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Dr. Timothy Rasinski, Kent State University

Fluency, along with four other skills—phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and comprehension—was identified by the National Reading Panel (NRP) in 2000 as a key area of focus in reading instruction. The NRP evaluated all existing research on reading and presented the best practices in teaching children. The Panel defines a fluent reader this way: “…readers can read text with speed, accuracy, and proper expression.”

But too often, literacy researchers say, speed is prized over the other components. Simply reading quickly should not be confused with reading fluently. In his 2013 paper, “Why Reading Fluency Should be Hot!” Dr. Rasinski states that the premium put on speed stems from, “…studies that have shown high correlations between reading rate and reading comprehension.” Taking a cue from those studies, many commercial reading programs and curricula prioritize speed over the other elements of fluency.

To read Dr. Rasinski’s paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/TRTR.01077/pdf

But the true meaning of fluency, Dr. Rasinski says, is “reading with and for meaning.” Comprehension is paramount. Under that definition, fluency is a central skill of reading proficiency.

Two key components of fluency are ‘prosody’ and ‘automaticity.’ Automaticity refers to the automatic ability to recognize words. For struggling readers, a great deal of cognitive energy can be taken up by decoding the words in text. The goal, then, is to help children automatically recognize words, so less energy is spent on decoding and more can be spent on comprehension. The secret to automaticity and ultimately to fluency itself, Rasinski notes, is “…wide and deep practice.” Repeated readings of text for mastery, discussing them and reading different kinds of works are all a part of that process.

Prosody is the rhythm and intonation used in reading.

But the true meaning of fluency, Dr. Rasinski says, is “reading with and for meaning.” Comprehension is paramount. Under that definition, fluency is a central skill of reading proficiency.
As Dr. Rasinski puts it, “If automaticity is the fluency link to word recognition, prosody completes the bridge by linking fluency to comprehension.” Think about how much variances in intonation can change the meaning of a sentence: Tony ran up the hill.
Tony ran up the hill.—Tony, not someone else
Tony ran up the hill.—He ran, not walked or ambled or climbed
Tony ran up the hill.—He ran up the hill, not down it
Tony ran up the hill.—Tony ran up the hill, not the road

Beyond going ‘wide’ and ‘deep’ to achieve both automaticity and prosody in reading, what other methods are available to teachers?

Well…there’s always singing.

“A rhyme is a word family.”

—Dr. Timothy Rasinski

“Teaching students to scoop up words in groups of words or phrases makes sense when they are singing every day.”

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Rebecca Iwasaki, South Street School; Danbury, CT

Rebecca Iwasaki is a first grade teacher at the South Street School in Danbury, Connecticut. Five years ago, she attended summer and fall Reading Institute sessions at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. There, she met Dr. Tim Rasinski, who conducted sessions devoted to introducing songs and poetry into lessons as a bridge to developing better phonemic awareness.

“As a teacher for more than twenty years, I knew that children love to sing. But after hearing Dr. Rasinski discuss the gains that could be made in fluency, comprehension and understanding word families, I knew I just had to incorporate songs into my lessons,” Rebecca says.

“I began finding songs and introducing them in the classroom and it was magical! I emailed Dr. Rasinski about the progress I was seeing. We kept in touch and over the next two years, we tracked my students’ progress.”

Dr. Rasinski and Rebecca shared their findings in a 2013 paper, “Let’s Bring Back the Magic of Song for Teaching Reading.”

You can find the paper here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/TRTR.1203/abstract

“At first, I had students singing the same song for two weeks. As we tracked their progress, Dr. Rasinski suggested that I introduce a new song a week. That’s now my standard practice,” Rebecca says.

Students sing songs, reading printed lyrics at the same time. They found that students made, on average, more than a years’ worth of growth in reading.

As to the kind of songs she uses in the classroom, Rebecca notes, “I try to find songs I think students will enjoy and will be able to sing independently. I always find new songs to try and try to match songs with the students in my classroom.”

Dr. Rasinski points to the positive effect singing and poetry has in helping children understand word families, which lends itself to phonics instruction and phonemic awareness. “A rhyme is a word family,” he says. “A song like, ‘When the Red Red Robin (Comes Bob Bob Bobbing Along) that ‘ob’ word sound can be extended into different words, ‘rob’ and ‘bob’ and ‘throb’ and ‘sob,’ so on.”

“As a teacher for more than twenty years, I knew that children love to sing. But after hearing Dr. Rasinski discuss the gains that could be made in fluency, comprehension and understanding word families, I knew I just had to incorporate songs into my lessons,” Rebecca says.

Rebecca concurs, “There are so many times when I have watched a child hum part of a song to remember how to spell a word. “How do you spell, ‘back’?” “Oh, wait!” “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black. With silver buttons, buttons, buttons, all down her back, back, back…” The a-ha moments keep unfolding: Fluency, comprehension, confidence, and joy!”

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Dr. Timothy Rasinski and Rebecca Iwasaki

For teachers who are looking for ways to incorporate singing into their weekly lesson plans, Rebecca offers, “My best advice for primary teachers is to jump in and start finding songs! Type up your songs, write them on chart paper, and dedicate time every day for singing. You can find songs on Youtube. It will be a joyful time of your day and your students will love it.”

At the same time, Dr. Rasinski cautions: don’t think about fluency as just a skill for primary grade levels. A number of studies have shown that students from fourth grade through high school may struggle with fluency and that those skills are not necessarily reinforced beyond second or third grade.

Poetry verses and singing are powerful tools that can help children at all reading levels up their fluency game and lead to better comprehension and ultimately…better readers.

To read the Journal’s earlier article featuring Dr. Tim Rasinski and his work on Latin and Greek bases, check out: http://journal.orton-gillingham.com/harnessing-the-power-of-latin-and-greek-for-early-readers/