Reading Fluency: Why Assessment Matters

By Dr Paula Williams, Educational Psychologist, Psychology4Learning Ltd

This blog is based on a doctoral study undertaken at University College London (2014-20). Thirty years as an Educational Psychologist in the UK and I am still routinely asked how to help children who are struggling to learn to read. The UK’s illiteracy rates are high (around 20% for school leavers at ages 11 and 18) and have been for decades. I wondered why research (predominantly from the US) was not being applied in UK settings.

The literature revealed how important formative assessment is. Staff in the study reported using ‘instinctive’ judgements (whether the reading sounded fluent/ right/ smooth), rather than using formative measures to monitor reading fluency. Yet the research shows that to aid student’s understanding of the text students need:

  • Accuracy – to read books with at least 90% accuracy
  • Speed – to read at a rate of at least 90 words per minute
  • Expression – to use a range of prosodic cues (tone, pace, volume, sentiment)

In the study students’ self-perception was also measured. Motivation is a key factor in learning any skill.

In the study five teaching staff and 103 year 4 students (aged 8-9 years) took part. The staff were shown how to use three formative assessments:

  • Three Minute Reading Assessment (3MRA) – Rasinski and Padak (2005) – to measure accuracy and pace.
  • Zutell and Rasinski’s (1991) Multidimensional Fluency Scale (MFS) – to rate expression
  • The Reader Self-Perception Scale (RSPS), Henk and Melnick, 1995 – to measure students’ views of themselves as readers

The findings from the formative assessments were startling. The 3MRA revealed

  • 20% of the intervention students were reading books with 100% accuracy
  • A further 14% were reading books at a 99% accuracy level
  • Over half (57%) of the students were reading too slowly to successfully comprehend what they were reading

On the MFS 59% of the intervention students were reading with insufficient expression to promote comprehension. The Head Teacher was shocked at the low levels of reading (accuracy) challenge and immediately ordered more books. One teacher summed up the impact of using formative assessment: I suppose it was just a heightened awareness of knowing where they are at individually … The assessment has signalled the need for lots of different strategies and enabled us to know where the input needs to go.

The RSPS helped staff to see that reading aloud was unanimously disliked by the majority of students. Staff were also able to see which students were developing an early dislike of reading and were able to input accordingly. Staff reported feeling empowered and more knowledgeable from having undertaken the assessments. The simple formative assessments proved a valuable starting point in this fluency intervention as they helped staff to gain a greater understanding of students’ reading competencies (accuracy, rate and expression). They not only identified where students were at but what needed to be done and for whom. Reading difficulties are relatively easy to address: if a student lacks accuracy, teach them to recognise words; if they are slow readers, get them to read quicker (this in itself was an eye opener for UK staff); and if they do not use many prosodic cues model how to read with appropriate expression. The formative assessments underpinned and added great value to the fluency intervention.

Blog 2 will share the intervention methods used and the results.