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Building Fluent Reading Comprehension Skills, Part One

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #69, 2006.

How to measure - and improve - reading comprehension.
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Michael Maloney

Approximately one third of all North American students suffer from some type of reading problems. In many cases, these students lack fluent decoding skills and cannot quickly and accurately glean information from written passages. If asked to read aloud, they do so haltingly. They tend to read orally at about half of the speed of a competent reader. They stumble over words, guess frequently and make many errors. Their silent reading skills are usually only marginally better.

Given the amount of difficulty these students encounter in trying to decode words to get information, it is easy to understand why they would have problems remembering or applying the information they have just read. This is why they choose not to read unless it is absolutely necessary. It helps to explain why almost one third of adult North Americans have never read a single book.

The Initial Solution

This type of reading decoding problems can be almost always be remedied with a first-rate phonetically based reading decoding program and a competent instructor. Once the student becomes a fluent decoder, the chances of success in understanding what has been read increases dramatically.

We have seen comprehension test scores increase by a year simply by teaching the student to decode fluently. This is not because we have dealt with teaching the student new strategies for reading comprehension. It is simply because we have helped the student to read passages at 200 words per minute with no more than two errors. Getting a smooth easy flow of information in and of itself helps to increase the understanding of the material.

This becomes even more helpful when the student reads with expression, stopping at periods, pausing at commas, and changing his or her voice slightly at quotation marks. To get children to pause appropriately, try having them tap the desk or table once for each comma they see and twice for each period they encounter.

Multiple readings of the same passages make an excellent practice routine for learning to read with emphasis. It also gives the student more opportunity to figure out what the passage is about.

The Big Five

The first level of reading comprehension involves understanding the factual information contained in any passage. These are the same five questions that journalists answer in reporting a story: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. The student should be able to read any passage and then quickly and easily answer these five questions. Asking these questions in the same order after many different stories gives the learner a framework into which they can compile information at the simplest level.

Try this. Ask the student to read a relatively short piece of one or two paragraphs. Then ask the five W's in a specific order. Count the number of facts that the student is able to provide from the first reading. Then have him or her reread the passage and do the exercise again. Knowing what is going to be asked - the same five questions - cues the learner to attend to specific information in any given passage. Developing this practice as a routine method for reporting information establishes a system for gathering factual knowledge.

Some children will get all of the information in a single reading. Others will have lots of difficulty trying to remember so many bits of information. The difference lies predominantly in providing more feedback and more practice of the same material.

When we are teaching student to become fluent decoders, counting ideas reported by a student is more difficult than counting the number of words a student can read orally in a minute. We have developed a procedure in which we time the student for 30 seconds. We count each noun, verb, adjective, and adverb that the student says about the material during that 30-second segment. "The old man walked slowly across a bridge" has a count of 7 ideas. There are three adjectives (the, old, and a). There are two nouns (man, bridge), there is a single verb (walked), and there is one adverb (slowly).

It takes a bit of practice to learn to count ideas fluently. The instructor may have to do a quick review of grammar parts before taking on this assignment. Practicing a few passages by yourself is one strategy for getting ready to do this with the children. It is easier if you use a pencil and tally each part of speech that is considered an idea during the 30-second measurement period.

Fluently performing students can routinely report 30 to 40 ideas a minute about a passage that they have just read. Students who can report 30-40 ideas about a passage generally have a very solid understanding of the factual information that they have just read.

If you get overwhelmed trying to count the student's ideas as they report them at top speed, try recording the students' responses on tape and then analyzing them with the student. That also helps the student to learn or review the various parts of speech contained in their answers.

We always report the scores on a count per minute basis. So in this case you multiply the ideas by two in order to end up with a count per minute measure.

Some children remember facts better when they write them down, as opposed to reporting them verbally. In this exercise we have the student read the passage and then write as many facts as they can remember for a period of one minute. We then check to see if the facts they have reported are actually in the passage. This allows us to get a quality control measure on their attempt. Students can write twenty to thirty words per minute. Again we count specific parts of speech as ideas. Each noun, verb, adjective, and adverb is counted as a single idea. When students can provide this level of information after reading a passage, they have demonstrated understanding of at least the factual aspects of the material.

Most parents do not think of reading comprehension in such simple terms as I have outlined here. Usually reading comprehension is considered much more abstract higher order thinking that is difficult to measure. We have used these practices to get a handle on the simplest levels of reading comprehension and to pinpoint problems that students have in understanding what they are reading. There are many much more complex and difficult aspects of reading comprehension to be considered. Some of these will be the basis of the next segment of this series.

For starters, I would check out each student to make sure that they are fluently decoding the material that is presented in their various books and materials. If you find a problem at this level, you must solve it first before considering any other reading comprehension strategies.

Getting a system in place for the "Big Five" questions ensures that students have a consistent process for filing information. Counting ideas for a prescribed period of time does require some practice, but it also provides a simple standard for measuring reading comprehension at its most basic levels.

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