In this charming article in The Reading Teacher, Illinois elementary teachers Barclay Marcell and Christine Ferraro describe a second-grade girl who “reads 100 words per minute with a flat voice and a mind that’s focused on what’s for lunch,” a boy who reads 120 words a minute and cares more about his reading-rate graph than the content of the story, and students who ask, “Are you timing me?” and “Did I beat my last score?” Most upsetting of all are students who can’t provide an accurate retelling of what they read.
Marcell and Ferraro recall how fluency became an obsession in elementary classrooms after the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report and RTI’s focus on measurable data. Somehow the emphasis on reading fast and saying words accurately eclipsed expression and comprehension. Why? “It seems that, amid the well-intentioned use of timers, graphs, and programs devoted to repeated readings, fluency practice was being distilled to ‘race reading,’” they say. Authentic fluency should be “reading with and for meaning,” but it was lost in many classrooms. “Although we believe that automaticity is indeed a hallmark of reading fluency,” they say, “we needed our students to grasp fluency’s multifaceted features and related strategies – to adjust pace, to add expression, to connect and summarize. We also wanted to make fluency instruction more engaging for kids.”
To accomplish this, Marcell and Ferraro created a series of evil characters that personified bad reading habits, made character cards of each one, and pasted them to the back of popsicle sticks:
- Robot Reader, who wants you to read like an automaton and keeps you from understanding;
- Choppy Boy, who wants you to chop words;
- Alien Dude, who wants you to read like a Martian without understanding the words (“Hmmm, what did I just read?”)
- Flat Man, who makes sure your voice doesn’t go up or down.
Who would deal with these characters? “It’s time for Poetry Power Man and his superhero friends – Super Scooper, Expression Man, and Captain Comprehension – to enter our reading blocks,” say Marcell and Ferraro. “Their mission? To fight for fluency and all its facets – rate, expression, accuracy, and learning…”
Why poetry? Because reading poems enlists all the skills students need to read fluently – rate, expression, accuracy, and learning – as well as phrasing, metaphors, similes, personifications, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and, of course, comprehension. Marcell and Ferraro created a fluency development sequence that stretched through each week and had these components:
- Introducing a short passage (usually a poem)
- Reading it aloud
- Discussing the content
- Choral reading
- Paired reading
- Word study
- Home practice
- Final re-reading
During each week, students did Practice #1 with Super Scooper fighting Choppy Boy for good phrasing, Practice #2 with Expression Man fighting Flat Man for lively voice inflection (as measured by the Expression-O-Meter), and Practice #3 with Captain Comprehension fighting Alien Dude for summarizing and connecting to deeper understanding. The final day included performances.
The results? Over four years of implementation, all dimensions of students’ fluency have improved markedly, as has their enjoyment of poetry and reading.