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Coaching Your Child        < Previous        Next >


Building Reading Fluency


Q. My son is in fifth grade. When he reads aloud, he goes pretty slow and skips over words -- and sometimes he skips whole lines of text. He inserts words that aren't there, substitutes the wrong words constantly, and messes up the pronunciation. His grades are good, though. Should I worry?


Yes. Even though he may "look good on paper," he is showing signs of reading disability. You describe a common reading weakness that tends to be exposed at that age.


Rest assured, there's probably nothing wrong with your son's brain or learning ability. The problem most likely lies with the curriculum and instructional methods that his school has been using. The way he is skipping and mangling words and going markedly slow are all sure signs of poor reading fluency. They are caused by faulty methods of teaching reading.


A fluent reader should read automatically, effortlessly, smoothly and quickly. There should be rapid word recognition that is highly accurate, if not perfect, and quick, efficient and highly accurate pronunciation of the words.


Kids taught to read with Whole Language methods may speed through those pre-engineered simple books in kindergarten through second grade. The words are simple, and you can "read the pictures" - figure out what the words must mean based on what the illustration show - and at least mimic the pace and fluency of a good read. Meanwhile, parents and teachers may have no idea that the child isn't really decoding - just memorizing patterns of letters that make simple, familiar words, and parroting them back quickly.


Once there aren't as many pictures in the books a child reads, though, and more complex words than in the "baby books," these deficiencies become more obvious.


If he's skipping over words and lines when he reads aloud, and putting words in there out of thin air, you can bet he's doing it during silent reading, too. Naturally, his comprehension will suffer enormously. It is likely to hamper his academic progress as the textbooks get more challenging in secondary school and beyond.


Here's what causes it: most public schools have quit teaching proper phonics in the early grades, and rely on sight-reading and memorization techniques instead. Rather than teaching children to systematically "decode" words based on the sound-symbol relationships of alphabetic text, schools teach them to use their sense of sight to try to figure out what a word is and what it means. A word becomes like a pictograph or pattern to be viewed as a whole, not an alphabetic set of symbols to be logically, rapidly and accurately decoded.


Take the word "skip." Under the Whole Language instructional philosophy, children are taught to look at the first letter and the last letter, where the word is in the sentence, and what the context might suggest the word is. They're taught to look at any illustrations, too, as a clue. If all else fails, they should just guess.


When the child sees the word "skip" with a picture of a jump rope, the child sees the "s," the "p" and the picture. He thinks the word might be "jump" or "skip" because both end in "p." But look! It starts with "s." Maybe it's "skip."


A phonics-trained reader would, excuse the pun, skip all that, and simply decode the phonograms smoothly and automatically: "sk - short vowel i - p."


It's easy to see how problems with reading comprehension, pronunciation and visual perception would arise from the sight-reading methodology.


It's easy to see how confused and handicapped a child would be, without phonics.


Solution: for schools, it's to teach reading with phonics-only instructional techniques for grades K-2.


For your son, try reading aloud to him for 30 minutes each night. Ask a school librarian or children's bookstore employee for suggestions of books that will really engage your son's interest. Teach him to sound out unfamiliar words. Alert him warmly and gently when he skips or muffs words. He should make significant progress just with this one simple intervention. If he doesn't do better with your help after a month or so, seek outside tutoring. If the schools won't insist on accuracy in reading, it's up to you.


Homework: See the National Right to Read Foundation,


By Susan Darst Williams Coaching Your Child 18 2008


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