Why I Encourage Teaching Children to Read Disfluently

  • 20 May, 2023
  • 15 Comments

Teacher question

Our school is trying to follow the science of reading. We are teaching phonemic awareness and phonics in Grades K-2 and assessing student progress in those skills throughout those grade levels. However, we don’t begin to assess or teach fluency until mid-first grade. Are we doing it right?

Shanahan response:

I think it’s okay to neglect fluency instruction until later in first grade, at least with most students. However, I suspect that you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to teach your students to read disfluently. I hope I can convince you to devote some of your instructional time to developing the kind of disfluency that research has identified as having an important role in early reading development. Once kids are sufficiently disfluent, it would be an appropriate time to start up the fluency teaching. (I've come to think of this work as the "roots of fluency."

First, let’s think about fluency instruction and why it matters.

The earliest explanation of fluency teaching that I ever encountered was written by Carol Chomsky (1978). Her concerns were with third graders who knew their phonics skills, but who were low in reading achievement. She focused on the idea of teaching these students to implement their decoding skills with text by having the kids read and reread the text.

And, it worked.

Research (National Reading Panel, 2000) has shown that various approaches to having students read and reread text aloud help students to read more proficiently (usually as measured by reading comprehension tests). But as you point out, the research record on such instruction doesn’t begin until later in Grade 1.

This kind of practice both helps kids to learn some of the words (Rashotte & Torgeson, 1985), and to apply and integrate the decoding skills that enable one to read and comprehend text.

However, there is another body of research.

It focuses on something called fingerpoint reading.

This refers to children’s ability to match or synchronize spoken words to written words in text.

Let’s say a group of kindergartners have memorized, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The teacher then provides them with a written version.

            Mary had a little lamb,

            Its fleece were white as snow.

            And everywhere that Mary went

            The lamb was sure to go.

She wants the children to recite the memorized poem and to point to each word as they say them.

Some children say, “Mary,” and point to the letter ‘M”. They then say “had” and point at the “a.” Others say, “Ma-ry” and point to “Mary” and “had” in turn, as they say each syllable.

Of course, the goal is for kids to match the oral words to the written words – pointing 5 times in that first line, not 18 times (the letters), or 7 times (the syllables), or 4 times (ignoring the little words). To do that, students must know the purpose of those spaces between words, the sound-symbol correspondences of those first letters, some simple words (e.g., had a), and recognize that some words are multisyllabic (Mesmer & Lake, 2010). Students must know those things and be able to coordinate them successfully.

The research shows just that (Uhry, 1999; Uhry, 2002). Fingerpoint reading – like text reading fluency – requires the application and integration of multiple skills, in this case, knowledge of the alphabet, a degree of phonemic awareness, some understanding of syllabication, insights about the spaces between words in print, and so on.

“Pure letter name or sound instruction does not readily transfer to reading and spelling without instruction and practice in using alphabet knowledge for these purposes” (Piasta & Wagner, 2010, p. 494). Thus, engaging students in activities that facilitate fingerpoint reading may serve as an important bridge or scaffold for phonemic awareness development (Morris, Bloodgood, Perney, 2003; Morris, Bloodgood, Lomax, & Perney, 2003), or may mark the beginnings of moving children from print into meaning (Ehri & Sweet, 1991).

I believe that engaging kids in fingerpoint reading – and activities the teaching that supports it – can beworthwhile.

However, that means encouraging kids to read – initially – in a somewhat choppy, word-for-word way. When young kids pretend to read, they can often make the text sound like language, fluently telling the story. But such reading, rarely entails much attention to the actual words on the page. Fingerpoint reading requires that students learn to coordinate those skills and pay attention to the print, rather than the pictures.

I have one caution here. Although there are several studies that have shown that an understanding of the concept of word (Bowling & Cabell, 2019; Flanigan, K. (2007; Roberts, 1992) and the ability to point to words during reading are skills that fit well statistically into early reading development models, there are no studies showing that if you engage kids in such activities or try to facilitate kids learning of these particular skills that they necessarily will do better in learning to read. There are good reasons to think that would be the case (and personal experience tells me that it would be), but as of yet there is no direct experimental evidence.

As regular readers of this blog know, I usually limit my recommendations to actions that instructional research has shown to improve reading achievement. Some of you might choose to ignore my advice on this one for that reason (and that, to my way of thinking, is quite reasonable). However, the existing correlational and descriptive data, the judgment of colleagues who tend to be right about such things, my own teaching judgments and observations, and the fact that the kinds of activities that it takes to enable kids to fingerpoint properly are generally beneficial to phonemic sensitivity and decoding ability have convinced me that this is a reasonably good bet.

