Joshua Cohen: How did you first get interested in reading fluency?
Timothy Rasinski: It goes back to my days as a teacher. Back in the mid-70s, I got a teaching degree and I taught outside of Omaha, Nebraska, first as an elementary school teacher, and then I became a reading specialist and developed an interest in kids who were struggling. I still recall working with some students I was not making any progress with. I was doing everything that the book at the time told me to do, you know, work on phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and they still weren’t making any progress. Fortunately for me, I was working on my master’s degree at the time, and the professors had us reading these articles that were just beginning to appear on reading fluency. One was called, The Method of Repeated Readings, by Jay Samuels (1979); and another was Carol Chomsky’s (1976) After decoding, then what? You teach kids to decode words successfully, but they still don’t make any progress, then what do you do? And of course her answer was fluency. I read those things and I said, “Well, gosh, maybe there’s something to this.” So I tried out repeated readings and assisted readings with the students I was working with and lo and behold, they started to make progress. In some cases, the progress they were making was quite spectacular when compared to where they were previously. So that was the start of it. When I went on for my advanced degree, that was an area I wanted to continue studying. Forty years later, I’m still at it!
What about reading fluency do you find so appealing?
Many people ask, “Why was it ignored for so long?” Actually, it wasn’t. Back in the day, the day of John Dewey at the turn of the century, he talked about reading fluency. But somewhere along the line, he got derailed. I think it was because we often associated reading fluency with oral reading, and of course, we’re at the point now where silent reading is the gold standard. So maybe he got derailed there, you know, having kids memorize texts and read out loud. I was just interested in how can we get it back on track? And what I saw happening working with these kids was really something.
Shelia Valencia is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and looked at kids who perform poorly in these State Reading tests that we give kids all across the country now, and basically asked the question, “What’s going on with these kids?” What she found was that for most of the kids, it’s either word decoding or fluency—upwards of 90% of these kids. So that just begs the question, if this is what is happening to these kids who perform poorly, then what would happen if we could provide some additional instruction for them?
What resources do you find most influential in your work as a literacy educator?
Not so much individual books, although I’ve written a couple of them. But as far as people go, Melanie Kuhn has done a lot of work and her advisor Steve Stahl—he’s passed away now—he really got into it; Paula Schwanenflugel at the University of Georgia, there’s a whole cadre there of folks who are studying reading fluency. More recently, David Paige at Northern Illinois University has been doing some interesting work, especially with adolescents and fluency, and a guy by the name of Chase Young at Sam Houston State University. He was a second-grade teacher and heard me speak maybe a dozen years ago, and he decided to apply some of these things into a whole classroom setting, not just with struggling readers. He really became convinced that it was something that would make a difference, especially for those kids who are beginning to transition from just word decoding to actual contextualized reading.
Can you give TLT readers a definition of reading fluency?
Sure. The definition is what makes it a bit more complex than it needs to be. It’s actually made up of two sub-competencies: the first is automaticity and word recognition. This is something that Dr. Samuels talked about. A reader recognizes words so effortlessly that minimal mental effort is put into decoding the words. I often say to my classes when I teach a course on phonics, the goal of phonics instruction is to get students not to use it. If you have to use phonics when you’re reading, sounding out every third or fourth word, you can do it, but there’s a price to be paid. The price is you’re using too much of that mental energy for a lower-level task than what’s meant to be for comprehension. So that’s one. And you develop that automaticity through lots and lots of practice. The other side of it is this thing called prosody, or expression. Now I think about someone who is a fluent speaker, it’s not somebody who reads fast, it’s somebody who uses their voice to make meaning. They get loud and soft and fast and slow. They add dramatic pauses, and all those things add to the meaning of the text they’re reading. And how do we develop prosody? Again, through practice; it’s the best way. Hear expressive reading and then try to emulate it on your own, through your own practice. That’s where this notion of repeated readings comes in. You don’t mind if I go off on a tangent here do you?
It’s perfectly fine!
