According to A to Z Reading, “Fluency refers to a student’s speed, smoothness, and ease of oral reading. Fluent readers read more quickly and smoothly, allowing them to focus on comprehension. Fluent readers gain more meaning from the text they read. Because fluency leads to comprehension, fluent readers enjoy reading more than students who devote all their energy to sounding out words.”
This post is about my opinion of issues that arise about when students struggle on oral reading and comprehension. I will attempt to explain some common sense ideas to help with problem solving in this area for students. Several people have expressed frustration to me about oral fluency and comprehension in the past year or so. If none of these ideas have already been tried, don’t jump right into tutoring or testing. Look at the problem from this common sense viewpoint. Even if tutoring and assessments have been done, these ideas may still help. There are many possible causes for struggling readers and so this is a long blog post.
Don’t Say, “Sound it Out”
First, parents, don’t say sound it out. Everyone knows sound it out already! So this is what happens in many cases. Parents teach the capital letters of the alphabet (only) and are happy when children learn to name the letters. Then as the child reads they say, “Sound it out.” So the child is frustrated as naming the letters will not sound anything out, and we do not usually read in capital letters. Additionally, English is not a phonetic language. So try to sound out this word by naming the letters: B-A-T. You probably already heard the sounds in your head, though, so it isn’t fair! Try again by saying the names of the letters: B-A-T. The names of letters are not the sounds, and bat is a phonetic word so it should sound out. Children are far better off for a start in literacy if parents teach the lower case letter sounds and letters. The sounds help sound out some words, not the names of the letters. Are you with me so far?
The children in my first grade class who had trouble in writing were able to name the upper case letters only and had no clue about the letter sounds. The lower case letter sounds will also help children write for a more balanced literacy approach.
Be Sure Children Know All the Lower Case Letters and Sounds
Sounds silly? Am I still talking about fluency? Am I talking about any age reader? Yes! Really, if you have a struggling reader, this is the first thing to check. I often had to back up in my first grade class and teach this to children who felt they knew the alphabet and even how to read. In fact, many students were convinced they knew everything about reading and told me so, but this had to be covered. Just be sure your child knows all the lower letters and sounds. Just a few missing sounds can cause reading misery. Next, read on for more ideas about comprehension and fluency.
Long ago, sound it out was almost the only strategy and it didn’t work for all words. Many student then just guessed the word. There are newer strategies that work although a few are required. Adults are using many word solving strategies without realizing it and most do not involve sounding it out. Sight words cannot be sounded out anyway. Reading happens so fast that people are not aware of what they are doing and then tell children to sound it out. What is a sight word? Sight words are not phonetic and include words such as when, where, bear, there, their, and they’re, which can be confusing! Sounding it out is a very slow strategy, as well, so some faster ones are required for a less tedious approach.
Word Solving Strategies and Comprehension Strategies
What child needs for fluent reading are several word solving strategies (sound it out is only one kind) and also several reading comprehension strategies. So there are many such strategies and most of us, adults included, use a basic few. Different strategies resonate with different people. Here is a printable bookmark of some basic word solving strategies which can be downloaded here. The main strategies I suggest are Skippy Frog (skip what you do not know, finish reading the sentence, and go back and read again) as this is reading with context and the main adult strategy too, in my opinion. The other good strategy is Stretchy Snake, again in my opinion. Those two will take a child far, and are wonderful because they actually help. word-solving-strategies-bookmarks PDF
Here are the strategies (Not in the order as on the bookmark but how helpful the strategies are)
Stretchy Snake is one of the best strategies and is whispering sound it out. What? Didn’t I just say forget saying sound it out? Yes, but whispering it out helps connect the sound so the word makes sense. You can feel free to say whisper it out frequently! Try it. Whisper the sounds for c-a-t. Now say the sounds c, then a, then t. Whispered, it sounds like cat! Sounded out it is isolated sounds. Sounds, words, and even phrases are connected and we want to encourage children to connect sounds together (eventually phonics).
Skippy Frog is the other best strategy. We do this all the time but forget to help children learn this strategy. It is using context to figure out a word. So if a child reads, The lights went out in the ____________, and we jump in and say sound it out we stop the reading for meaning. But if we allow the children to attempt to read (never do anything for the student he or she can do for themselves) and reads, The lights went out in the _________ because of a lightening strike. Then we encourage the child to go back to the beginning of the sentence; very often he or she can read the whole sentence! The lights went out in the storm because of a lightening strike. I know I do this without thinking, and that is what we want children to do — automatically apply a few very helpful strategies without having to think about what they are doing to read. When a child reads to me and stops dead a few times during one paragraph, I know someone at home is jumping in and telling the word. It doesn’t help, and instead encourage the child to continue reading and see if they can get the word by the end of the sentence. If a child guesses, don’t tell, ask: “Does that sound right? Does that make sense? Try again.” Encourage the child to correct his or her own error. The exception may be an English Language Learner who has no clue what the word means, or a child who makes 3 errors in a row, then tell and move on.
