By Cindy Jiban, PhD

Oral reading fluency assessment is now commonplace in American primary grades classrooms. Getting to this point has been an incredible victory for data-based problem solving in education. However, given some of the side-effects that have emerged, it is clear that oral reading fluency assessment is due for significant structural improvement.

Let’s keep comprehension central
In many systems, oral reading fluency is assessed in isolation—without comprehension checks on what the student reads aloud. So instead of adjusting their rate to best support their own understanding, most kids aim to read as quickly as possible. If we want to keep reading comprehension as the central goal in literacy instruction, then we need to attend to the message we are sending kids. It’s not that better reading is faster reading; instead, better reading means getting more from the text.

When oral reading fluency is positioned as a gauge of word automaticity, the downward extensions follow suit: they focus only on skills that support word decoding. We do not, however, see much downward extension for comprehension. This is tragic given what we know from research: early oral language comprehension is a crucial predictor of later success in reading comprehension.

01   Principle for improvement: Emphasize comprehension across the board. We need to ask kids to show comprehension of what they read aloud. In assessing kids who can’t yet read passages, we need to incorporate oral language comprehension, not just early decoding skills.

Let’s adapt to assess where growth is meaningful
Increases in words correct per minute (WCPM) are most meaningful as kids are developing some automaticity with words. The sweet spot is from about 10 WCPM to about 90 WCPM; this growth is important in freeing up some mental space, so that a student’s attention is no longer fully spent on sounding out, re-trying, and self-correcting at the single word level.

But for kids who are reading smoothly from grade-level text—and understanding it—we don’t care if they can read faster. For these kids, meaningful growth is about handling harder and harder texts with good comprehension.

02    Principle for improvement: Adapt text level for passage readers. If we don’t want to send the message that faster is better, then we need to get beyond the one-size-fits-all approach of assessing all kids only on grade level text.

Oral reading fluency assessment can fail kids on the lower end of reading development, too. Some not-yet-reading kids are at zero words per minute in the fall, and still at zero in the winter. So—no growth in literacy? That’s typically not the case. We know that for these kids, meaningful growth is happening in foundational decoding skills and in oral language comprehension.

03    Principle for improvement: Adapt to measure emergent readers where they are growing. When a reader can’t yet identify enough words to handle connected text, time is better spent assessing what’s useful now in instruction: foundational decoding and oral language skills.

Let’s minimize the time spent on testing
In many schools, all students in first and second grades are given oral reading fluency assessments one on one. An efficient teacher might collect WCPM data on her whole class in three days of reading block time – and then do that again in winter and in spring. And in other classrooms, teachers prefer one-on-one assessments that can take upwards of half an hour per child. The time taken from instruction to do assessment adds up quickly.

04   Principle for improvement: Assess efficiently. We need to support high-quality teacher student interactions in literacy instruction.

Let’s use tools to advance rather than duplicate
Today, more than half of American teachers report using 1:1 computing, where each student has a laptop or tablet. We all have a phone that processes speech input masterfully. It’s clearly time to use technology to redesign fluency assessment for the better.

05   Principle for improvement: Use technology to raise the bar. Instead of just replicating what we’ve done for decades onto an electronic screen, let’s use technology to do things smarter and more efficiently. Computer adaptive testing and speech recognition offer two obvious places to start.

To learn more about NWEA and NWEAs early literacy assessment solutions, please visit www.nwea.org.