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Fluency Problems:

Why Kids Read Aloud in a Monotone


Q. My son sounds like a robot when he reads aloud. What's wrong?


Parents notice it. Teachers bemoan it. Kids are ashamed by it.


We're talking about reading aloud in a monotone: a slow, emotionless, bland, boring delivery. It differs sharply from human speech, fails miserably at pronunciation, ignores punctuation, and makes you wonder if the student understands what he or she is reading.


This new problem of low-level fluency among young readers is directly caused by the Whole Language method of teaching reading, which minimizes the use of sound as a language acquisition tool.


The vast majority of schools, public and private, use Whole Language style reading instruction instead of the phonics-ONLY approach that almost always produces a melodious, fluent, accurate and most importantly, happy reader.


But that's not what our schools are producing, since they have done away with sound-based reading instruction. When a child reads aloud without a lot of dynamics, and no inflection, stumbling over words, and without the musical rhythm of the language shining through, it almost sounds as if the child is deaf.


And that's no coincidence. Hearing-impaired children learn to read by looking at pictures and printed words. They can't learn to read with phonics - a simple system of decoding language using the sense of sound - because they can't hear. When they read aloud in a monotone, no one minds, because it's so wonderful that they can read aloud at all.


But when a child who can hear is taught to read without using his or her sense of sound, it's not empowering. It's handicapping. It sharply limits comprehension, vocabulary growth, fluency, accuracy . . . and most of all, enjoyment of reading.


When educators saw how well silent, read-the-pictures, "look-say" reading instruction worked for deaf kids, they erroneously extrapolated that the same technique would work just as well for hearing kids. But of course, as we now know, they were wrong.


Formal reading instruction in school isn't the only reason for this. We can also blame parents who never read aloud to their children, and don't converse with them very much. Kids who don't get much practice with oral and written language don't develop an "ear" for speech and a thirst for reading. An early childhood spent mostly listening to commands in a day-care setting, or passively watching and listening to TV without generating much speech, isn't good for a child's language learning. It's the same thing with video games: no developmental advantages there. We know these activities are depleting language learning in a lot of kids today.


But it is imperative that we scrutinize reading instruction in K-12 schools for the lion's share of the dysfunction in fluency, which is so detrimental to the child's reading progress and vocabulary development, not to mention enjoyment of reading.


Phonics helps children connect the sounds the letters make with the written symbols that stand for them on the printed page. But most schools today try to teach reading with the visual methods that predominate in the Whole Language philosophy, currently being called "balanced literacy" or "eclectic" reading because they do mix a little phonics along with other "cues" with the sight-reading process.


Sight reading - basically looking at words and guessing how to decode them, either orally or silently - was developed as a way to teach deaf children by Thomas Gallaudet (1787-1851). He postulated that deaf children, who can't hear the sounds the letters make, might be able to memorize the visual patterns of the letters in combinations, as in words. He showed the deaf children illustrated cards with simple words, and with these visual cues, they could "read." He opened the Hartford (Conn.) School for the Deaf in 1817. His method was highly successful; a college for deaf and hard of hearing students is named for him, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.


Among other things, his primer for teaching deaf children to read begins: "Frank had a dog. His name was Spot." It was the inspiration for the "look and say" sight-reading curriculum with the tightly-controlled vocabulary, "Dick and Jane," that most people grew up with - but unfortunately, it pushed phonics to the very back burner.


Early American public education leaders Horace Mann and Thomas Dewey both promulgated Gallaudet's methods to the point where most teachers and schools now believe it is superior to phonics.


The irony, though, is that very few of them actually know how to teach reading with phonics-only methods. That's because the vast majority of people in this country, including educators, were never taught those methods in the first place.


And if they had been, they would discover that nearly 100% of the children taught to read with phonics can read aloud with enthusiasm, style, emotion and expression . . . because they're really reading, and understanding what they read. Phonics: it's the key to fluency.


Here are school practices that build fluency. Work with educators to get them in your school:


  • Phonics-ONLY reading instruction is given in kindergarten through second grade


  • Speaking, listening, reading, handwriting and composition are integrated


  • There is lots of singing, music, rhythm, motion and rhyme


  • Classic children's literature is taught at a rate of about 80%, with contemporary literature (published within the last 20 years or so) limited to only about 20% of the curriculum


  • Speech and drama activities are emphasized at an early age


  • Poetry is directly taught from an early age on


  • Oral interpretation is directly taught in later grade school



Homework: David Chard and colleagues reviewed how to improve fluency in a young reader, and found:


  • Repeated reading with a teacher (or parent or day-care provider) is more effective than audiotape and computer-generated models, which in turn are more effective than no model.


  • Having a model also promotes comprehension.


  • Peer tutoring is not as effective as cross-age tutoring. Peers are less likely than older children to provide feedback. Older children, babysitters and day-care providers are likely to have better pronunciation skills than age peers, which will help build fluency.


  • Progressively increasing the difficulty of the text and providing feedback for missed words is important.


  • Varying the amounts of text to facilitate chunking (short-term memory acquisition technique) does not improve fluency.


  • Re-reading a text seven times is better than three times, which is better than one time.


Also see this article on fluency:


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 20 2008

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