Logo Homeschool World ® Official Web Site of Practical Homeschooling Magazine Practical Homeschooling Magazine
Practical Homeschooling® :

How to Teach Reading & Measure Your Child's Reading Skills

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #58, 2004.

Pin It

Michael Maloney


The single most important academic task facing homeschoolers is to teach the children to read well. Teaching reading effectively empowers children to learn much more on their own. Failure to do so means that everything else of an educational nature becomes a much harder slog for both parent and child. Children need to become fluent readers with the ability to decode words quickly and accurately at about the same rate at which they speak. That is fluent reading; anything less than that is not.

About 65 percent of all students will learn to read with little or no problem. They become fluent readers quite easily. They also tend to read more independently. Most often the remaining 35 percent of the children are labeled as having reading difficulties or even "learning disabilities."

Having helped to teach 10,000 children to read over the past 30 years, I suggest that "learning disabilities" stem largely from inadequate instruction and/or insufficient practice. Good teaching and carefully monitored practice can eradicate all but a very small proportion of these "learning disabilities."

Teaching Phonics

Teaching a child to read involves a number of critical tasks. First and foremost, the child has to learn the sound-symbol relationship. The child must be able to associate which sound goes with which symbol - a process we call "teaching phonics." Teaching phonics sounds easy enough and has been proven by thousands of research studies to be the most effective way to teach children to decode words. Teaching phonics gets harder when the same symbol has more than one possible sound. The child may be tempted to guess at which one this could possibly be in this particular word.

Teaching Blending Skills

The second major task is to teach children to blend the individual sounds together into words. Blending sounds into words works for the two-thirds of the words in the English language that are phonetically regular. The remaining one-third, which children cannot totally sound out, needs a different strategy.

Teaching Story Reading

The third and final major decoding task is to ensure that children learn to read sentences, passages, and entire books fluently. Initially they read aloud to someone who can correct their errors. Once we are assured that the child can read accurately and quickly we can convert to silent reading.

Setting Standards of Fluency

How do you know when each or any of these tasks have been done well enough that you can go on to the next lesson? How do you know that the child knows the material well enough that you can introduce new curriculum? Like all behaviors, each of these performances has a range of frequencies to indicate when success has been reached.

Fluent Phonics

Children should be able to look at a sound or a list of sounds that they have been taught and say each one without hesitation. Measuring that skill as a count-over-time measure yields a score of 50 to 60 sounds per minute. To determine an accuracy criterion, we consider no more than two errors per minute to be sufficient. Children also have to discriminate between short sounds like "d" and continuous sounds like "mmm." Children who do not hold the continuous sounds like "mmm" for a half second and treat all sounds as short sounds will have a much more difficult time blending sounds together later.

Children can say more than 100 sounds per minute if they are allowed to treat all sounds as short sounds. That is too fast and sets the stage for later blending problems.

Flash cards of the sounds already taught in the program are a good way to solve this problem. Put one sound or sound combination on each flash card. Put a dot (·) under each continuous sound or sound combination. Put a chevron (>) under each short sound. Teach the child to hold any sound that has a dot under it for a half second. Children can only flip about 50 flash cards per minute, which sets an automatic behavioral ceiling on the behavior.

Fluent Blending Skills

First we must sort the words into those, which are phonetically regular and can be sounded out from those, which are phonetically irregular and cannot be totally sounded out. Once again word lists or flash cards with one word per card of words already taught in the lessons are useful tools especially for phonetically regular words. Place dots under the continuous sounds in each word and chevrons under the short sounds. Teach the children to hold each sound that has a dot and to slide quickly past each chevron.

In the phonetically regular word set, children say the sounds for each word, holding each of the continuous sounds for a half second and then saying the word. They must be taught not to stop between the sounds, but to blend the sounds together without any breaks.

Given a mix of short sounds that can be said quickly and continuous sounds that need a half second each, there is a limit to the number of sounds a reader can say per unit of time. The mix of short and continuous sounds limits their production to about 100 sounds per minute.

Each flash card or word in the list can have a number beside it showing the number of sounds in that word. In sound combinations, a single sound will consist of two or more letters, so counting letters isn't an accurate enough measure. When the child can blend 80 to 100 sounds per minute with no more than two errors, they have mastered the blending skills for those words and are ready for new ones.

Fluent Word Reading

Once we know how to decode a word, it becomes a sight word. We simply look at it and say it. Until we know it, we need to sound it out if it is phonetically regular or use some other strategy if it is not. All words are sight words to fluent readers. Good readers can decode words as quickly as they can speak. Humans speak at 200 to 250 words per minute. When they can read passages fluently, they read them at that rate, almost as if they were speaking, not reading.

Some people like to graduate children to higher reading rates as they age. They hold primary school children to 125 words per minute on stories, junior and senior students to 200-250. It's a matter of personal choice.

Some Fluency Standards for Decoding

During the past 25 years with millions of measurements, Precision Teaching adherents have developed a number of fluency standards for the decoding aspects of reading. Fluency standards always indicate the pace of the behavior and the degree of accuracy required. We are not interested in developing fast, sloppy readers. The most commonly used fluencies for decoding aspects of reading are listed below.

