Answer: Anyone who loves listening to a story!
There is a perception that listening to an audiobook is “cheating,” (an issue I would say Daniel Willingham puts to rest in this post). However, for students who are below-grade-level decoders, audio books are way to honor their age-appropriate (or better) listening comprehension skills and keep them engaged in challenging texts.
I often present it to students this way: We work together to improve your decoding skills. (Through Orton-Gillingham based reading instruction and word analysis, as well as self-monitoring techniques and strategies such as rereading and using DISSECT to identify the meaning of unknown words). But sometimes, the most important thing is focusing on the story or meaning of a text. Accurate decoding takes energy and time. I want you to save your energy to think deeply about what you read, and at those times, I would like you to save your decoding energy to use on comprehension. So here:
- Listen to me read the text.
- Use a text-to-speech app or extension to hear it
- Listen to this published audio book
- Use your Bookshare or Learning Ally subscription
Once we remove the obstacle of decoding the words in a text, which is a complex process that requires cognitive energy, students are free to recall, analyze, argue, and synthesize, along with all the other higher-order thinking skills we are thrilled to see them use. Exposure to text at their listening comprehension level exposes students to vocabulary, concepts, and grammatical structures that they might not be able to access through independent decoding. Is it “cheating” to call on those higher-order thinking skills just because they can’t decode the words? I think not!
What is reading fluency and why does it matter?
Reading fluency can be defined as the ability to read accurately, with sufficient rate and prosody (that’s phrasing and expression) to understand what you have read. Schools often measure it with an assessment like AIMSWeb or DIBELS, and they may report it as a score for ORF (Oral Reading Fluency), PRF (Passage Reading Fluency) or WRF (Word Reading Fluency). Students are asked to read out loud from grade-level text for one minute, and the number of words they read correctly is reported. The district establishes (or adopts) benchmarks–expectations for how many words a student should be reading per minute in the fall, winter, and spring of each grade. Then teachers use different types of lessons to improve your child’s reading fluency.
Why all the fuss about reading fluency? Children who don’t read fluently:
- Have trouble making sense of what they read
- Have trouble finishing their work on time
- Often dislike reading
- Often feel worried or embarrassed about reading out loud.
- Find reading exhausting!
So what can parents do to improve your child’s reading fluency?
Some of the best strategies for improving reading fluency work both in school and at home. Find something to read and get started!
Pick the right text – Although some experts think it helps to practice with harder texts, most researchers recommend using stories kids can read mostly correctly (90% of words) to practice fluency. Teachers often send home texts that kids have already read in class, and which can be great choices for extra practice at home.
- Reread a text several times – This works great with short texts like poems or a couple paragraphs of a story. Have your child read it a few times, enough so that they can “work out the kinks” and recognize all the words, but not so much that they just memorize the words.
- Be a reading fluency model – Read out loud to your child. You can either read them a story they aren’t able to read alone yet, or reread an old favorite. Hearing how you pronounce words, group words into phrases and change your tone of voice for question marks and exclamation points helps them to know what good reading sounds like. Hearing good reading builds vocabulary, which can improve your child’s reading fluency.
- Take turns – When your child is reading, the “I read a page, you read a page” strategy can keep your child interested and motivated to keep reading. It also gives the same great modeling as reading a whole story to them. Even better, they will hear you read some of the hard words that come up more than once in the text, which helps them figure out how to pronounce them.
- Give feedback – after your child reads a section, tell them what they did well, and give them a suggestion for something to try next time. For example, “I really like the way you went back and read the whole sentence after you stopped to sound out that word. Reading the whole sentence is something readers do to make sure everything makes sense. Next time, watch out for words that look alike. I noticed you mixed up of and for when you were reading.”
- Find new audiences – Kids need to read, read, read to boost fluency. Have them read to siblings (big or little), pets, or stuffed animals. Can they read to a grandparent over the phone, or on Skype or FaceTime?
- Give them the chance to perform! – Record a video of your child the first time they read a new story, and then again when they have practiced. Point out how practicing helped them read faster, more accurately, and with more expression. Have them practice a book so they can read the family bedtime story when they are ready.
- Practice, practice, practice – Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. Have your child do a little bit of reading fluency practice every day. Even 10 minutes could really improve your child’s reading fluency over the course of a few weeks.
I must have been seven the Christmas my mom gave me a beautiful, hardcover edition of Little Women. It was one of her favorite books, and I’m pretty sure I was named after sweet, peacemaking, short-lived Beth March. I tried to read it, because I loved books and I loved my mom, but it was incredibly boring and confusing. It was basically unreadable. Eventually, my busy mother found enough evenings to read it to me. That time, I loved it! It was a book I read over and over in the second half of my childhood, and I sought out the other books Louisa May Alcott wrote about the March family and read them, too.
The lesson here is that a good read is about a match between author and reader. That’s why we each have different favorites. My husband’s favorite history books bore me to tears and not everyone loves to read Oliver Sachs’ books about the amazing human brain like I do. When kids, especially reluctant or struggling readers, read a book, it shapes not only their understanding of the content and the world, but of themselves as readers. Too many experiences with books that are hard, or boring, and they start to think of themselves as people who don’t like to read. And with the millions of books, and ever-growing body of other things to read in the world, that is a huge loss.
So how do you maintain your child’s interest in reading as they grow their skills so they can handle what their friends are reading? I’m glad you asked!
- Read to them! There are huge benefits to developing readers who hear fluent reading. It builds vocabulary, increases fluency, and keeps them interested in books. Plus, it makes for great family time! It’s really hard to argue with your brother or sister while you are both listening to a story.
- Get the audiobook! All the benefits of reading aloud, except they can do it independently. Many public libraries offer digital audiobooks, which can be downloaded to an iPod, tablet, computer, or smartphone. Audible.com is a paid service that offers an enormous selection of audiobooks.
- Find an alternative! In my experience, struggling readers tend to pick a book or series that works for them and stick with it. I have spent months trying to help kids move on from Baby Mouse, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Captain Underpants. On the one hand, they are reading and that’s great. On the other hand, I want kids to discover and enjoy the many other books out there, and reading a series does less to expand vocabulary and skill than reading the same number of unique books. Try a website like http://www.yournextread.com/us/ or http://www.whatdowedoallday.com/books-like-diary-wimpy-kid/ for ideas. Better yet, ask your librarian.
- Show, don’t just tell! Talk about your own reading. Share your excitement when you find an excellent title or author. And also talk about the times you just can’t get into a book. Kids need to know that everyone gives up on a book from time to time, when it’s not the right fit.
Making book recommendations is a responsibility I take seriously. Making a match between a kid and a book is a great accomplishment. But there is trial and error involved. It’s important for your child to understand that finding a book hard or boring doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that she is a bad reader. It might just not be the right book at the right time.