We recognize in our schools today that repeated reading is very valuable. But because the way we measure it, when we measure automaticity, which is the speed of reading, many repeated reading exercises are aimed at getting kids to read fast, which I think is not terribly authentic. When you keep in mind this notion of prosody, then repeated readings can be much more authentic, rather than practicing something for the purpose of reading it fast, you’re practicing it for the purpose of being able to read it in an expressive, meaningful voice. And of course, that begs the question: Are there certain texts that are meant to be read out loud in an expressive and meaningful voice? That is what led me to poetry, song lyrics, reader’s theater scripts, and things such as that. Things that we used to do a lot of in school, and we don’t seem to do nearly as much now. It’s those two things: prosody and automaticity, and they seem so dissimilar to one another, one is about reading effortlessly and the other is reading with expression, but they can be brought together into some sort of whole, I guess. People have called fluency sort of the bridge or link between word recognition and phonics at one end and comprehension at the other.
Is there a way to measure prosody?
Yeah. You can put kids on a spectrograph and do some analysis there, but what we have found, and Paula Schwanenflugel, who has done some work on this (see Schwanenflugel et al., 2004), recommends that actually teachers just listen to students read and rate their reading along some dimensions on a rubric. Actually, I have one. I developed it with my colleague, Jerry Zutell (see Zutell & Rasinski, 1991). It’s on my website. It’s a multidimensional fluency scale, which looks at four different dimensions of fluency, and then you listen to kids read and rate them on each of those four points. It’s actually been found to be quite reliable and valid. Some studies have been done. Sometimes people say, “Oh you’re just making a subjective judgment,” and indeed you are, but it can be something you can rely on as being a pretty valid estimate of how fluent kids are in their reading.
Do you think reading fluency differs depending on whether you are reading in your first or a second language?
First of all, I do know that we’ve done some research—I’ve worked with some folks who’ve found fluency manifests itself in other languages, but when you’re going into a second language that is not your native language, I would suspect that fluency is an issue. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the National Reading Panel here in the States did a report on English language learners, and they did indicate that fluency was an issue that needed to be addressed. Of course, it just makes sense. If you’re learning to read, or for that matter, speak in another language, your first attempts are probably pretty halting and that with practice, you become much more fluent, automatic, and expressive in your oral language as well as your oral reading of that text.
Why are you such a big proponent of activities like reader’s theater, and music and songs as a way to engage students in the reading classroom?
First of all, they’re all-natural oral reading activities. The National Reading Panel, when they talk about fluency, they kind of pigeonhole it as an oral reading activity. So, poems, songs, and scripts are meant to be read orally, but they’re also meant to be read with expression. In particular, poetry and song, if you think about it, have to be read with rhythm and a certain degree of melody to them—songs in particular, but poetry as well. They’re the kind of texts that really lend themselves to students focusing on the melodic aspect of texts. Robert Pinsky, who was once the poet laureate of the United States calls those rhythmical texts, poetry as rhythmical texts. There is a rhythm they need to be read to and that seems to really capture that notion of something that is really helpful for developing fluency. I might add if you’re talking about younger kids or kids who are struggling, something like a song lyric or a poem is not terribly long. Sometimes these kids can get overwhelmed by a text that’s a 20-page story or something. But a poem you can master in a short while and have that feeling of success that lots of students need, especially if they’re struggling.
So, the fact that poems and songs are authentic appeals to learners?
That’s exactly right. In our reading clinic, our students learn a poem and at the end of the week that they’ve been practicing it, will have a poetry slam. They’ll get in front of their classmates and others and perform. That really does give them motivation for wanting to practice. You know, a lot of times, if you ask a student to read something three or four times, they’ll ask you, “For what reason?” If you can say, “Well, you’ll be performing it on Friday or Saturday,” you have a natural reason to do that. That’s something I’ve been talking about lately, which is the art of teaching. We’ve been talking so much about the science of reading, but I think that to be a really good teacher, you have to follow the science, but you have to apply the science in artful ways and trying to find those authentic situations where kids can put what they’re learning to authentic uses. It’s really an artistic goal we should be aiming for.
