My Middle School Requires Fluency Instruction: Help!

  • 05 June, 2021
  • 14 Comments

Teacher question:

I am searching for what to do with repeated reading as a whole class, in every content area, in grades 6-8. Next year, we have 60% of our students at "at-risk" or "some risk" according to aReading (FastBridge). It recommends Repeated Reading for many of our students, so that will be our school-wide intervention: science, social studies, math, and ELA with grade-level text for every repeated reading we do in our classes. I'm torn on the grade-level text because we have kids who will not be able to read the text fluently at all. They will be reading with their peers. No one would blithely advise that teachers assign frustration level text if they had experience taking data as a behavior consultant and saw in a classroom that students either "act out" or "tune out" as soon as they cannot do work with 80 - 85% accuracy......or if someone gave them a text with every fourth word in black and then expected them to extract meaning from the text.....or if they tested adults who had struggled in reading and listened to them cry about the humiliation encountered in school when teachers gave them frustration level text. Giving students frustration level text only reinforces that guessing. Would giving the kids a text that is more challenging than their current instructional level instead of blanket grade-level texts in all of their classes be effective? I understand the research on it, but it's always a little different in how the same research can be applied in a real-life classroom.

Shanahan response:

I feel your pain, but as you point out, the research supports it (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; NICHD, 2000)– there were real kids in those studies; and my personal experiences in many of the situations that you described support it as well.

It’s evident you are very concerned about your students.

However, I think you’re so focused on bad instructional practices that have often been inflicted in the name of reading instruction (or fluency instruction) without considering how to do these things effectively.

If we did the same thing with phonics, vocabulary, or reading comprehension instruction we would never teach anything.

Indeed, it is sensible to teach text reading fluency to middle schoolers (and high schoolers) class wide (Rasinski, Padak, & McKeon, 2005), and I’ve worked with more than 100 secondary schools that did this so successfully that it helped raise their reading achievement. And, no there was no increase in discipline problems or absenteeism – just the opposite … when kids know they are making progress they tend to be more engaged in school.

First, let’s talk about why it makes sense to teach fluency at these age levels and how widespread this instruction should be. The ability to read text accurately (attending to the author’s words), with automaticity (doing so without much conscious attention), and with prosody (making the result sound like language -- putting the pauses in the right place, responding to the punctuation and so on) continues to improve through about 8th grade for the average reader (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2017) – and that means in a typical school almost half the students will be significantly below average. That is important because fluency has been shown to have a causal impact on comprehension (Breznitz, 2005), though the impact of fluency certainly declines over the grades (by 8th grade fluency differences still explain roughly 25% of the variation in reading comprehension – not as much as in Grad 2, but not nothing either).

That’s the reason research has usually found that teaching students to read more fluently has a clear and consistent influence on their reading comprehension (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; NICHD, 2000). Studies show that having students read texts aloud with feedback and repetition can improve reading, as long as they are not already proficient with the texts that they practice on (hence, the point of “frustration level” text). There is some research suggesting just getting kids to read a lot silently on their own can have a similar payoff – but getting kids to do such additional reading is usually not under the teachers’ control.

You point out that when you test students, they are uncomfortable reading challenging texts, and that singling students out in class for such reading can have long term negative effects on their desire to read. I don’t disagree with either of those points, so let’s not embarrass them – let’s just teach them how to read more fluently – and, yes, that will involve having them read aloud some grade level texts that will be hard for them. (You might think that is cruel, but it is no crueler than giving a child an injection to cure or prevent a harmful disease. And, frankly, if it’s done reasonably well, it really isn’t that uncomfortable).

The analogy I usually use to discuss this is drawn from basketball. If you have ever been to a basketball game or watched one on television, you will notice that near the end of the game, there is often an effort to foul the worst player on the other team. The idea is to get him to take free throws (that he is expected to miss) so that the team that fouled him can get the ball back.

Think of what that situation is like from the point of view of the player. Everybody’s eyes are on him. Lots of people are rooting for him to fail. They might even be laughing at him. All the spectators behind the hoop are waving their arms and screaming to try to distract him so he’ll screw up.

If you think about it, that is what oral reading is for lots of boys and girls. They know they aren’t good at it, and now everyone is going to get to watch them screw up. And, yes, the other kids do laugh and tease, and sometimes they even try to upset the performance. What a miserable feeling. No wonder some carry that angst into adulthood with them.

