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March 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 6

Put the Brakes on NASCAR Reading

"B … I know that letter! My brother's name is Benjamin. He's only 3. I'm 5!" Click. Before Isabella can describe her entire extended family, including pets, I pause the stopwatch—for the third time.
"Yes, honey. I love that letter too. Now, let's look at these others. What are their letter names? Ready? Begin."
"I see a JJ for Jello. I love Jello!"
It's only Monday. Letter-naming is the first of four subtests to be administered. And Isabella is the first of 100-plus kindergartners at Lawnview Elementary—many of whom are no doubt fond of the letter B and have a dog named Barney. Four times 100, times two minutes (to account for pet stories) equals … well, too much time.
In the afternoon, I listen to 4th graders speed read passages about eagles, volcanoes, and a trip to Yellowstone National Park. When they see my stopwatch, many ask, "Am I being timed?" Suddenly, the more savvy students morph into NASCAR readers—downshifting only for the sake of troublesome periods at the ends of sentences. The less savvy students pause to reread a section that didn't make sense—a strategic blunder in the DIBELS world. Thoughtful Eric, who may actually learn something about eagles, loses 10 words per minute; Sarah, who thinks Yellowstone is a roller coaster at Six Flags Great America, soars to the top of the 4th grade heap.
Come Tuesday, I'm timing 5th graders careening through passages about birthdays and rivers. I hear Scott refer to those "hazARDous gaps" that climbers of Mount Everest must cross. When he glibly drones onward, I ponder how to score this mispronunciation. He did, after all, decode the syllables with accuracy. Time for a judgment call. Sorry, Scott, I opt for the miscue.
It's that DIBELS time of year again—when we benchmark more than 700 students to identify "at-risk," "some-risk," and "low-risk" readers. Intervention coaches like me wait anxiously for the data. Will our struggling 3rd graders finally surpass that magic 100 word per minute mark, or will they remain "gap kids"? Will others who muster up background knowledge about eagles actually have declining scores? And how about those fluent 1st graders who try to force-read the nonsense word nam as name?
No time to ponder assessment idiosyncrasies. When those data emerge, we're off and running. The numbers are the focus of staff development sessions, ongoing workshops, and statewide initiatives. They inform—no, dictate—our instructional practices for the rest of the year.

High-Speed Teaching

And so we translate benchmark scores into flexible groups of "at-risk" (red) and "some-risk" (yellow) kids. We tout the Five Big Ideas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Our programs are scientific, and our methodology is explicit and systematic. You'll see my fellow intervention teachers and me wearing stopwatches and racing around school clutching Manny the Martian, who speaks only in segmented sounds (to understand him, you need to blend; to communicate with him, you need to segment); medial sound bingo boards; sorting cards; sand trays; plus decodable text in which Dot got a cod (translation: Girl catches a fish). Caldecott winners mean little to us. Our reading material consists of 120-word passages about Indians, inventions, and the international space station, neatly bound in our fluency program binder.
The goal? To teach the necessary skill sets so that all kindergartners will successfully segment the wordbroom, all 1st graders will be able to decode the nonsense word spint, and all 2nd through 5th graders will read connected, on-level text at 90 to 150 words per minute. If we do our job, by 3rd grade, at the latest, our gap kids will be on track with their peers.
Will we be successful in reaching this goal? Time and data will tell.

At What Cost?

My reading-teacher instincts, however, tell me that the pendulum could possibly swing back to slap us in our research-based faces. After all, decoding Dot and her cod can't compete with chuckling over Frog and Toad's antics on the sledding hill. What happened to implementing guided reading and comprehension instruction even before a child can segment c-a-t?
In the trenches, we reading teachers face a daily dilemma. In one ear, a credible, research-based voice cautions, "Put away Frog and Toad. Johnny shouldn't be exposed to the word Toad if he hasn't been taught theoa vowel team. The alphabetic principle is your friend; it can be progress monitored, tracked, and graphed." In the other ear, a different voice urges, "Go ahead. Give Johnny authentic poetry, readers' theater, and passages with purpose; dispose of decodable text; bring back miscue analysis and strategy instruction. Using context clues is an acceptable decoding strategy, in conjunction with sounding out."
Did you know that in Jack Cassidy's 2009 survey of "What's Hot and What's Not" in literacy instruction,guided reading did not even make the cut? It has been usurped by the literacy newcomers, response to intervention and scientific, evidence-based reading research and instruction.
It appears that fluency has taken center stage in reading. But where is its costar, comprehension? I believe that comprehension had better take its bow by fluency's side. It should, in fact, become the foundational rung in the Big Five instructional hierarchy, with fluency relegated to the role of understudy.

Back to Thoughtful Reading

Our definition of fluency should not be merely "barking at print" (Samuels, 2009). If that definition does not incorporate comprehension, beginning in kindergarten, we are on a slippery literacy slope. As Samuels states, "It is the simultaneity of decoding and comprehension that is the essential characteristic of reading fluency" (p. 564).
Yes, fluency is a decent determinant of our potential gap-kid caseload. But it's only one facet of the reading process within an integrated flow of skills and strategies that are fueled by motivation that Dot and her cod cannot possibly foster. Kids can read to learn concurrently with learning to read. Show me a thoughtful reader who adjusts his pace according to prior knowledge and text structure, and I'll show you a real reader.

Cassidy, J., & Cassidy D (2009). What's hot, what's not for 2009. Reading Today, 26(4), 1.

Samuels, S. J. (2007). The DIBELS test: Is speed of barking at print what we mean by reading fluency? The Reading Research Quarterly, 42(4), 563.

Barclay Marcell is an elementary school literacy teacher in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.

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