Imagine parents watching their child take his or her first steps. It’s an exciting time! No one is concerned about the beginner’s slow, cautious pace, or the numerous tumbles as the child increases walking distance. In fact, it is common knowledge that children cannot learn to walk without falling down repeatedly. This, of course, makes for less than perfect walking, but soon gives way to success.
Now, imagine this same scenario, but instead of celebrating, the parent takes out a stop watch and announces, “According to the National Board of Gross Motor Development, now that you have reached the age of 13 months, you should be able to walk eight steps in 30 seconds. Next week we will have to increase that to 15 steps in 45 seconds. If not, you will be classified as a below basic toddler who is likely to be an ineffective walker by the time you grow up.”
You might think this is preposterous because everyone knows each child develops differently. Once toddlers begin walking, we give them many opportunities to walk at their own pace, knowing they get better with practice. We certainly don’t tell children speed is the most important factor in learning to walk.
Unfortunately, many schools communicate just this message to beginning readers. An assessment practice is giving young readers the impression that good reading is fast reading. Children are being timed to see how “fluently” they read. They must read a predetermined amount of words per minute or be in danger of being labeled a poor reader.
Both learning to walk and learning to read are developmental processes that happen over time. We cannot force children to walk quickly before they are physically ready, just as we cannot force children to read quickly before they have developed the cognitive processes that allow them to understand written language. We can only offer them support and opportunities to practice at their own pace.
What message do timed readings communicate to students? Many of my graduate students, who student teach in elementary schools throughout the Central Valley, have repeatedly observed that their students read too fast, almost as if they were in a race. It is safe to assume this is a result of the timing practice. The reader sees the stop watch, hears the teacher say “go” and knows speed is the expectation. Naturally, the reader begins to read as quickly as possible. It appears that speed is the goal, not comprehension. In some cases, the teacher is required to wait until the student can read “fast enough” before asking comprehension questions. The result is a harmful message to beginning readers, as well as to less proficient readers unable to read at the given speed.
Of course, we want children to read fluently. However, fluency and speed are not synonymous. Just because a reader can read quickly does not ensure they can read expressively or comprehend what they read. S. Jay Samuels, professor at the University of Minnesota, recently wrote in the Reading Research Quarterly, “The danger of using reading speed as the measure of progress is that some students and teachers focus on speed at the expense of understanding.” He adds, “If one reads too fast, comprehension is compromised; thus, slowing down can improve comprehension.”
Elaine Garan, noted author and professor at California State University, Fresno, recognizes in her book Smart Answers to Tough Questions that true fluency is characterized, not only by reading rate, but also by intonation and prosody, the natural ebb and flow an efficient oral reader uses. Fluent reading is a result of effective, efficient reading, not a prerequisite. Reading instruction needs to focus on giving children a chance to read in a comfortable environment. Many experts say the best way to promote fluency is by encouraging students to reread interesting texts.
One excellent way to encourage rereading is through reader’s theater; here readers alternate reading parts from stories or plays. Ultimately, readers can informally perform for small audiences of parents or other students. Reader’s theater not only motivates students to reread texts, it provides opportunities for participants to read expressively and confidently.
Just as beginning walkers need time to perfect their skill, beginning readers need opportunities to develop at their own pace, and time to gain the confidence to succeed. The more readers read, the more fluent they become. Create opportunities for children to enjoy reading, and kids will want to read. When kids want to read—they will read!
Rene’ Mendel Lebsock is a classroom teacher, reading specialist and university instructor. She is currently teaching language and literacy courses in teacher education at Fresno Pacific University. She holds a master’s degree in reading, as well as a reading specialist and multiple subject teaching credential.