Given all of that, I would say that it is critical that you take round robin reading out of the equation. I don’t want that student reading aloud to the group under those kinds of conditions. It can’t help much, and it is likely to do harm.

Let’s think of another example from basketball. At the beginning of the game, or more accurately, just before the beginning and just before the second half begins, all players on both teams are on the court. They are all warming up. There are more than 20 players out there and there are probably 12 balls or more flying around at any given time. Everyone is shooting. Some players go to a particular part of the floor and practice from there. Some shoot layups to loosen up. Balls are flying everywhere, the often hit off of each other. When a player misses, no one gets upset. No one gets embarrassed. Even the benchwarmers who may miss several shots don’t seem to care. Their feelings aren’t hurt, they don’t quit the team, there are no tears – but everyone is practicing.

That’s the nature of appropriate fluency instruction.

That’s one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of paired reading. There might be 12 balls in the air (I mean, books being read) at one time. Half the kids are listening, and half are reading; and very quickly those places get switched around which simply means everyone in the class is trying to figure out how to read this text appropriately, so that it makes sense.

Here are 10 pieces of advice on teaching fluency to older students:

1.     Set a goal for the number of minutes to be devoted to such practice weekly schoolwide. Then get each department to commit to taking on a set portion of these minutes. Fluency practice doesn’t work as well in math as the other subjects, so keep the numbers low there (higher than zero, but much lower than what kids are to experience in classes that have more continuous text to read). If students are reading above the 8th grade level, I wouldn’t bother with this – they can be exempted. Each teacher is then committed to providing some number of minutes each week in their classes; let the teacher figure out the best way to organize this… some might want to spend a part of each class on fluency work, while other teachers might want to segregate this to particular days of the week. Don’t undermine your effort by making it difficult for teachers to meet the instructional goals of their content area.

2.     Explain to the students what is going on. Tell them fluency is important, tell them the books are getting harder and harder each year as they advance through school and that fluency practice is one way to increase their ability to handle such materials independently Tell them that they are going to be asked to read aloud at times, not to embarrass them but to give them the practice that will make them better readers. Stress that they will not be asked to read anything aloud to the group with everyone listening and that almost everyone will be practicing and helping each other to figure out the best way to read these texts. It is practice, not performance. They are to try to improve and the better they get at it, the less practice that will be needed.

3.     Assign partners for paired reading work. It takes too long to have kids make these placements and that kind of thing is just another source of embarrassment. Change the partnerships daily, rotating pairings through the class. That way, everyone gets to benefit from the really helpful partners, and everyone shares the burden of the partners who aren’t very helpful. It also allows the teacher to avoid partnerships that he/she suspects will be problematic – like pairing up two boys who just had a fight in the lunchroom, or pairing up the particularly self-conscious boy with the prettiest girl in class, etc.

4.     Have students take turns reading short portions of the text – like a paragraph at a time but have them read and reread the text until it sounds acceptable – acceptable means that they aren’t making a lot of word reading mistakes and that it sounds like language.

5.     The teacher needs to be involved, too, coaching the coaches and intervening when someone is having trouble. I’ve seen teachers bail when this activity is taking place, but that’s when the teacher really needs to be involved. Often, when I’m in that role, by the time I get to the third kid I find some repeated vocabulary problem that allows me to stop everybody to explain that word, etc. so everyone can progress more quickly.

6.     Remember this is teaching time. Offer kids supports that will help them to succeed. Some teachers like to read the introduction aloud to the students and provide some explanation to contextualize the content they’ll be reading about. Others pre-introduce some vocabulary they anticipate will be a barrier -- not just telling definitions but getting students to say the words. Another particularly helpful support is to parse the text, so kids know where the pauses go.

Some teachers will have students practicing a paragraph once or twice silently before reading it to a partner or having the kids take the first swing at figuring out where the pauses go. The point is to improve these students reading, not just to do repeated reading (that’s an activity rather than the point).

7.     Add a comprehension step. For example, provide a question the students are supposed to answer about each paragraph.

8.     If you have any special resources – a push in teacher, a parent volunteer, pre-student teachers from your local university, or some students from the Young Teachers Club – then you can pair your lowest readers with them. This isn’t a punishment; this simply increases the amount of time these students get to read – they don’t have to split the time with a partner – which can translate faster progress.

