I wrote yesterday about my adventures with measuring reading fluency, and regardless of my assumptions you’ve got to admit the test itself has to be the fastest, easiest test the world has ever seen! I also still maintain that reading fluency is a massive indicator of how much a child reads in general (practice) and how much that child is able to access texts used in the classroom for teaching all subjects (recall and application), particularly foundation subjects. To my mind, the higher reading fluency that comes from doing lots of reading also seems to be positively correlated with general knowledge, concentration, creativity and intellectual ability, but of course I should be wary that correlation does not imply causation! Still, this blog proposes that there should be, once children have passed the official phonics check, a yearly simple reading fluency check from year 2 to year 5 in primary school and that the information generated should be given to parents as well as being submitted to the DfE.
I am worried that children in KS2, despite being officially ‘able to read’, are still not really fluent, even when they get to year 6. When you ask them to read to you, they stumble slowly through a text, sometimes randomly substituting trickier and new words, never able to add intonation and not really getting the bigger picture. My two biggest concerns regarding this situation is that it shows me they do not read enough, so they are not absorbing new vocabulary, understanding and concepts thus limiting their ability to access what I am teaching in class (because I use a certain level of language to teach that I expect them to understand) and secondly it severely limits the non-fiction texts we can all look at in foundation lessons. I could differentiate the texts, but that would mean they never all listen to me read out loud and it would also further widen the gap because the least fluent readers would be taking in less information and new vocabulary per unit of time (plus it doesn’t help them catch up with reading fluency). No doubt many children switch off when I read to them or ask them to read along with me because they can’t keep up, and then if I slow down to the lowest reader’s level then all meaning (and the will to live) is lost. If I lowered the level of the text that I read to the whole class then this is essentially dumbing down and I do not agree with that.
I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say that primary schools have actually reduced the amount of reading children do during the school day. How? Because they got rid of textbooks, turned the library into a noisy and cluttered teaching hub, placed too much emphasis on using technology in the classroom, and dialled up the amount of chatting relative to reading and writing through the use of group work, group seating and requiring the teacher to give children frequent opportunities to talk about their work rather than actually do any work. We also have this modern trend of children, in English lessons, using drama to ‘write’ a story instead of actually writing a story, and children are also more likely these days to hear an example text through watching a video rather than actually reading it. All this is done in the name of engagement and inspiring creativity but it does nothing for boring old reading fluency. Further, modern teachers (and leaders) are hired nowadays mostly on their performance skills, and these teachers are less likely to say, at interview, ‘You know I really think children need to work hard and practise certain skills; I need to make sure they are doing that because I am the responsible adult‘. Instead, they are more likely to say, ‘I will be create inspiring lessons so that children are always experiencing learning that is fun, enjoyable and relevant.‘
Of course, I could try to mitigate against lack of reading fluency by making sure I am relentlessly teaching and using new vocabulary all the time, but this still does not make a reader truly fluent. I would also love to hear each child read every day, but 30 x 10 minutes = 5 hours of 29 children not being taught anything. Reading fluency comes through practice and there isn’t really an opportunity for a child to practise reading in the school day, other than the fleeting minutes during a guided reading carousel and I don’t think this is anywhere near enough. Every now and then I try to start a lesson with a big chunky text that I read aloud and the children use reading strips to follow along on their text with me whilst casting my eye over the whole class to make sure that those strips move to the next page at the same time (a good indicator of whether a child is concentrating), but it is still not enough. I am continuously bamboozled by how primary educators seem so obsessed with getting children to answer higher order questions for comprehension tests, yet the children can’t actually read a text fast enough to either take in the meaning or to give themselves time to answer the questions! Many year 6 children last year did not do well in the comprehension SATs because they simply were not fluent enough readers and it strikes me that perhaps educators don’t really see a simple lack of reading fluency as a concern (whereas I think by year 6 it constitutes an EMERGENCY). Do they not understand what ‘secondary ready’ means?
Also, let’s face it, the love of a good book only comes when children reach a certain stage of reading fluency. Until then, it’s hard work and ordinary children would rather do something else. Parents, I think, are somewhat in the dark over all this because reading fluency is never really reported or talked about. I think parents assume that reading is taking place at school and that this is enough (especially when primary educators blow their own trumpet so much), and those that hear their children read probably think 10 minutes a couple of times a week is OK. The word ‘practice’ has long since gone out of fashion and we educators don’t exactly help ourselves when we continuously talk of ‘fun’ and ‘relevant’, forever putting forward this notion that, if the teaching is right, the learning should be easy rather than the occasional hard slog. By having some kind of yearly national test, not only would parents be incentivised to make sure their children become truly fluent readers, but teachers might be justified in building in 15 minutes a day of silent reading without Ofsted/SLT accusing them of not showing visible progress of learning every 5 minutes. I would love for all the children in my class to get to a stage of reading fluency whereby reading becomes easy and they can access a whole world of crazy adventures and fascinating facts through the joy of reading; this would also make general teaching easier and I would also be happier knowing they were going to access the textbooks used at secondary school.
How would this test work? In June, on the day of the test at 8:50am, the DfE would email a standard non-fiction text for each year group to be tested. There could be a series of days for schools to choose from and the texts would obviously be completely different each day. Children would then be pulled out of class one by one from 9am to read for 3 minutes and the number of words they could read would be recorded online in real time, with a simple tick box for ‘Did they add intonation?’ The use of technology in this way would stop schools from pre-teaching as well as prevented servers from crashing due to everyone logging on and uploading data at the same time. Of course, there would still be schools that would cheat the system and upload inflated numbers, but I’m assuming the majority of school leaders do the right thing. The benchmark words per minute count would be set at normal reading-out-loud fluency (with intonation and no rushing) of about 200 words per minute perhaps. Children should really be properly fluent by year 4.
I think parents should also be empowered with information regarding the importance of reading fluency. They should also be encouraged to hear their children read (and re-read) and get their children to read silently every day, as well as read to their children so they are hearing what true fluency sounds like. Parents should receive a simple report with their child’s reading fluency count as measured during the official test and they should know the number of spoken words per minute that constitutes true reading fluency in order to understand how far behind their child might be. I would prefer if older children were also empowered by knowing their own reading fluency count, so that they have something tangible to aim for, but many would argue against this because ‘mental health’.
What can primary schools do?
- Expect that the teacher is reading out loud stories and poems to the children every day rather than punish her for what is sometimes viewed as ‘lazy teaching’
- Expect that children spend a chunk of time reading in calm silence (not while hearing Mrs Boom the TA work with the phonics group in the play corner) during the school day, lengthening the school day if needed for those children who need extra reading practice with spot checks for disadvantaged children to re-read what they have just read
- Be honest with parents about the influence and importance of parents making sure children read every day, how we could not do our job without their help, rather than blowing a massive trumpet about how school leaders and teachers are miracle workers
- Expect that the children read challenging and informative texts as part of their creative writing lessons as well as in every foundation subject lesson
- Provide books that are interesting and challenging for the high level readers
Of course, there are going to be many people who are going to completely trash this blog post and the suggestions and concerns within. They will also search for problems inherent within the system that I propose and they will state that reading fluency doesn’t matter because ‘The Future.’ Some may argue that we don’t need any more testing, yet I would argue that asking a child to read for 3 minutes for an official test once a year is hardly too much to ask? I just hope that someone important reads this and maybe thinks about it for a little while. After all, I have no book to sell, no expectation of promotion or world domination, no consultancy company to promote or flashy tech to sell. I just want children to be fluent readers.
Perhaps a new reading fluency check is needed?
Who’s with me?