The question of fluency (versus literacy) seems to be a rising concern in the education community. The problem is this: by measuring reading speed are we teaching children to read fast but not comprehend? A story in today’s Washington Post – In Quest for Speed, Books Are Lost on Children – illustrates the problem:

The result [of recent Department of Education reports], said fluency expert Tim Rasinski of Kent State University, was a message sent to schools to concentrate on speed. “The influence of No Child Left Behind has been such that even schools that aren’t Reading First schools are doing periodic [speed reading] testing of kids,” he said.
In Ottumwa, Iowa, Evans Middle School did it a different way. Evans was declared a school in need of improvement in reading in 2004, and Principal Davis Eidahl said he adopted a program focused on reading fluency using a model constructed by Rasinski aimed at improving comprehension.
Some students, he said, came into the school reading fast but understanding little.
“They read so fast, with no punctuation and no expression, that we’d go back and ask comprehension questions and they weren’t very successful answering them. They hadn’t understood what they read,” he said.
To slow them down and teach them to talk with expression and comprehension, various exercises were used, including having children read passages to each other and listen to how they sound when reading, asking students to repeat passages, and adding 45 more minutes of reading time each day, he said.

I remember the self-paced reading program I went through in (Catholic) grade school. The test was always speed combined with comprehension. But speed was relatively fixed while increasing comprehension was the goal. Later, when I took speed-reading courses, that relationship was reversed: the goal was to increase speed while maintaining an acceptable level of comprehension. It also stressed, however, that speed reading wasn’t appropriate in all situations – for example for reading literature or for highly technical matter.
Similarly, we need to go back to the situation and goals for fluency. If our goal is to produce a citizenry and workforce that can quickly read basic instruction (i.e. don’t stick your fingers in this machine), then speed is the important variable. But that may be an industrial age mentality. If the goal in this I-Cubed (Information-Innovation-Intangibles) Economy is to increase (analytical and creative) thinking, then deeper comprehension may be the desired outcome.
And it the No-Child-Left-Behind Act isn’t fostering that goal, it should be changed.

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