Penny Slater, Deputy Lead Adviser for Primary English shares some class-based exploration of reading fluency.

There is definitely a buzz in the air about fluency at the moment! And quite rightly so…

The DFE videos ‘2016 teacher assessment exemplification’, released back in April, highlighted fluent reading of an age-appropriate text as an indicator of working at Age Related Expectations. The series of videos, exemplifying fluent reading at both KS1 and 2, showed a range of children reading with accuracy, fluidity, appropriate intonation and expression – all of which gave us, the viewer, the clear impression that they were ‘getting’ what they were reading. Without the need to ask the children any questions, we could safely assume that they understood the meaning of the words on the page.

This realisation was the starting point for a piece of class-based research that I conducted with the Year 6 teacher/English Subject Leader at Reedings Junior School, in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire. Despite most children achieving well in the 2016 reading paper (80.6% achieving ARE in reading) and having high numbers of pupils in each year group working well towards Age Expected standards, the Subject Leader was keen to raise standards even further by ensuring that those pupils who were in danger of dipping just below the expected standard, were helped as much as possible to succeed. Specifically, she had concerns that the pupils who entered year 3 at 2C were going to struggle to reach the new required standard by the end of Y6. As is often the case, these children were still grappling with some decoding issues, as well as comprehension issues, and as a result were often working on texts that were pitched below the age-appropriate standard for their year groups. The Subject Leader, having lived through the 2016 reading paper, was well aware that if these children were not given regular access to age-appropriate texts, and were supported to access them, they would be ill-equipped to face the challenge of the KS2 reading paper. She was also concerned that by ensuring these children were having access to texts well-pitched to their current stage of reading development, they were missing opportunities to work with texts that were capable of giving their limited vocabulary banks a much-needed boost. And so a plan was hatched…!

The Subject Leader was keen to explore the idea that repeated re-reading aids fluency, and that fluency, in turn, aids comprehension. Ultimately, we decided that we wanted a child to be able to read a text in a way that convinced us, just from hearing them read-aloud, that they were getting the meaning of what they were reading. We then hoped that by giving the child an opportunity to read the text in a meaningful way, they would actually gain greater understanding of the text. Our plan was simple: model how a text should be read; support the children to read it in the same way; expect greater understanding of the text.

In order to give us a baseline for judging the impact of our method, we selected two children from the Year 5 class (both who were judged as being at risk of not meeting ARE at the end of Y6) and asked them to read aloud a challenging text. The Subject Leader wanted to choose a challenging text in order to hopefully show that by using simple instructional methods, even these currently lower-achieving pupils could be expected to tackle a text that would normally be considered beyond their capabilities. On this basis, the teacher chose an extract from a brilliant, thought-provoking text that she acknowledged many of her Y6 pupils struggled to fully comprehend: All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury. Not only is this text based on a concept that less mature readers might find hard to grasp, it is written in a sophisticated manner with sentence structures that wind and spiral and twist and turn…and go on…and on…and on (not dissimilar from the sentences year 6 children would have had to wade through in the 2016 test). Following this ‘cold’ read, the children were asked some simple questions about the text. What was obvious from observing this first read is that neither child ‘got’ the text first time round. Yes, they paid heed to the obvious punctuation marks (dutifully rising in pitch where they noted a question mark), and yes, there were fairly fluent in their reading in regards to decoding (both children had reached an adequate stage in their ability to decode that they could decode ‘on the run’. Interestingly however, both children mis-read the word in the 4th line ‘scientists’. One child read this as ‘sentences’; and the other as ‘dentists’ – neither seemed fazed by the fact that the word would have been unlikely – in the case of the second example – and bizarre in the case of the first. This led us even further to appreciate the fact that the children were not paying attention to the sense of the passage when they were reading). Overall, their reading could have been accurately described as ‘barking (or mumbling, to be more precise) at the text’. The fact that the experience seemed to offer them very little more than words on a page was confirmed from their responses to the follow-up questions that we asked. The initial questions and responses are noted below:

What are they waiting for?

Child 1 and 2: The rain to stop.

Where is this story set?

Child 1: A planet.

Child 2: I don’t know!

We had intended to ask more probing, challenging questions at this point, but based on the children’s obvious limited understanding of the text – and to avoid the imminent danger of losing the children’s attention altogether (after all, who could possibly be expected to stay alert and engaged when attempting to discuss a text that they clearly have no understanding of) – we chose to move swiftly on.

We then invited a few more children to join the group, and therefore had six children in total. Without telling the children anything about the text (other than the fact that it was a challenging text that was usually reserved for the Y6 class – this caused a few mutterings of pride), I launched into a full-throttle read aloud. The teacher and I had spent several minutes beforehand discussing how we would – as expert readers – read this text aloud to the children in order to best impart meaning. We wanted to demonstrate how good readers pay attention to so much more than the obvious punctuation marks. Specifically we talked beforehand about how we would emphasise the verbs in the 6th sentence (‘pressed’ and ‘peered’) to alert children to the actions being undertaken. We discussed how we felt that a short sentence (in this case, consisting of only two words: ‘It rained.’) required clear, bold intonation of each word, with a noticeable pause in between. We also discussed how this phrase should be spoken in a way that expressed the disappointment felt by the children at this point, so therefore, using a lower pitch for the word ‘rained’. We also noted that when we read the text aloud to each other, we emphasised the adjectives that fell before nouns e.g. ‘hidden sun’, rather than the noun itself. We also identified that we paused slightly before propositional phrases – interestingly, this is something that we hadn’t realised we did when reading aloud before. Specifically, we were asking ourselves what we understood from the words on the page, and considering how we could read it in such a way that this could be conveyed through no more than a good read-aloud model.