9.     Make sure the student know they are working with grade level materials – and that if they can read that well, you will try to provide them with even more challenging texts. Struggling readers are often embarrassed that teachers try to protect them from embarrassment by putting them in books so easy that they are embarrassing. Often with secondary students, if you want them engaged, go harder not easier – kids are willing to work hard if they feel respected and they balk when embarrassed.

10.  It helps if students can see progress. Letting them know how many words correct they were able to read initially in their history book or how their prosody rated in their science book. Another way to do this is to have the students record their initial performance s(no one has to hear but the student and, perhaps, the teacher). Later in the year, doing another recording and comparing these should help kids to see success.

 

Those considerations can make this a much more successful effort. Finally, I would caution you not to overdo it. Fluency is important, but so is vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing. Each of those should get similar amounts of emphasis in a program aimed at improving reading achievement with older students.

 

References

Breznitz, Z. (2005). Fluency in reading: Synchronization of processes. London: Routledge.

Hasbrouck, J. & Tindal, G. (2017). An update to compiled ORF norms (Technical Report No. 1702). Eugene, OR, Behavioral Research and Teaching, University of Oregon. 

Kuhn M.R., Stahl, S.A. (2003). Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 3–22. 

National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rasinski, T., Padak, N., & McKeon, C.A. (2005). Is reading fluency a key for successful high school reading? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(1), 22-27.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Janis McTeer
Jun 05, 2021 05:26 PM

I taught second grade so I understand the difference in fluency instruction in middle school and elementary school. I found that once I started with simple rereadings of engaging poems and songs with my students other opportunities to reread came to mind. We wrote original poems and reread them for presentation. We wrote plays together and performed them for parents. Every time I saw an opportunity to reread text I took it. Perhaps that will work at any grade. We don’t often see rereading events until we train ourselves to look for them. My husband remembers practicing a children’s book in high school and then as a class they went to first grade and read to the students. This can even be done in the content area.

Sam Bommarito
Jun 05, 2021 04:56 PM

I've found that applying Tim Rasinski's work & ideas in this area yields excellent results. The "flagship of the fleet" is "The Megabook of Fluency" book which contains passages for fluency work at all reading levels. His website is a treasure trove of idea. For me, he is my "go to" person for fluency instruction.

Lauren Thompson
Jun 05, 2021 05:41 PM

It would be helpful to know in what way are these 60% of students "at risk"? Are they just low in fluency rate? Do they lack automaticity with word recognition? Are they weak in vocabulary? Is reading in English new to them? Lack of automaticity with word recognition, coupled with the habit of guessing at multisyllabic words, is a very common problem, due to inadequate and counterproductive literacy instruction in the earlier grades. If the teacher must devote time to fluency practice, then they must do it. It is to be hoped that the school will be open to addressing other issues with the same alacrity.

Hannah Harvey
Jun 05, 2021 06:11 PM

Thank you for sharing. This is invaluable information and resources. I will take time out to implement this practice with my MS teachers.

Hannah Harvey
Jun 05, 2021 06:11 PM

Thank you for sharing. This is invaluable information and resources. I will take time out to implement this practice with my MS teachers.

Timothy Rasinski
Jun 06, 2021 11:45 AM

Great question and response. Would suggest also using texts that are meant to be read aloud wth experssion (prosody) and performed (requiring rehearsal - repeated readings). Poetry, readers theater scripts, famous speeches or segments of speeches from history, monologues, dialogues etc. Create a regular weekly routine where students rehearse a given text and eventually perform it for classmates or an other audience (e.g. record the reading on the class website for parents to listen to).

Lori Josephson
Jun 07, 2021 11:33 AM

Hello Colleagues,
Just wanted to share some advice advocated by fluency expert, Dr. Jan Hasbrouck:
1-note her updated fluency norms table from 2017 ((https://www.readingrockets.org/article/fluency-norms-chart-2017-update) Please do note that the biggest gains in fluency occur in PRIMARY grades, so early attention here is the way to go.
2-I attended a talk of Dr. Hasbrouck's many years ago and have always recalled, "once students reach the 50th percentile, stop working on fluency; there are other fish to fry." The other 'fish to fry' had to do with comprehension development. I want to add that 'average' percentile ranges are 25th-75th percentiles..My experience as a practitioner working primarily with students with dyslexia has resulted time and time again that I can help students read at grade level (or above--HS level, yes!), but their reading speed remains slow in general (I know this is a broad brush stroke). That is the reason these students often request and need time extensions when taking tests, particularly high stakes tests such as ACTs, etc.

