Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tim Rasinski and The Role of Fluency Instruction

I was thrilled when my copy of IRA's The Reading Teacher came in the mail yesterday. If any of you are members of the International Reading Association, this journal is one of the best in terms of practical ideas.

This month Tim Rasinski (as he does so often) pairs with a classroom teacher. This time the two discuss how reader's theater can create an academic pathway to grow students' fluency. I hope that those of you with experience with reader's theater review this article's abstract as well as the article itself if possible. On the online version, there is even an idea for using Jan Brett's book Hedgie's Surprise in a reader's theater environment from Read Write Think. If you have not used reader's theater in your classroom, now is a great time to try it, especially with the detailed approach outlined. Tim's website also provides a great list of sources for reader's theater scripts. You can even have your students create their own as part of a writer's workshop or groupwriting experience.

One point of the referenced article is particularly important in today's classroom with an increased focus on fluency. The purpose of improving fluency is increased comprehension. I fear that in the past few years, many schools have swung the pendulum too far in the direction of focusing purely on speed and the result, as Tim and Chase talk about in this article, is children that can read like a house afire but have little understanding of what the meaning behind the text is. That can be terribly damaging to their ability to read increasingly complex text as they move forward in their schooling.

I saw this first hand as I conducted a research study on fluency and the influence of family reading on first graders' growing fluency. In a study conducted in schools in GA, AL, TX and TN, about 80% of the students we asked to read a leveled piece which included inference could not identify what the children in the story were doing (building a snowman). Many students immediately upon finishing the one minute reading (timed so we evaluate all the students within a reasonable time) asked, "how many words did I read?". It seemed they had nearly been "programmed" to ask that, even when there was no direct evidence that this is what our assessment was attending to. In fact, I recommended this response to our evaluators who heard that comment: "I wasn't paying any attention to that; I wanted to listen and see if you sounded like you were talking when you were reading and whether you understand what the story was about." Although this was not the focus on the study, it was indeed a wakeup call.

Educators must be very careful as we work with students to improve their fluency that we do not minimize or sacrifice expressiveness, pacing, automaticity in word recognition, and decoding. Worst still, if speed is our primary focus, children get the mistaken idea that fast word calling is reading. That is simply not what makes a good reader. Whether we are working with beginning readers in kindergarten or first grade, or older students still struggling with reading, we must be sure that we are sending the messages that fluency is a tool, that reading is squeezing the juice of meaning out of text. If we do not send that message loud and clear, we may see children benchmark on fluency assessments but their comprehension (tested more frequently that speed of reading and much more important) will suffer.

Certainly we want our young and maturing readers to be fluent, but we also want them to be able to think deeply and widely, analyzing and evaluating what they read, rather than simply regurgitating facts. That takes excellent, engaged teaching, giving some time to fluency, but always going back to the focus and purpose of reading, to gain meaning from that text.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with reader's theater and how you are using it in your classroom. How are you putting fluency in its correct perspective with your students?

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