There’re several programs that’ve come out on reading fluency and they’re based upon these notions that we talked about; modeling fluent reading, assisted reading, and so on, but they’re not very authentic, and I just wonder to what extent students are just going to see it as the equivalent of nothing more than a boring worksheet that sometimes they get at school. It’s a really important goal for teachers to become that artist.
Are there any quick and dirty or easy ways for teachers to assess students’ reading fluency?
Yeah, actually. You said quick and dirty. I wrote a book with my colleague called, 3-Minute Reading Assessments. It’s actually more like five minutes, but three minutes sounds a little more sexy. If you had a student read a short passage, like in an informal reading inventory—maybe 100-200 words in length—and as they’re reading, you’re marking any errors that they’re making. You also mark where they’re at the end of a minute reading, you record their reading, and when they’re through reading, you ask them to give you a retelling of what it is they’ve just read. What you can do from that one reading is, of course if you know the grade level passage of the reading you’re asking the kids to read, you can measure first of all their word recognition in terms of percentage of words read correctly, you can measure their automaticity by the number of words they read correctly in a minute’s time, you can measure prosody by listening to that recording of their reading and rating them on that prosody scale I mentioned (or something similar), and you can measure comprehension by simply listening to their retelling and measuring it against a rubric we developed. It’s not a completely precise measurement, but it’ll give you some indication of whether, say if this is a 5th grade passage, that can give you a sense of whether the student can handle 5th grade material or not from that one reading or so. If they can’t, you know what you need to work on with that student.
What are some suggestions for teachers with limited time who can only meet their students once a week?
That’s always a challenge. It would be best if you were able to work with kids on a regular basis. There’s a lesson we use in our reading clinic—it’s called the fluency development lesson. Basically, it’s about a 20-minute lesson where the goal is for students to learn to read something really well in about twenty minutes’ time. It’s usually a poem, but it could also be a segment of a story and these 20 minutes go like this: It starts with the students listening to the teacher read the text once or twice maybe even three times, and then reading it with the teacher, and then the student would practice on his or her own or with a partner while the teacher walks around the room and does some coaching of the students. After about five or six or seven or eight readings, then the student is given the opportunity to perform for classmates or even the teacher. In our reading clinic, we send students out into the hallway and the kids perform for a parent. Then we engage the kids in some word study from that text. It might be looking at the meaning of certain interesting words, or it might be looking at some phonetic elements. After another five minutes or so of that, we’ve had really a lot of success. The reason why I mention that is I could almost see something like this if you’re meeting your students once or twice a week where that first part of the lesson where the teacher models it and reads it with the student could be done in the lesson. But that rehearsal, that practice could be done independently throughout the week, knowing that when they return the following day or the following week, they would be asked to perform that text that they had practiced.
A lot of your work is focused on younger learners who struggle with fluency, but can you comment on working with students a little older, say junior or high school level or even young adults?
Sure. First of all, I would say that we have found that fluency is an issue that goes beyond the elementary grades. We published a study a few years back—several studies—but we found that significant numbers of students struggle with fluency in middle and high school. They’re also students who have difficulty with comprehension, so that’s an issue. Another little interesting study we did a couple years ago, here at the university, is we looked at freshmen. We did one of those oral reading fluency exercises I mentioned, and we had them read a 12th grade passage for a minute and what we had was their ACT scores. We were able to correlate their fluency with their ACT scores. And it was really interesting. We had significant correlation between fluency and college entrance examination score,s which suggests that those students who are more fluent are more likely to score higher and be more successful in college than those students who struggle with fluency. And that might be an impediment to their growth; their development in college as well. Now saying that, there’s things that we can do. I’ve been a big advocate for poetry, and if you think about it, there are a lot of texts that lend themselves to high school kids. I was working with some kids not long ago, and we did a whole unit of study on the poetry of Langston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Really, it’s quite sophisticated stuff, so you could actually find material. Basically, it’s the same idea, but finding more sophisticated material for students to practice and perform. Oftentimes, there’s related material that they can get into to build knowledge.
Without getting too technical, I wonder if you can describe some of the cognitive process at work as a person reads words. For example, is there a difference orthographically, semantically, or phonologically?