How do you teach kids to read disfluently initially?

First, make sure you are successfully teaching its component skills – it is hard to apply and coordinate skills that you don’t possess. Teach the ABCs, teach the letter sounds and beginning decoding, teach phonemic awareness, teach some of those simple high frequency words, make sure your students can perceive syllables, and encourage them to memorize poems, nursery rhymes, and songs.

Then, involve students in tasks that require them to think about the words in texts. Many parents and teachers point to the words when they are doing book sharing with children. These kinds of read alouds can draw kids’ attention to print and may give them an initial sense that the words are separable.

Another, possibility is to have students dictate language experience stories, transcribe these, and engage the students in “reading” them. This kind of reading is more like remembering, since the text is a transcription of the students’ own words, but it creates a great opportunity for matching words to text.

You can also engage in the Mary’s-Little-Lamb task described above to explain what you want kids to do. Memorizing poems and songs are helpful language activities, and this work can then offer useful contexts for trying to match fingerpointing to pronunciations.

Encourage young students to write – to write stories or retell events in their lives, to label pictures, to make signs, and so on. Encourage them to spell words the way they think they are spelled and support their attempts to use the letters and sounds. This kind of activity bolsters phonemic awareness and phonics and requires students to contemplate where words begin and end.

Involve students in sentence building with word cards. As children, learn words (both from memorization and decodable texts), they should be able to assemble sentences – emphasizing the idea that sentences are made of separable words.

Those kinds of activities should facilitate your students figuring out how words work in text. That should enable the kids to recite text while pointing to the proper words. That will sound pretty choppy, but it is an important milestone. When your students can do that kind of word-by-word “reading,” successfully pointing to each word as they recite or remember, then you can start to think about addressing text reading fluency -- building up accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. For most kids, that will likely be sometime during first semester of grade one.

References

Bowling, E. C. C., & Cabell, S. Q. (2019). Developing readers: Understanding concept of word in text development in emergent readers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 47(2), 143-151. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-018-0902-1

Chomsky, C. (1978). When you still can’t read in third grade: After decoding, what? In S. J. Samuels (Ed.), What research has to say about reading instruction (pp. 13-30). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ehri, L. C., & Sweet, J. (1991). Fingerpoint-reading of memorized text: What enables beginners to process the print? Reading Research Quarterly, 26(4), 442-462. doi:https://doi.org/10.2307/747897

Flanigan, K. (2007). A concept of word in text: A pivotal event in early reading acquisition. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(1), 37-70.

Mesmer, H. A. E., & Lake, K. (2010). The role of syllable awareness and syllable-controlled text in the development of finger-point reading. Reading Psychology, 31(2), 176-201. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/02702710902754341

Morris, D., Bloodgood, J., & Perney, J. (2003). Kindergarten predictors of first- and second-grade reading achievement. Elementary School Journal, 104(2), 93-109. doi:https://doi.org/10.1086/499744

Morris, D., Bloodgood, J. W., Lomax, R. G., & Perney, J. (2003). Developmental steps in learning to read: A longitudinal study in kindergarten and first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(3), 302-328. doi:https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.38.3.1

Rashotte, C., & Torgesen, J. K. (1985). Repeated reading and reading fluency in learning disabled children. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 180-188.

Roberts, B. (1992). The evolution of the young child's concept of word as a unit of spoken and written language. Reading Research Quarterly, 27(2), 124-138. doi:https://doi.org/10.2307/747682

Uhry, J. K. (1999). Invented spelling in kindergarten: The relationship with finger-point reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 11(5-6), 441-464. doi:https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008032502132

Uhry, J. K. (2002). Finger-point reading in kindergarten: The role of phonemic awareness, one-to-one correspondence, and rapid serial naming. Scientific Studies of Reading, 6(4), 319-342. doi:https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532799XSSR0604_02

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Ann Christensen May 20, 2023 02:31 PM

Finger-pointing reading is common in kindergarten and is supported by using predictable books, decodable books, and cut up sentences. These sentences may come from books or children’s’ own compositions. We use pennies to represent spaces when children write until they are able to define wordness with a space only.
Teaching beginning readers to use techniques that proficient readers never use provides a stepping stone (or scaffold). That is why beginning texts have pictures that support meaning making and we encourage students to use them to think about the story. It is also why we teach them to point with songs, poems, and patterned stories.
The practices (using pictures and predictable texts) are condemned by proponents of SOR.
All children must develop the ability to scan text with eyes only, to process it fluently while thinking about the story, using only text. My experience still validates the use of many stepping stones to get to proficiency.

