Often, I'll get phone calls from school administrators who are analyzing data and need some support and want direction in the one number that's going to indicate whether or not children are reading. They're trying to identify that one data point that they can follow over time that says, "Our children are successful in our district with reading."
And unfortunately, I have to tell them that number doesn't exist. There are benchmarks that can tell you minimum competency, but literacy is more complicated than that. There is no one number that says: reading literacy.
There are lots of different things that we look at to measure reading. But what we can say is when children are struggling, when they have been identified as being a child who is at risk for reading difficulty, or having some type of reading difficulty, for whatever reason, most of the time, the difficulty is due to a lack of fluency.
We define fluency in many ways, but generally, we measure fluency in accuracy and reading rate—whether or not they're able to decode the words on the page automatically and at a decent rate.
Teachers and administrators will sometimes say, "But the whole point of reading is we want them to read for meaning, so we want to look at comprehension—are they actually comprehending what they're reading?" And that is important! But the simple view of reading that is held up over time—and this has been around for a long time, and still seems to prove true—is that reading comprehension is the product of fluency and language comprehension.
If either one of those is not present, you are not going to have reading comprehension. If either is zero, reading comprehension is zero.
Understanding Language Comprehension
The language comprehension piece has to do with whether or not students have background knowledge, vocabulary, and basic oral language skills and comprehension to be able to understand the content of what they're reading.
So an example might be if I'm reading a story aloud to children in class, which of those children are comprehending the story? Which students understand the words I'm speaking, understand the ideas and the story, and are able to connect to the story? That is language comprehension.
Most children who are identified as struggling readers may have also language comprehension issues. But the basic issue, the basic source of their problem most of the time, is the fluency side.
On the fluency side, we know we can address there are very specific skills that contribute to a child being fluent, and those skills can be targeted in instruction and almost all children will show some improvement when those skills are targeted effectively.
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