  • Saying alphabet in order 250-300 letters per minute, 0-2 errors.

  • Saying alphabet in mixed order 100-120 per minute, 0-2 errors

  • Saying sounds from a list 50-60 sounds per minute, 0-2 errors

  • Sounding out phonetically regular words 10-12 words/minute, 0-2 errors

  • Reading word lists 60-80 words per minute, 0-2 errors

  • Oral reading of any story (primary grades) 100-125 words/min, 0-2 errors

  • Oral reading of any story (grade 7 and up) 200-250 words/min, 0-2 errors

  • Silent reading of any story 300-450 words per minute, 0-2 errors

  • Technical reading (e.g. directions, instructions) 125-150/minute, 0-2 errors.

Timing Students

For lists of sounds, for alphabet in order or in mixed order and for lists of words, we almost always use a 30-second timing. We then double the scores to report corrects and errors on a count per minute basis. For passage reading, a one-minute timing works best. All scores are reported as count per minute.

When you want to do a 30-second or a one-minute measurement to determine fluency, do not start the timing with "Ready, Set, Go." This is not a race. We are simply gathering a sample of reading performance, like taking a pulse to measure heart rate. Use "Ready" to signal the task is about to begin. Say "Please Begin" to start and "Thank you" at the end of the time.

Other Tips

  1. Praise effort.

  2. Teach the student that the objective is to get one more word or one more sound than we did last time or to reduce errors by one or more.

  3. Allow the student to practice before you take the measurement.

  4. Take the best score of all attempts of any session.

  5. Watch for points at which the student hesitates. That's where the problem is.

  6. Make lists or flash cards of the words that are difficult for the student and practice them frequently.

  7. Let the student time you so that her or she can hear what fluent performances sound like.

  8. Practice at least 10 words beyond the student's best attempt so that those words become more familiar and easier to do next time.

  9. Record the data so that you can see and discuss the improvement with the child.


Was this article helpful to you?
Subscribe to Practical Homeschooling today, and you'll get this quality of information and encouragement five times per year, delivered to your door. To start, click on the link below that describes you:

USA Individual
USA Librarian (purchasing for a library)
Outside USA Individual
Outside USA Library

Time4Learning University of Nebraska High School

Articles by Michael Maloney

The Maloney Method

Frequency and Fluency - New Ways to Measure Student Performance

How to Teach Reading & Measure Your Child's Reading Skills

Arithmetic Fluency: Some Ideas for Achieving It

Spelling Fluency: Pre-Drills for Teaching Spelling

Teaching Reading Comprehension Skills

Fluent Grammar

More Results in Less Time: The One-Minute Drill That Works

Teaching Fluent Handwriting Skills

Teaching Fluent Handwriting Skills, Part 2

Teaching Fluent Keyboarding Skills

Building Fluent Vocabulary

Building Fluent Reading Comprehension Skills, Part One

Reading Comprehension, Part 2: Inference

Reading Comprehension Part 3: Deductive Reasoning

Reading Comprehension Part 4: Logical Reasoning

Geography and History at the Crossroads

Practical Geography Facts and Numbers

Teaching Geography

Teaching Geography Using the DI Approach

Learning Geographic Concepts and Terms

Teaching Abbreviations Using Flashcards

The Geography of Victory and of Defeat

Popular Articles

Teach Your Children to Work

Joyce Swann's Homeschool Tips

I Was an Accelerated Child

Getting Organized Part 3

Who Needs the Prom?

Saxon Math: Facts vs. Rumors

Can Homeschoolers Participate In Public School Programs?

Classical Education

What Does My Preschooler Need to Know?

Don't Give Up on Your Late Bloomers

Montessori Math

Narration Beats Tests

Getting Started in Homeschooling: The First Ten Steps

Teaching Blends

Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers

Columbus and the Flat Earth...

Patriarchy, Meet Matriarchy

Character Matters for Kids

Montessori Language Arts at Home, Part 1

Why the Internet will Never Replace Books

AP Courses At Home

Shakespeare Camp

Myth of the Teenager

The Charlote Mason Approach to Poetry

Combining Work and Homeschool

The Charlotte Mason Method

Art Appreciation the Charlotte Mason Way

Whole-Language Boondoggle

How to Win the Geography Bee

University Model Schools

A Homeschooler Wins the Heisman

Discover Your Child's Learning Style

Laptop Homeschool

Start a Nature Notebook

A Reason for Reading

The Benefits of Debate

Getting Organized Part 1 - Tips & Tricks

How to "Bee" a Spelling Success

Bears in the House

What We Can Learn from the Homeschooled 2002 National Geography Bee Winners

Give Yourself a "CLEP Scholarship"

Top Jobs for the College Graduate

The Equal Sign - Symbol, Name, Meaning

Interview with John Taylor Gatto

The Gift of a Mentor

Phonics the Montessori Way

The Benefits of Cursive Writing

Critical Thinking and Logic

Advanced Math: Trig, PreCalc, and more!

The History of Public Education