Keep calm and carry on, as they say. Happy Summer!

MaryEllen Vogt
Jun 07, 2021 02:28 PM

A very interesting conversation about an important topic! I’m reminded of an activity I did each year with my middle schoolers, all of whom had reading problems. As the school’s reading specialist and special education teacher, during each fall semester, each of my students dictated or wrote (depending on needs) a story that was eventually turned into a “published” book. Two copies of each book were made by the students. The books were bound with a holiday-themed, fabric cover that was glued onto pieces of cardboard (very low-tech). The books were the end result, but the process was what was important. Various drafts were created and shared by the respective authors, with much fluency practice at each step. When the final drafts were completed and the books were created right before the winter holiday break, as a group (students from several periods), we walked to a nearby elementary school, and in the cafeteria, each of my students met a second or third grader who was also a struggling reader. The middle school students presented each of the children with a book, tied in a ribbon, of course, and when untied, the big kids read their books to the little kids, fluently and with great expression (prosody). For many of my students, some of whom read at a grade 2 or 3 level, hearing themselves as fluent, confident readers, was a first. This was a win-win for all students...and although it’s been many years since I did that activity, it popped into mind as I read Tim Shanahan’s suggestions and Tim Rasinski’s comments. Those kids never knew they were working on fluency and they didn’t care. What they did care about was that they were authors—and they able to transfer those skills to more challenging texts during the spring semester. You may wonder why each student made two books—one went to a child and the other went into our classroom library until the end of the school year, when the authors took their books home. Authentic fluency practice, as Tim R. pointed out, can take many forms!

Angela Faasen
Jun 08, 2021 02:16 AM

These blog entries are always so refreshing to read. To the letter writer, I would agree that you are anticipating real challenges, but I would also argue that most of those concerns can be ameliorated through culture building and good ol' classroom management. We can normalize reading aloud throughout the school day. We can frame for students why oral reading fluency matters, and incentivize individual improvement. We can explicitly teach students how to behave (and not behave) when a peer struggles with a word or sentence or paragraph. We can deftly move a student's audience along a continuum (from most private to most public); as well as, the amount of time an individual student is "on stage."

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 09, 2021 04:47 PM

This response is to several of the previous comments but not to anyone specifically. Tim Rasinski has long argued for the use of poetry and other kinds of text that are clearly meant to be read aloud. Several other respondents this week have made similar suggestions, particularly those who teach in the primary grades. That makes sense in a way and I don't disagree with getting started like that. However, it is important to understand that text demands differ greatly and when using fluency as a lever to improve reading comprehension it also makes sense to have students working with the kinds of texts they need to comprehend. Learning how to parse a science text or how to go back and forth between English grammar and the grammar of algebra won't come from reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Having student practicing fluency with their content area textbooks, etc. is a good approach that can pay valuable dividends in learning.

thanks.

tim

Kseniia
Jun 14, 2021 04:41 PM

Thank you, this is very useful for us at the moment, since we are just trying to properly establish a system of exchange of partners between students.

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Jul 29, 2021 03:22 AM

Magnificent website. A lot of helpful information here

Jeremy
Jul 01, 2021 04:43 PM

Hi Mr. Shanahan,

This post was helpful, as are all of them.

I want to say thank you. I talked and worked with Tim R. a bit as I left the elementary classroom to develop a music-based reading tool for K-5. He pointed me in your direction, and I found myself appreciative of each post; they're relevant and honest.

We just received a Phase I SBIR grant from the Dept. of Ed. Much of my research and proposal citations came from you, your references or the NRP. If you willing to burn 30 minutes of the most valuable thing in life, I hope to meet you face to face (digitally), maybe even ask a few pointed questions about developing fluency and background knowledge via music/lyrics prior to skill/concept application (including PA development).

Anywho, when we were awarded the grant I told myself I would thank you, and I do. I look forward to reading more.

Sualen Bowman
Jul 03, 2021 02:19 AM

Teaching reading fluency is my favorite part of my personalized reading groups. Rereading texts are important but even rereading sentences or paragraphs after struggling through it has been helpful for my students. They know if it was read too slow or if they stumbled on too many words that they should get through it then read it again. It helped increase fluency and they felt better after and were outwardly proud of themselves.

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My Middle School Requires Fluency Instruction: Help!

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