Additional Strategies to Consider
Chunky Monkey (AKA phonics) is for reading word “chunks” and this name is not appealing to all, but the point is to see letter groups and read them together. We do not read s-t-r in strawberry as three sounds, but one. Children who are told to sound it out are not seeing the letters can blend together. Yes, it is syllabication but we are not looking for children to actually know anything about that. We say things like, “Can you find the little words in this big word?” to make it easier. It can be a little game. For instance, Hippopotamus has hip, pop, and pot in it. Once looked at for word chunks, it is read more quickly the next time it is encountered by the child. There may be no logical adult explanation but it makes sense to children.
Crabby Connector (AKA think about word families) can be skipped, but is looking for similar words such as I can read lake, so I can read take. I think this is another slow process when reading text. It is good for spelling, though.
Elephant Ears (AKA hear yourself read) is listening to yourself read. Hey, that is the fluency goal. Read aloud and comprehend. I think that is quite difficult. We have all been at a meeting or in church and listened to someone read aloud without preparation stumble and fumble, and it makes us uncomfortable. If adults find this difficult, why are we asking children to do so? However, in the short term, and even when reading silently, we need to be hearing our words in our head and thinking if they make sense. Which takes us to the next strategy, fix up bear.
Fix Up Bear (AKA fix your errors or word correction) means if you make a mistake, go back and fix it. For some reason many kids do not think they can or should go back and re-read or try to understand what they just read. It isn’t a race to the finish line, we are reading for meaning. Many children do not want to go back and reread if the main strategy they have ever used is sound it out, which is tedious and time consuming and does not lead to understanding. They are tired of trying. Children who can correct many of their own mistakes, however, are well on the road to independent reading.
Flippy Dolphin (try a short vowel instead of a long vowel or visa versa) may help some emergent readers. For some interesting and unknown reason, if a child reads a word such as cape as cap and we say to flip the sound, they will say cape. You don’t need to say the silent e rule or any complicated information. Just try saying flip the sound and see if it works.
Helpful Kangaroo (find someone to help) means ask someone else. OK, but not through a several paragraph assessment. I do not emphasize this one. Lips the Fish means look at the first sound and get your lips ready. Huh? Many kids do not like that one at all as they may already may feel stupid or noticeable trying to read and they do not want to look stupid, too. I would not knock the strategy if it works for a child, but it is usually reading through the entire word and not the first sound that is a problem. Tryin’ Lion (keep on keeping on) is last but I’m mentioning here as it also isn’t a big help for children. It means keep trying, which is OK if the child isn’t exhausted from sounding it out.
After learning word solving strategies, there are additionally reading comprehension strategies. Again, a few strategies will resonate with a child and all of them need not be applied. Here is the bookmark to download.
Reading Comprehension Strategies
Reading comprehension strategies are best developed by reading to and discussing books with children. You can help develop these skill in children by discussing books you read to your child. Then your child will apply these strategies in his or her own independent reading.
Connections help with understanding text. Readers can connect the story to themselves, another book, or the greater wide world. We call these text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world reading.
Questioning Owl is about asking yourself questions while reading to stay engaged with the text. What might happen next? What will the characters do to solve the problem? Without wondering about the story it is easy for children to fall in to a pattern of “word calling” and not reading for meaning.
Inferring is using the author’s words plus your own thoughts to come up with what the text really means. It often doesn’t mean just the actual words on the page, it has a greater thought. It is what probably isn’t happening when we read orally, as then we are hearing ourselves read and that is the main brain activity. You can’t just tell a child to infer, and this isn’t for beginning independent reading.
Compare and contrast, digging deeper, synthesis, and new vocabulary are all more in depth strategies and probably not achievable on a first oral reading fluency assessment. Some children are wonderful oral readers but do not comprehend what they are reading. I do not think a first reading of text should be assessed very often. To practice fluency, readers’ theater where lines are repeated until fluent is a good activity. Rereading aloud after silent reading is fine. Cold first reading of text is difficult, as you can affirm from hearing people try to read verses in church or share written information without prior practice. One parent shared her child had to read aloud several pages of a book each night which to me is not fair to ask. In this case, I might give the child an idea of what the pages were about to help give some perspective to the reading, read the pages to her first, or shorten the assignment somewhat. What do you read after work? War and Peace, or do you want to look at a magazine or newspaper? We are all tired in the evening and family time is short, so use your common sense.
If your child knows the lower case letters and their sounds, learns Skippy Frog and whisper it out as opposed to sound it out, can connect sound families, has more than one reading of a text before being judged, and still has problems it may be time for tutoring or professional assessment. But I promise you the first thing any tutor should do is teach the lower case letters and sounds, phonics, reading in context, and connecting sounds in words together with whatever strategies they find useful. In my opinion, most children with reading difficulties can be taught strategies that help them become good readers.
There is a reading strategies with 170 pages with word solving and reading comprehension strategies, available free in our free eMember area, if you are very interested. The PDF is intended for use at school or homeschool.