Miriam Giskin May 20, 2023 04:31 PM

I really related to this post because it remeinded me of the kind of activities I did when teaching "Whole Language" back in the day, a la Bill Martin Jr. and Don Holdaway. Mind you I also taught phonics and never understood why there had to be such "reading wars" between the two. To me one was providing experiences that some children would get at home reading with parents but that many would not. Replicating those lap reading type of experiences with big books and posters of poems and nursery rhymes as well as our shared writing combined with the skills of phonics, provided my students with insight as well as knowledge regarding what reading was all about and how to do it. Pointing was an important part of that and a way to make "reading the reward" as children vied for the privilege of holding the pointer. I will say my work later as a reading specialist showed that relying on pointing past the point of usefulness needed to be addressed with classroom teachers because it in my experience it impaired fluency in children past mid second grade. Great post. Thanks.

Lauren May 20, 2023 04:51 PM

The SOR contingency in my district has been strongly condemning the practices which you spoke about in this article. They are starting to back off a little bit now, so that I am able to include some short poetry and songs with the memorization and finger pointing (at least on days when I know that they will not be stopping by...) I think it is important to note that language with melody or meter is processed differently in the brain than standard text reading. That is why it is used to help people who have lost language ability due to some sort of brain injury. I'm not sure why the SOR crowd missed this important connection between science and language/literacy. All I can say, is that most struggling students really benefit from reading the songs and poems, and they enjoy it.

Timothy Shanahan May 20, 2023 04:55 PM

Lauren--

I love it when people who espouse a "science of reading" aren't aware of the science part of that equation. Kids certainly benefit from explicit phonemic awareness and decoding instruction and those should be daily fare in K-1... but instruction and guidance that shows how to apply those skills is valuable.

tim

Elizabeth Robins May 20, 2023 06:12 PM

I remember your sharing at a conference a decade, and maybe much more, ago, that the need for disfluency in early readers is to be appreciated, not discouraged. As an invaluable stepping stone to fluency, it reveals the child's increasing ability to read left to right through words, increasing word retention, and fostering automaticity needed for fluency.

As one who has always taught with a structured phonics approach, it felt like a breath of fresh air to hear this articulated for all attendees in those entrenched balanced reading times.

With appreciation for all your thoughtful, carefully reasoned writings,
Beth

Dr. Bill Conrad May 20, 2023 06:31 PM

I would be interested in your thoughts about introducing the idea of prosody with young students. I have found in my tutoring experience that children can often read fluently but include almost no expression in their reading. I usually have them use expression as they read a poem like The Walrus and the Carpenter.

Generally, when my students begin to incorporate elements of prosody in their reading, they have more fun and enjoy reading more.

What does research say about the importance of teaching the elements of prosody in early reading.

Possibly a good topic for one of your blogs!

Jan Bibby May 20, 2023 11:12 PM

For years I taught piano before I became interested in supporting dyslexic students (as a result of a dyslexic and dysgraphic grandchild). It seems to me that fluency in reading is pretty much identical to fluency in piano playing. It's achieved by repeated accurate playing just as fluent reading is achieved by repeated accurate reading. In piano playing we take a bar or two before any problem area, the problem area itself and a bar or two after and repeat that set of bars in the music for as many times as needed for the brain to consolidate the pattern accurately. The player goes slowly at first so s/he can process the note patterns accurately while simultaneously processing the rhythmic patterns. Going fast is a waste of time, guessing is a waste of time. The piano player has to go slowly and accurately as many times as needed until the brain gradually facilitates a faster tempo. This piece of the music will NEVER be accurate if this process is not embraced. As someone who did eight hours of piano practice for several years of my life I can attest to the fact that I never found an alternative to fluent accurate pianism. Now, as a trained OG practitioner and as a teacher with a career of music and classroom teaching, I have applied these same principles to students reading. It works.

