results the greatest accomplishment is that the children are not scared about tests nor are they worried about working independently. They can see the benefits. They know what they are good at and understand the importance- remember these children are 6 and 7.

I began to apply this method of teaching to spelling. Like most other teachers, I would give out the weekly spellings and tests them on a Friday and collate the scores. When it came to independent writing the children would get those spellings wrong even though they got them correct in the test. I decided enough was enough. Each week I would give out the spelling list as normal. I would test them at the end of the week. That was not the end of that list though because every day I would bring out an old spelling test and test them alongside their new spellings. A spelling session lasts around 30 minutes and it looks a little like this:

Teach spelling rules/phonics/morphology

Give them an activity that encompassed new spellings, common spelling mistakes and old spellings

Test the children on a  mixture of old and new spellings.

I think this method has worked well and the local authority inspector couldn’t believe how good the spelling ability of the children actually was. In Daniel Willingham’s book ‘The reading mind’ he tells us of the importance of spellings and this proved the case because the reading improved astronomically as well. In my class reading ages improved by around 2 years per child. Obviously some were well above 2 years progress and some were below. No one actually scored below 18 months progress. I have to say i do have a fabulous team working with me in my class.

The next phase of introducing retrieval was in my teaching of theme lessons (history and geography). I’m going to cut to the chase on this one. I made socrative quizzes that I used at the start of each session. Sometimes I hadn’t taught the lesson to some of the questions but I still went through the answers. Again I told the children it didn’t matter because they were learning. On a number of occasions the children would say when we got to the lesson of a question they didn’t know the answer, “Oh that’s the answer to that question!” When the children did the quizzes it made the children think of more than just the question but the lesson they were involved in. So much more information was brought to the forefront of their minds when answering the simple multiple choice questions and so more stuff would stick. I have also experimented with brain dumps. Sometimes the children required prompts. I would say things like what were the houses like in London at the start of the great fire of London? The children would then draw a picture. I have used retrieval to compare different environments. I couldn’t believe the quality of work when I asked the children to draw or write everything that was different and similar about Antarctica and the Sahara desert.

Thinking more about retrieval has made me a better teacher and as a result the children have benefited. I have helped to rewrite our whole curriculum with retrieval at the very heart of everything we do. Every year group begins a topic now with retrieval from a topic taught in a different year group. Socrative quizzes have now been set up for every year group. Brain dumps are expected in all year groups from year 1 up to year 6. I believe that the amount of information that our children will be able to access to create stories and know about history, geography and spell correctly will be amazing.