School Administrator Question: Dr. Shanahan...for grades 3-5 does it make sense to use classroom time to have students partner read? If our ultimate goal is improving silent reading comprehension, I wonder at this age level if we are not using time efficiently.
I get this question a lot. Since our kids are going to be tested on their silent reading comprehension, why should we bother to have them practice oral reading? The purpose quite simply is that oral reading practice has been found to have a positive impact on students’ silent reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel reviewed 16 experimental studies in which students practiced their oral reading with a partner (e.g., parents, teachers, other students, and in one case, a computer), with rereading (they should be reading texts that are relatively hard, not ones they can read fluently on a first attempt), and with feedback (someone who helps them when they make mistakes). In 15 or the 16 studies, the kids who were engaged in this kind of activity ended up outperforming the control students in silent reading comprehension. There have been many additional studies since that time—across a variety of ages, with similar results.
Although oral reading practice improves oral reading that isn’t the reason we do it. We want students to practice making the text sound meaningful—which means reading the authors’ words accurately, reading with sufficient speed (the speed of language—not hurrying or racing through a text), and with proper expression or prosody (putting the pauses in the right places, making the text understandable to English speakers). As they learn to do that with increasingly complex texts, their ability to do that with silent reading improves.
Teachers are often told to stop this in the primary grades, and the Common Core standards only include fluency teaching through grade 5, but by 8th grade, oral reading fluency differences still explain 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. In other words, if you could make all the 13-year-olds equal in fluency, you’d reduce the comprehension differences by 25%.
It’s not an either/or, of course, I prescribe both fluency instruction and comprehension instruction and the latter would definitely include silent reading of the texts. You could also argue for additional silent reading comprehension practice in social studies and science reading. However, if you only have kids practicing their silent reading, then you are slowing kids’ progress and sacrificing achievement points.
Do as you please, but as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools, I mandated fluency instruction at those grade levels and would do so again if I still had that responsibility.