Reading Fluency: Red Herring or Red Flag?

Reading aloud is an enjoyable and enriching way to spend time with others.  It’s also a way to practice more fluent speech. Children’s books, magazines and websites offer entertaining literacy activities for every interest and age group.  Game playing cards, museum and amusement park brochures, and written conversations between characters of video games are opportunities to practice ‘speech tools’ even for just a few minutes.  Stickers, nickels, smiles, hugs, thumbs-up, shared reading and other small rewards reinforce the notion that easier speech is meant for more situations than just the speech therapy office.

Reading testing is not quite as fun. Reading tests measure accuracy, fluency, words-per-minute, and basic comprehension. Reading fluency in particular, figures prominently in our data driven educational system.  While this data point may be a well - intentioned way to assess reading ability, I’m concerned about how it affects my students who stutter. The National Stuttering Association has a free brochure Stuttering and Reading Fluency (1) which states, “A child should not be penalized for moments of stuttering when assessing reading fluency. Fluency of speech is not the same as fluency of decoding.” We need to inform teachers of this.

 Every student I have ever met has a need for speed when reading aloud. Since reading tests are timed and reading fast is rewarded, it’s important to know that reading rate affects stuttering. (2)  When does reading dysfluency represent a stuttering problem and when does it represent a reading problem? In preparing this article, I came to the conclusion that this question is nearly irrelevant.  The more important question is whether or not a child’s depressed reading scores are warning signs of a more serious problem with grade level literacy.

The definition of reading is a matter of some debate.  A recent proposal, called the “narrow view of reading,” offered this perspective.  “The essence of the proposal [the narrow view] was to change the way in which reading is assessed. If high-stakes assessments differentiated among word recognition, domain-general reading comprehension, and specific subject knowledge, the reading crisis would be over because the focus would change to the true crisis in American education – knowledge deficiencies in the sciences, history, math, literature, and other content domains that are important for success in the 21st century.” (3) Here we have decoding (word recognition) relegated to one small part of reading while the complexity of comprehension is given greater attention.

Misconceptions about reading include:

a)   “word recognition and reading comprehension are related skills that can be accurately reduced to one measurable score or level,

b)   improvements in word recognition will always lead to improvements in reading comprehension, and

c)    measures of reading comprehension assess the same thing.” (4)

Turns out, a problem with the narrow view of reading lies in its implementation. If reading is defined only in terms of word recognition (decoding), students who decode single words adequately may be dismissed from reading programs, even if they continue to struggle with the deep reading comprehension necessary to perform well at grade level. General education teachers are not trained to teach language skills and comprehension strategies; they are responsible for subject content. “Given the present climate of accountability to curriculum standards, they [teachers] are reluctant to do anything they view as distracting from the teaching of content that will appear on high stakes tests.” (5) Given the narrow view of reading, that means no one is designated to help students with reading comprehension strategies. That is, unless school based speech-language pathologists (SLP) are allowed to provide services that focus “on the language underpinnings of comprehension.” (6)

“Adolescent literacy professionals are trying to counter the popular and oft-quoted ideas that before fourth grade, children are learning to read and after that they are reading to learn…we know there is much to learn about reading past the fourth grade…” (7)

Reading is hard work for some children. Besides problems with decoding, language processing problems may prevent them from fully comprehending increasingly complex material. Some processing problems arise from a lack of background (world) knowledge, unfamiliar vocabulary, complex syntax, and information that is implied but not explicitly stated. Poor readers tend to read less than skilled readers. Children who find reading easy  and fun like to read more. Consequently they can spend hours and hours of time decoding unfamiliar vocabulary, deciphering complex sentences, linking information from one part of a text to another, talking with others about what they have read, and anticipating information in later pages and even later volumes of a story series. All the while, they are absorbing more world knowledge as well.

