Building Fluency

I recently heard about a mother who was working with a ten-year-old boy who was having difficulty with fluent reading. Teacher Mom was concerned about Micah (not his real name) because she was already using one of the best programs on the market to help him, yet her son seemed to be struggling. “Our family has been using Romalda Spalding’s Writing Road to Reading for several years,” wrote Teacher Mom, adding that she had not encountered any fluency issues while working with her daughters.

Since the Riggs Institute originally began its work by helping parents and teachers teach Spalding, and since it publishes a testing instrument (The Reading Acts Test) to help teachers and parents find out what a child knows and is able to do in different reading-related areas, and since Teacher Mom had heard that the test was based on Hilde Mosse’s Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders (also published by Riggs), she was hoping the test (and the Institute) could help her.

“Micah’s comprehension is great despite the slow reading/fluency,” said Teacher Mom, who added that she was very open to the Riggs Institute’s suggestions about how to help Micah. She replied quickly to each of the Riggs Institute’s exploratory questions, willing to do whatever she could to help her child:

Riggs: Has your son learned the phonograms; when tested are they all correct? Did your child use all 4 avenues when learning the phonograms (see it, hear it, say it & write it)?

Teacher Mom: Yes, we did all 4 avenues of learning phonograms.  My son, Micah, does a great job with all of them including the multiple letter phonograms...both written and orally when tested.

Riggs: Can your child recognize a phonogram in print; in a book or lesson?

Teacher Mom: He can recognize the phonograms in text, seems to almost individualize them trying  to figure out which "sound" it is making as he figures out the word(s)...particularly on words with prefixes or suffixes added to them. He can figure out just about any word I put in front of him, but the fluency and pace of his reading is not very good for a boy of 10.  Very slow and drawn out.

Riggs: How is he scoring on his daily spelling tests?

Teacher Mom: His daily spelling tests are "ok," but far from what I saw with my girls when they went through the material.  Micah struggles with it and gets frustrated, but just keeps on trying.

What might be happening here?  What do you think so far? If you are familiar with the Riggs program, can you guess what Micah’s Teacher Mom can do to help him build fluency?

Perhaps such activities are not discussed in the most recent editions of Spalding’s text, but on pages 138 and 139 in the Riggs Institute's Level I Teacher's Edition, Myrna McCulloch puts a great deal of emphasis on them. After giving us directions for dictating spelling words, for having students analyze spelling words (using a mnemonic system and the rules of orthography), and for having students decode spelling words, Myrna McCulloch reminds us that students must do one more thing. There is one more practice step, she says (emphasizing the step in a teacher's note):

Sound and read all six words again and again, mixing, pointing, and testing--until automaticity is attained,” writes McCulloch. “Repeating the spelling words, in isolation, until a sight vocabulary is established, is a CRITICAL step in transferring the skills learned in spelling to writing and reading. Yet, often, it is the one most neglected. Taking the necessary time (several times during the day) until the entire class has achieved automaticity with all six words will ensure their confidence and success. If it takes this long, perhaps 10-15 minutes total, nothing will be a better use of your own or your students’ time” [emphasis in the original].

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? I’m wondering if Micah’s Teacher Mom is aware that many students cannot progress without engaging in such practice activities. (Perhaps her daughters were more visual learners and didn’t need them.)

I’m thinking that if Micah is already fluent at the phonogram level (speed + accuracy), as his mother suggests, and if he has already learned enough about our spelling system to be able to decode words easily and accurately, then perhaps his reading fluency is being hampered by a lack of fluency practice at the isolated word level--perhaps he has simply been attempting to become fluent at the sentence level before mastering the word.

If I were Teacher Mom, I might consider this to be a very real possibility. I’d probably tell Micah that I might have overlooked a practice activity that could accelerated his progress. I might tell Micah that many children do indeed need extra practice in this area (especially non-visual learners), and I would reassure him that this has nothing to do with their intelligence level or ability to learn. When it comes to how much practice children need, I'd say, children differ. And that is that. Even when words are introduced and practiced through phonetic analysis, children must practice reading them until they become skilled at doing so--able to quickly and correctly identify them at first sight. How much practice any given child may need cannot be predicted. We’re individuals. We differ.

These truths are some of the reasons behind McCulloch’s urging that we keep working with our classes until “the entire class” has achieved automaticity at the word level. Oma Riggs had taught her that. Oma Riggs, like McCulloch after her, believed in every child’s ability to learn--and not just a little but a whole lot. She used to teach her little students the same thing in the way that she often addressed them as they worked. “All of you will learn ______,” she’d assure them (about every fact or skill she might be asking them to work on learning), “but you won’t learn it at the exact same time. Everyone will know ____ and be able to  ____ in this class,” she’d say, “but not on the same day.”

I might tell Micah these same things. I might begin by reminding him that his hard work with the phonograms and spelling rules has already given a great deal of knowledge and power, and I might tell him that is doing excellent decoding work with that power. (It sounds like he might even be a Phonogram Master). Also, if I were Teacher Mom I might tell Micah that some of his recent tests show him to be ready for the next reading power level. And then I might introduce the following practice activities to help him build fluency, beginning at the word level.

I might introduce each of the following fluency-building activities in order, after presenting Micah with a Certificate of Mastery for his work at the previous level, and I might kick the whole thing off by presenting Micah with a classy (but inexpensive) Certificate which publicly acknowledges his achievements as a Phonogram Master.

Word Master: Level 1

To play this game, you will need your Spelling Notebook, a stack of index cards, a permanent marker, a timer, and a voice recorder (many cell phones and computers have timers and voice recorders).