Timothy Rasinski May 21, 2023 12:59 PM

Tim - your blog reminds me of something you (and i) have written and spoken about in the past. The need for all developing readers to read challenging (frustation level) texts. You write about beginning readers in this current blog, but the notion of dysfluent reading goes beyond initial reading. Stahl and Heubach, for example found that second graders benefited from fluency instruction (repeated and supported readings), but the greatest gains were made by students who engaged in repeated and supported readings with difficult texts - well above their "instructional" level. It makes good sense that if you want to accelerate kids' reading progress, they need to be challenged (read dysfluently) but given support (e.g. repeated reading) to allow them to conquer the challenging text and achieve fluency - which then generalizes to other similar texts. My two cents anyway. Thanks for an interesting blog. tim

Ann Christensen May 21, 2023 02:53 PM

Dr. Conrad-
I find in older struggling readers that the act of reading has become externalized such that they don’t know they are reading to their own brain. They are saying the words for the adult. When they begin to understand to whom they are reading, they understand that prosody makes reading more interesting to their brain.
When I work with readers, I say, “Read this to your brain,” rather than “Read to/for me,” or “Read to yourself.” Why would a struggling reader ever read alone if it is an external activity?
My kindergarteners can understand this simple idea of reading to their brain and it helps them understand the act of reading.

Timothy Shanahan May 21, 2023 02:56 PM

Tim--

I'm always surprised about (1) people who argue against having students work with texts that they haven't already mastered -- given that research shows that working with harder text increases opportunity to learn; and (2) those who argue for the teaching of skills like PA and phonics but who are resistant to having students involved in most kinds of practice and guided practice with those skills (such as fingerpoint reading, repeated reading with non-decodable text, invented spelling) -- again, despite the research evidence showing these practices to improve decoding ability. Thanks.

tim

Timothy Shanahan May 21, 2023 03:08 PM

Bill--

Prosody seems to be a device used to organize language in ways that enable us to understand. It is a lot like vocabulary in that it doesn't seem to be very important for younger readers. The reason for this with vocabulary is that by the time kids enter school their oral vocabularies dwarf what they will be taught. Of course, over time, the text demands increase and vocabulary is revealed to be hugely important. Much prosody is not necessary with a lot of the texts that we ask young kids to read -- the sentences are relatively short, there is not a lot of language that requires organization. That makes it look like prosody doesn't matter, but as the texts get harder, again, this seemingly unimportant skills comes into view. I think it is fine to do a bit with prosody early on, just to keep kids thinking about that... but I don't usually do a lot with that until the grammar gets challenging enough that the prosody work will result in better comprehension. Maybe i will write about this -- prosody definitely should not be ignored.

tim

Julia Perlman May 21, 2023 08:56 PM

Many thanks for such relevant posts.I’ve been trying to formulate this question for some time:
At my school we have a lot of English learners who are still mastering the more advanced aspects of English phonics, such as diphthongs and soft c and g and variant vowels, in second and third and fourth grade. They also, however, don’t know what these words mean when we give them decodable text with which to practice them. First question, should we be giving these students decodable text, or instead should we be teaching words with the targeted phonics skill (meaning included) and then just helping them with grade level texts where these words will come up organically? Second question: might the teaching focus on phonics slow down at certain points for these kids in order to focus on and catch them up with other aspects of reading, such as fluency, and comprehension (including vocabulary and syntax)?

Timothy Rasinski May 21, 2023 11:32 PM

Bill and Tim: Thank you for bringing this up. Prosody is important, though it is often an afterthought of instruction. One thing I often do with young students is read to them and then talk about how I used my reading voice (prosody) to improve their comprehension and satisfaction with the text. I try demonstrate phrasing, intonation, dramatic pausing, etc. to illustrate the importance of prosody -- it's not just the words that matter, it's how you say the words. Occassionally I will read orally in a not-so-fluent mannner (word-by-word, monotone, excessively slow or fast, etc) and it doesnt take long for them to notice that the reading is not as satisfying. Then we talk about why. The whole discussion takes only a few minutes but I am convinced even young students begin to understand the nature and importance of prosody. Tim R.

Beth Hankoff May 22, 2023 02:25 AM

This is great advice and easy to implement! Here's my personal story with this: when my son was near the end of preschool he started noticing letters - even little tiny ones like a trademark symbol. He was starting to become aware of the connection between the words I read in books and what was on the page. He usually wanted longer more complex stories like The Lorax. One day I pulled out a book with just a few words and a repeating pattern. It was not decodable, though. The words that varied were types of animals. I read it to him and pointed to each word. After a while I stopped saying "snail" - a word repeated on every page - and just pointed as he said, "Snail." He was delighted by this. I asked if he wanted to try reading the whole little book. I pointed to one word at a time and he only stumbled on a couple of difficult animal names. By the end of kindergarten a year later, he was reading chapter books.

Stephanie Wade May 24, 2023 07:13 PM

Thank you for this timely response. My state (KS) is considering changing an ELA standard for Fluency from using repeated reading to using “four-cueing” to assist decoding and understanding. You have gathered some great resources I will need to make my point.

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Why I Encourage Teaching Children to Read Disfluently

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