Building Reading Fluency
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
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
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
Homework: See the National Right to Read