  • Step 1: Using your best writing, write your last 60 spelling words on separate cards.
  • Step 2: Set a timer for one minute.
  • Step 3. Read as many of your spelling words as you can before the timer goes off.
  • Step 4: Count the number of words you read (this is your wpm rate).
  • Step 5: Count the number of errors you made.
  • Step 6: Repeat steps 2-5; try to raise your wpm rate and decrease your error rate.
  • Step 7: Record your best daily scores (“words per minute” and “errors made”).

Objective: Read 50-70 isolated words per minute with 0 errors to become a Level 1 Word Master.

Rules: Words must be read aloud and pronounced correctly. You must count all misreads, omitted words, and invented words as errors.

Game Variations: Practice with three- and five-minute timings (remember to divide your score before recording your wpms and errors).

Challenge Activity: Using a piece of graph paper and two colored pencils (different colors), create a bar or line graph to record your progress toward mastery.

Word Master: Level 2

To play this game, you will need a timer, a voice recorder, and a piece of paper on which your last spelling words have been written in book print.

  • Step 1: Set a timer for one minute.
  • Step 2. Read as many words as you can before the timer goes off.
  • Step 3: Count the number of words you read (this is your wpm rate).
  • Step 4: Count the number of errors you made.
  • Step 5: Repeat, trying to increase your wpm rate while decreasing your error rate
  • Step 6: Record your best daily scores (“words per minute” and “errors made”).

Objective: To be a Level 2 Word Master, you must read isolated spelling-vocabulary words from a sheet at the rate of 80-120 correct per minute with 2 or fewer errors.

Rules: Words must be read aloud and pronounced correctly. All misreads, omitted words, and invented words must be counted as errors.

Variations: Begin with 2 to 33 different words per sheet so that each word appears at least three times, then move on to practicing with a sheet of paper on which 2 to 50 different words appear. Finally, do this activity with a sheet of paper which contains 2 to 100 different spelling words.

More Variations: Practice with three- and five-minute timings (divide your score before recording your wpms and errors).

Challenge Activity: Using a piece of graph paper and two colored pencils (different colors), create a bar or line graph to record your progress toward mastery.

Word Master: Level 3

To play this game, you will need a timer, a voice recorder, and 2 to 55 different phrases (on a sheet of paper).

  • Step 1: Set a timer for one minute.
  • Step 2. Read as many words as you can before the timer goes off.
  • Step 3: Count the number of words you read (this is your wpm rate).
  • Step 4: Count the number of errors you made.
  • Step 5: Repeat, trying to increase your wpm rate while decreasing your error rate.
  • Step 6: Record your best daily scores (“words per minute” and “errors made”).

Objective: Read spelling words in isolated phrases at the rate of 120-150 words correct per minute with 2 or fewer errors per minute, and you will be a Level 3 Word Master.

Rules: Phrases must contain only words from the Spelling Notebook. All words must be read aloud and pronounced correctly. All misreads, omitted words, and invented words must be counted as errors.

Variations: Practice with three- and five-minute timings and divide your score (by three or five)  before recording your wpms and error rates).

Challenge Activity: Using a piece of graph paper and two colored pencils (different colors), create a bar or line graph to record your progress toward mastery.

Word Master: Level 4

To play this game you will need a timer, a voice recorder, and 2 to 55 different sentences. All of these sentences must have been written (or typed) by you, and they must contain only those words which are in your Spelling Notebook.

  • Step 1: Set a timer for one minute.
  • Step 2. Read as many words as you can before the timer goes off.
  • Step 3: Count the number of words you read (this is your wpm rate).
  • Step 4: Count the number of errors you made.
  • Step 5: Repeat, trying to increase your wpm rate while decreasing your error rate
  • Step 6: Record your best daily scores (“words per minute” and “errors made”).

Objective: Read spelling words in isolated sentences at the rate of 120-150 words correct per minute with 2 or fewer errors per minute. (You will be a Level 4 Word Master.)

Rules: All words must be read aloud and pronounced correctly. All misreads, omitted words, and invented words must be counted as errors.

Challenge: Using a piece of graph paper and two colored pencils (different colors), create a bar or line graph to record your progress toward mastery.

Word Master: Level 5

To play this game you will need a timer, a voice recorder, and a grade-level story or nonfiction article (to read aloud from).

  • Step 1: Set a timer for one minute.
  • Step 2. Read as many words as you can before the timer goes off.
  • Step 3: Count the number of words you read (this is your wpm rate).
  • Step 4: Count the number of errors you made.
  • Step 5: Repeat, trying to increase your wpm rate while decreasing your error rate
  • Step 6: Record your best daily scores (“words per minute” and “errors made”).

Goal: To be a Level 5 Word Master (i.e., to be fluent at the fifth grade level), you must read words (in context) at the rate of 120-150 words correct per minute with 2 or fewer errors per minute.

Rules: All words must be read aloud and pronounced correctly. All misreads, omitted words, and invented words must be counted as errors.

Variations: If you struggle with this level, try reaching the speed goal for this level while reading “below-grade-level” material, then try again with “grade-level” material.

Challenge: Try to reach this wpm goal while working with text that is above your grade level.

What do you think? Would Micah embrace these games, and would they help him practice that which simply must be practiced? Would he enjoy the challenge of trying to beat his own speed records while playing these games, and would he enjoy the graph-making activity that encourages him to use his math skills to monitor progress toward mastery? Could introducing these graded learning games (in order) increase Micah’s willingness to work at reading tasks, and could working with these tasks help Micah improve his fluency rates, raise his proficiency levels, and lift his spirits? How do you help your students become masters?

Links: To see how fluency looks in basic skill areas, or to read more about the importance of striving for fluency in each area, see “Fluency: Achieving True Mastery in the Learning Process,” by Binder, Haughton, and Bateman.

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