How the Primary Grades Can Save Us: Growing American Reading Comprehension

By Cindy Jiban

All eyes are on the first grade table in the elementary staff meetings these days.

When recent NAEP results came out, the bleak headline was that American students are not getting better at reading comprehension. When the NAEP folks convened a panel of reading experts in early April, the primary grades got called out as one potential culprit. So what needs re-evaluating in K-3 literacy? One reasonable place to look is at oral reading fluency and the foundational skills that feed word decoding.

Here’s where we are now: many American children bounce home to announce their numbers: “Mom, I got 71!” That’s words correct per minute (wcpm), a little like miles per hour. But reading is not a speedway, where the point is to go round and round on a small track and look up at your split time on the clock.

Building automatic word recognition is important, and fluency measures capture that growth nicely—for a finite period. Moving from 41 wcpm to 71 wcpm means less mental focus spent on sounding out words and potentially more focus on understanding meaning.  But is increasing from 110 wcpm to 140 wcpm equally important? The answer is no. Reading rate matters, until it doesn’t. What we need is a renewed focus on the point of all that automaticity – reading with comprehension, in more and more complex texts. Reading is not a speedway, but a giant set of highways, main streets, and gravel mountain roads. The point is to go somewhere new.

What can we do to better situate reading comprehension, not fluency, as the goal of reading instruction in the primary grades?

  • Stop timing kids without also following up with checking for comprehension—and make sure they know ahead of time that the point is to understand what they are reading.
  • Institute a “fast enough” category: for example, capture all scores above 130 wcpm as simply “above 130.” This way no one gets called the best reader just by being the fastest talker.
  • Adapt the level of text, even if it makes your comparative fluency data messier.  When children read with good rate, accuracy, and understanding, we are then interested in how they handle harder text. If we don’t adapt, students will try to show us their growth only by reading faster.
  • Don’t let the “cold reading” concept bleed from assessment into instruction. When we want students to read with comprehension, we know that building and activating prior knowledge about topics, genres, and vocabulary reflects best practice.
  • Reduce the amount of time teachers spend in one on one assessment. We know the tremendous value of responsive, high quality teacher-student interactions in early education. But a teacher has to be unresponsive to the whole rest of the class for hours and hours when she is at the back table with a timer, a clipboard, and only one child at a time.

What about before oral reading fluency? Some view reading comprehension as an appropriate focus of instruction only after kids can read text. This is simply wrong. Consider the Simple View of Reading. This research-supported model of how reading comprehension (RC) develops parses decoding (D) as only one of two factors, the other being language comprehension (LC). That’s oral language comprehension—vocabulary, idioms, more complex grammatical structure. The model frames RC as the product of D and LC—for the math fans amongst us, RC = D x LC. So even if decoding is at 100% power, reading comprehension can never surpass a student’s language comprehension power.

What can we do to put decoding and language comprehension on more equal footing?

  • Use the term “foundational skills” differently. The Common Core uses this label for skills that feed the decoding side only. But oral language comprehension is just as critical a foundation to reading with understanding.
  • Dig into the concept of constrained and unconstrained skills in early literacy. Many constrained skills have a fast and steep slope of growth, ending in something like mastery: think letter naming or phoneme segmentation. But that doesn’t mean they should dominate our attention. Long, steady growth trajectories happen into adulthood in areas like vocabulary, syntax, and listening comprehension—those unconstrained skills. They’re less flashy, but they’re the bedrock.
  • Grow our understanding of what it looks like in the classroom to support language development. Imagine kids in the kindergarten class are in play-based centers pretending to buy shoes or help pets at the clinic, and the principal pops in for an observation. Don’t let it go if she says, “I’ll come back when you’re teaching.” Good support of language development doesn’t always look didactic or teacher-centered.
  • Assess comprehension and vocabulary in efficient and engaging ways, even before kids can read. What we assess, even informally, strongly dictates what we teach. As the opt-outers are telling us, we need a real push for more field trips, more arts, more social studies and science—and these are the very things that an increased focus on strong language comprehension demands.

When American reading comprehension scores are stagnating, it’s time to call on our superheroes to intervene. Hint: keep your eyes on the phone booth over by the first grade teachers’ table.

For more, see:

Cindy Jiban, Ph.D., is Senior Curriculum Specialist at NWEA. She previously has taught in elementary and middle schools, both as a classroom teacher and as a special educator.

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Danielle Voit

I think far too much emphasis is placed on leveled reading systems when research consistently shows that these programs are limiting to students. Moreover, many students become reluctant readers as a result of these programs. Leveled reading programs, assessments, and many other literacy programs seek to assess and define early literacy in such finite degrees. We must gently direct our children towards books that they may both enjoy and comprehend. Successful readers are not the students that feel as if reading is a requirement; they are those students that have incorporated reading into their lifestyle and habits.

Lynn Hensley

Fluency is being driven too much by Diabels assessments. Too much emphasis on speed. Rate isn't the only point of fluency.

Language comprehension is important. I would like to see more students being read to by teachers. This builds language development through vocabulary and listening comprehension. Students watch videos of books being read or watch and listenung on computers. This is not the same and isn't as effective.

Lynn Hensley

I dislike that Dibels assessment is driving fluency. The only concern seems to be speed or words per minute. This is no fluency and doesn't connect to comprehension.
Language comprehension is important for reading comprehension. Students need to be read to more by teachers to build this through vocabulary and listening comprehension. Too many students are watching books on videos or on their computer. This isn't the same as being read to by as a teacher.

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