Oral reading fluency has become a hot topic in the past few years. Of all aspects of reading, it still may be the most neglected, but we seem to be doing somewhat better in providing fluency instruction than we were when the National Reading Report concluded that fluency instruction improved reading achievement. That surprised many people; the idea that practicing oral reading could do more than improve the oral reading seemed strange. Usually we get better at what we practice: so, it would make sense to have kids doing a lot of silent reading rather than oral reading, since we want them to get good at silent reading.
But the research is pretty clear that oral reading practice, when done appropriately, not only makes kids sound better, but comprehend better, too—including on silent reading tests. One reason that oral reading can do more for silent reading than silent reading, is that often when students are asked to read silently, they may not even be reading, or their reading might be flawed and labored but who would know it if it was done silently? Oral reading makes reading more physical and less mental, so it is easier to keep on task and to notice miscues and deal with them.
Of course, if we are going to teach oral reading (in order to make kids better comprehenders) it is reasonable to monitor their progress. That’s where oral reading tests, like DIBELS come in. Teachers can listen to kids read, and get a pretty good idea of their progress and pick out who may need more help. Sadly, I’m starting to see teachers doing silly things like asking kids to read as fast as they can so that they can get good DIBELS scores. The problem with that is that kids are supposed to read faster as a result of becoming more skilled at decoding and interpreting text, not because they are hurrying. I have no doubt that fluency instruction can have a powerful impact on reading comprehension. I also have no doubt that hurrying kids through texts is bad idea that won’t lead to that kind of learning. By all means use DIBELS (and DIBELS-like) oral reading tests. But make sure they are tests of reading--rather than hurrying.
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