After swiftly reading the text aloud once through to the children, I dived straight into a second reading, but this time I paused after each sentence – when the sentences became very long, I paused after each phrase – and challenged the children to tell me what I did when reading that bit aloud. The children found this quite hard to articulate – initially saying things like, ‘well, you read it like this, Miss’ (and doing a pretty good impression, it has to be said). Clearly, the children did not have the metalanguage to describe the techniques that a good reader employs when reading aloud – definitely a point for later consideration, we felt! After each sentence/phrase I encouraged the children to ‘read that bit just like I did’. I increased motivation for this activity by inviting children to say the section again to their partner, taking turns and offering feedback. The children were invited to indicate if their partner had done it particularly well. The children were also invited to text mark, or annotate, their texts to remind them how they wanted to say certain words/phrases; I shared with the children how I had roughly text marked my own version (using no more than double or triple underlining to indicate the need for emphasis, and slashes to indicate the need for a micro-pause). It took about ten minutes to work through the extract in this way. In order to ensure coverage of the text, some sections I simply read aloud, without inviting the children to mimic my reading performance (notably, this offered the teacher and I am interesting teaching point which we discussed at the end of the session- we’ll come onto this later!).

Following this teacher-led session, the children were bitterly disappointed to discover that we hadn’t planned time to allow them to read their passages in its entirety aloud to the group – an over-sight on our part, so we indulged for a moment and allowed each pair to ‘perform’ their reading, thus allowing another sneaky re-read! By this stage, enthusiasm was high, and the children were enjoying themselves. From our perspective, our input was done. We had modelled a meaningful read-aloud, and allowed the children multiple opportunities to read and re-read the text. However, we had at no point discussed the text! We had not unpicked any of the language, nor had we discussed word choice, sentence structure, grammar etc – the usual stalwarts of a shared reading session. So, we wondered, would this be enough to allow the children to gain greater understanding of the text?

Our next step was to invite the original two children to re-read the text aloud once again. The difference was stunning! What had been an inaccessible text, read like the children were wading through treacle, was now read with all the outward signs of fluency that we were hoping for. Most significantly, it sounded like they were actually ‘getting’ what they were reading, much like the revered child in the DFE video. This of course we had anticipated, seeing as we had heavily modelled how to read the text during the session. But, the real test for us was whether the greater fluency that the children now possessed had led to greater understanding. With fingers crossed, we asked the children the same questions again:

What are they waiting for?

Child 1: For the rain stop and for the sun to come out.

Where is it set?

Child 1: Venus

Child 2: Venus

Both children offered this answer without hesitation.

This time, based on the level of enthusiasm that we were detecting for the text, we felt we could probe with a few further, more challenging questions.

How do they feel about the rain?

Child 1: They don’t like it because it ruins everything. It’s noisy.

The child was able to locate sections from the text that supported with his answer to this question and was keen to do so.

Child 2: They were happy that it was going to stop. They don’t like it because it just never stops.

Who might the rocket men and women be?

Both children agreed that these must be the humans who travelled there from Earth.

Would you like to live there?

This question created a moment or two of quiet thinking time before Child A offered a response….

Child 2: Yes.

At this point, we wondered if the child had fully appreciated the characters’ despair at their monotonous and destructive weather conditions. Surely he could see that there would be downsides to living in a place like the one described? But he continued…

Child 2: At first at least. I like going outside in the rain and mucking around in puddles. But it would get boring after a while. I wouldn’t like it for long.

How wonderful to hear the children talking with increased understanding and engagement about the text, and offering many more thoughtful insights into its meaning, and in doing so, alerting us to their own unique interpretations! Clearly, the children now had a much greater appreciation – and enthusiasm – for the text. Put simply, they ‘got’ it!

Earlier in this blog, I referred to an interesting teaching point that the teacher and I stumbled upon when reflecting on the session. I stated earlier that in order to get through the entire text in the short session we had, I simply read aloud certain sections, rather than asking the children to mimic my reading performance. Interestingly, the children were less able to answer questions about sections of the text that I had simply read aloud to them (albeit having been read in a full-throttled, meaning-laden manner). We concluded that it was the act of reading the text aloud themselves, with the meaning dripping from every word that they uttered, that really helped the children to draw understanding from the words on the page. Put simply: reading a tricky text aloud to children will certainly begin to help them to comprehend it, but in order to go deeper, they have to read it themselves in a way that imparts meaning.

Although as always, a session like this can often leave you with more questions than answers, we did conclude the session feeling that we had made some headway. Specially we felt satisfied that we would be able to present these children, and others at similar stages of reading development in other year groups, with challenging, age-appropriate texts, and that with some forethought – in the form of pre-teaching consisting of modelled fluent reading– they would be able to access them and enjoy them, along with their peers. In the long-term, we discussed how repeated exposure to challenging texts in this way would hopefully attune these children’s ears to the rhythms of complex language structures making them more confident when tackling texts of this nature independently. We discussed how, moving forwards, we might be able to prompt children further in their response to the ‘what did I do when I read that?’ question, and actually get them to bring forth some of their grammatical terminology at that stage, so instead of saying, ‘You paused after the word ‘look’ in line 7’ they might be prompted to say, ‘You paused before the prepositional phrase ‘at the hidden sun’’. In this way, the children might be able to begin to establish a set of generic guidelines to help them tackle any unknown text, allowing for a meaningful read that might just in itself allow for meaning to be drawn from the text.

Clearly this technique does not offer a quick fix. The Subject leader and I acknowledged this. Instead it is more about the long game. But, our session made us believe that on this occasion, it was a game well worth playing and that the results would be well worth waiting for.