Teaching Fluency: The advantages of using a complete view of the reading process by Dr. Sam Bommarito


Teaching fluency: The advantages of using a complete view of the reading process by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Fluency is one place where advocates of balanced literacy get right, and advocates of the simple view get it partially wrong.  You see, advocates of the simple view of reading use measures of fluency like those found in the Dibels. The Dibels measures some (not all) of the components of fluency. A little refresher on the Dibels and its content.  The focus of the Dibels is on reading rate.  More recent iterations of the Dibels include correlation-based tests of comprehension.  I’ve written before on the limits and limitations of using the Dibels as a test of comprehension. The upshot of what I’ve said is that for preliminary studies, it might be an adequate measure of reading. Still, for the kind of whole-district, multi-year studies needed to demonstrate the efficacy of particular approaches to be used, a much more complete test of reading is required, modeled on statewide reading assessments that include passages and a variety of comprehension questions.

Today I want to focus on a different aspect of the limits and limitations of tests like the Dibels. What happens when one focuses on reading rate/reading accuracy as the key factors in reading and leaves out other factors? What happens is that instruction in fluency too often becomes a race. Shanahan talks about the use (and misuse) of assessments like the Dibels https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/should-we-test-reading-or-dibels. He ends by saying, “a pax on both your houses.”  He recognizes that principals and other administrators sometimes focus on all the wrong things when looking at test results from measures like the Dibels. They try to teach the test rather than using the test results to inform instruction. This is a decidedly bad use of test results.  I’m taking that thought one step further. If the measure were more complete, the probability of misuse would go down. What’s missing from the Dibels? Let’s look at Tim Rasinski’s rubric for measuring fluency.

I’ve written before about Dr. Tim Rasinski’s extensive work around the topic of fluency.  The bottom line is, as he said recently, making kids read-fast is not the goal of fluency instruction making meaning-is Rasinski takes a complete view of the fluency process.  He concerns himself with prosody. I’ve written about Rasinski and how his work has impacted my teaching practices  2018blog1, 2019blog2,  Let’s have a look at Tim’s fluency rubric. It can be found in the book Megabook of Fluency, a book he co-authored with Mellissa Cheeseman. The rubric includes the following:


What are the advantages of measuring all these aspects of prosody rather than just measuring speed and accuracy?  Let’s begin by looking at an entertaining video about not reading like a robot but instead reading with expression.


Don't Read Like a Robot

Why is there even a need for a video to ask kids to read with expression rather than read like a robot? It is because the measures we use do not include this critical aspect of measuring prosody, and subsequently, these aspects are often never taught.  I’ve found in the project I was doing in 4 elementary classrooms (2 first grades and 2 second grades), that teachers and students alike quickly caught on to the importance of reading with expression. Kids started “reading like storytellers” within a couple of weeks of being introduced to that concept.  One of the students taught me a lesson about reading like a storyteller. I said everyone knows it is important not to read like a robot. One student timidly put up his hand to ask a question. “But Dr. B. What if your character is a robot?”.  Hmmm.  That child got it didn’t he?.

Unfortunately, Corvid interrupted the project before it could be completed. The project included instruction/demonstrations on reading with expression and periodic read-aloud performances after systematic read-aloud practice. It also included the use of Dr. Rasinski’s rubric to assess students’ progress in prosody periodically.  The cumulative data from each periodic measurement was used to inform prosody instruction. Stay tuned. As soon as it is safe to resume face to face classes, we’ll try to carry out this piece of action research.

But wait. Is using a testing instrument like Dr. Rasinski’s rubric really scientific?  Those familiar with the qualitative analysis and developing interrater reliability know that it is. Here is a link to a quick overview of the two approaches LINK. The fact that Rasinski’s rubric measures all aspects of prosody, not just the elements of speed and accuracy, underscores one of the potential weaknesses of using only quantitative studies and ignoring or discounting qualitative studies.  In order to get things that are easily and directly measured, quantitative studies run the risk of oversimplifying- the risk of leaving out educationally significant factors. Understand that I am not arguing for all research to be done qualitatively.  I am arguing that both qualitative and quantitative measures be included in the educational research we use to inform our educational decisions.

Next week I will talk about how my acquisition of a small portable document camera has dramatically aided the distance learning work I am currently doing with my one-on-one tutoring of selected students. Until then, Happy Reading and Writing.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a. a reading storyteller)


Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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