In Is reading fluency a key for successful high school reading? published in the September 2005 edition of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, authors Timothy V. Rasinski, Nancy D. Padak, Christine A. McKeon, Lori G. Wilfong, Julie A. Friedauer and Patricia Heim examined the question: Could one source of difficulties in reading for middle and high school students from urban areas be a lack of reading fluency? They studied students from an urban area in June where they conducted a one minute reading and retell and compared it with result from the state graduation tests the students had taken.
The first difficulty the authors encountered was that reading rate norms do not exist beyond grade eight. They propose that the 50th percentile spring norm for grade eight of 171 words correct per minute(wcpm) would be expected to continue to increase each year of high school. In light of the fact that oral reading has limits on speed if meaning and prosody are to be maintained, I suspect that rate is near the top of the rate chart. As reading material becomes increasingly complex, the reader encounters more multisyllabic words and more complex sentence structures that limit speed when intelligibility is required. That being said, in the absence of grade norms for ninth grade, the authors chose to use the eighth grade norms in their study.
They found that the urban students read the ninth grade reading passages at an average of 97% accuracy. This places their reading correctness at the independent level. When their speed was examined, however, they found that 61% of students scored below the eighth grade 25th percentile score. For these students, reading assignments would take 150% or more time to complete than the average readers at eighth grade. Students who read significantly slower than their peers are less likely to read the material assigned which has a negative effect on school performance. Further they analyzed the relationship between reading fluency and comprehension as measured by the graduation tests and found that fluency accounted for 28% of the variation in scores.
If nearly one-third of the comprehension scores are determined by fluency, why then do we not see a solid push to increase fluency among our high school students? This seems like an easy entry point for intervention that will increase, among other things, graduation rates. We must be careful, however, to observe the caveat that the authors point out. Fluency is not rate alone. If all we do is increase reading rate, comprehension will not be impacted and the success of the intervention will not be realized. Fluency interventions need to focus on rate, prosody and comprehension.
One interesting possibility for intervention is to revisit old recitation concepts. In the early days of public education in America, recitation was a critical goal of education. Students were expected to be able to recite their lessons. We do not need to go so far, but teaching oral interpretation could have big dividends. Students could be expected to periodically deliver speeches; recite poems, soliloquies and passages; and participate in theater and debate exercises. Our Common Core standards include a strand for speaking. We could develop fluency while working on speaking skills, a component of the curriculum.