Great question. Now you’re getting above my pay grade, as they say. There’s a couple people who’ve been talking about this, Linnea Ehri (at CUNY) and David Kilpatrick (at SUNY), they talk about this thing called orthographic mapping and what their goal for word recognition instruction is to get kids to the point where they’re not analyzing or looking at the letters and analyzing the sounds and so on. Actually, what they do is, they create a mental template of the word. And this mental template is not just seeing the series of symbols and the sounds that go with it, but also integrate it with the meaning of the word itself. That’s what we really want to get to. To get students to that point, that instant, effortless recognition. And how do you develop that orthographic map? Actually, it’s through analyzing a word. If you analyze it enough times, it becomes second nature, it becomes that map you have in your head.
Have you done any work on literacy instruction with second or foreign language learners?
Unfortunately, not. I’ve worked with scholars who’ve worked with fluency in other languages but not as a second language. But my guess is that many of the same processes that we use for first language learners would apply for second language learners as well.
Are you familiar with extensive reading or wide reading?
Well, I use the term wide reading. It may not be in the same way that you have in mind. For me, wide reading is just trying to maximize the amount or reading students do, and it’s the kind of reading that we do as adult proficient readers. When you read something, you may reflect on it, discuss what it is that you read with somebody, and then you move on to something new. One thing after another. I often say that that’s really important for developing fluency, but needs to be balanced sometimes, especially for those kids we worry about with that notion of repeated readings. So wide reading—and another word for repeated reading might be deep reading—can go hand-in-hand.
What are your thoughts on research-based teaching and experience-based teaching? Which one should guide teachers?
I think they’re equally important. The challenge is how can you blend them together. I don’t think it’s very valuable to have a time in the day devoted to evidence-based reading instruction and another part of the day devoted to experience-based instruction. If you can find a way of combining them, it’s more efficient, and I think you get that sense of synergy. You get more power than the sum of the parts. That’s the challenge though; there’re no real instructional programs that I know that actually do that in the kind of way that I would like to see it done. That’s where I think it requires a knowledgeable teacher to be able to do that.
How do you envision it being done?
I go back to Dewey. He talked about the notion of project-based learning, where you develop a theme for instruction over the course of a week or two and within that theme, whatever it might be. Right now, we might be studying veterans in American history. We would find ways to be reading informational texts, stories, finding songs, poetry, maybe finding ways of actually getting other areas of the curriculum into that study, whether it’s social studies, bringing in veterans to tell their stories to students, having the students write memoirs for some of these soldiers—those kinds of things. We’re also trying to find ways to bring mathematics and even science into that study.
What are you working on these days?
I’m trying to master teaching from my living room.
We all are!
I’m teaching a couple classes. I was lucky because the university asked me to start developing some of these online courses in advance, so I have a bunch of it already recorded and uploaded, but I’m still working at it and trying to find ways of making it engaging. I’ve been doing weekly lessons that I put on Twitter. But as far as research goes, actually, I’m at the stage of my career where, I think I only have a year or two left before I retire. I’ve been trying to nurture some graduate students and colleagues who are younger than me to keep the ball going on this. Chase Young and David Paige have been doing some remarkable work with reading fluency and struggling readers. Another one of my graduate students, Meghan Valerio, is doing some really strong stuff. You know, I guess I’m at the point now where I’m trying to continue the interest.
Well thank you so much for your time, Dr. Rasinski. It’s been a pleasure.
You’re quite welcome. Next time call me Tim.
Chomsky, C. (1976). After decoding: Then what? Language Arts, 53(3), 288–296.
Samuels, S. J. (1979). The Method of Repeated Reading. The Reading Teacher, 32, 403–408.
Schwanenflugel, P., Hamilton, A. M., Wisenbaker, J. M., & Kuhn, M. (2004). Becoming a fluent reader: Reading skill and prosodic features in the oral reading of young readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 119–121. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06220.127.116.11
Zutell, J., & Rasinski, T. V. (1991). Training teachers to attend to their students’ oral reading fluency. Theory Into Practice, 30(3), 211–217. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405849109543502