An emphasis on improving word recognition assumes that “by improving the reader’s overall word knowledge and decoding abilities, comprehension will simultaneously improve.” (8)  Decoding instruction for unfamiliar words can include reading them aloud for the child, reviewing phonetics, rereading, looking-up definitions, and word practice drills. While these teaching strategies have proven useful, research suggests that meaning-based feedback may be even more effective with respect to reading comprehension, oral language, and expressive vocabulary. With meaning-based feedback, “The teacher acts as a mediator who assists in establishing the content of the author’s message before reading, setting the scene, simplifying complex sentences, establishing relationships between and across text units, and discussing or expanding upon unfamiliar vocabulary or concepts in context. The teacher constantly monitors the oral reading for indications that the author’s message is not being understood.” (9)

The larger implications of reading comprehension become apparent when we look ahead to the literacy skills required of the next generation. “Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations so they can create the world of the future.” (10)

Our journey from word recognition to reading comprehension makes its next stop at “high literacy”. High literacy “includes the ability to use language, content, and reasoning in ways that are appropriate for particular situations and disciplines, involving students’ abilities to engage in thoughtful reading, writing, and discussion about content.” (11) SLPs are well prepared to collaborate with others on this road. They are knowledgeable about the phonological, semantic, grammatic, and pragmatic complexities of communication in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The Common Core Standards (12) released in June 2010 include language as a unique category, inviting SLPs to address the “underlying language requirements of rigorous curricula and intervene with students directly or work with other professionals to provide differentiated instruction and intervention.” (13)

          At this point, the relevance of reading fluency, and even stuttering, feels like a distant memory. I do not wish trivialize the ability to read or speak fluently at any grade level. But, let’s find some additional meaning in reading test scores. When a child who stutters performs poorly on a reading test, we need to ask questions. What kind of dysfluency was evident: decoding, stuttering, or both? Was the child penalized for stuttering? Was the child given the option to deliberately reduce speaking rate as a fluency strategy? How did the child perform on each comprehension test question and why? How well does the child read,comprehend, and talk about curriculum texts?  Does the child enjoy reading? Does the child seek reading opportunities at home? School districts are surviving shrinking budgets by cutting personnel and services.  When a child is denied services, I wish it was more trasparent whether the decision was truly based on the child’s need or the availability of funded programs.

Reading Resources

·         All about Adolescent Literacy http://www.adlit.org/

·         Boy’s Life: the Official Publication of the Boys Scouts of America http://boyslife.org/ 

·         Cobblestone & Cricket: 14 Award Winning Magazines http://www.cricketmag.com/home.asp

·         Highlights: Fun with Purpose http://www.highlights.com/

·         National Geographic Kids http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/?source=NavKidsHome

·         Public Television for Kids  http://pbskids.org/

·         Reading is Fundamental http://www.rif.org/

·         Reading Rockets http://www.readingrockets.org/

·         The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance http://www.thencbla.org/index-final.html


(2)  Vanryckeghem, M. et. al. (1999) The Main and Interactive Effect of Oral Reading Rate on the Frequency of Stuttering, American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 8, 164-170.

(3)  Alan G. Kamhi (2009) Solving the Reading Crisis – Take 2: The Case for Differentiated Assessment, Language, Speech, and Hearing in Schools, 40, p. 213.

(4)  Ibid. p. 214

(5)  Barbara J. Ehren (2009) Looking Through an Adolescent Literacy Lens at the Narrow View of  Reading, Language, Speech, Hearing Services in Schools, 40, p. 193.

(6)  Ibid. p. 193

(7)  Ibid. p. 193

(8)  L. K. Crowe (2003) Comparison of Two Reading Feedback Strategies in Improving the Oral and Written Language Performance of Children with Language-Learning Disabilities, American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 12, p. 17.

(9)  Ibid. p. 18

(10)       B.J. Ehren & K. Murza (October, 2010) The Urgent Need to Address Workforce Readiness in Adolescent Literacy Intervention, Perspectives on Language Learning and Education,3, p.93 (a publication of ASHA SIG 1) with a reference to Moore, D. W. et. al. (1999) Adolescent literacy: A position statement Newark, DE: International Reading Association http://www.reading.org/downloads/positions/ps1036_adolescent.pdf

(11)       Ibid. p. 93.

(12)       www.corestandards.org

(13)       Ehren & Murza,  p. 97      

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