A colleague recently wrote to tell me that her school had just adopted a DIBELS-like evaluation system, even though she had argued against the idea. Her main objection was the use of the oral reading “fluency” measure that counted correct words per minute. She was sure there was something wrong with this assessment, but she wasn’t sure how to put it into terms that would support her argument.
I agree with her that adopting this reading assessment is a terrible idea. Renowned reading researcher P. David Pearson said in reference to the original, “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards.”
The topic of “reading fluency “is fresh on my mind because I am currently working with a 5th grader who reads slowly and tentatively. Using miscue analysis, I timed his uninterrupted oral reading of several pages of The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen. His reading rate was about 60 words per minute, and he produced several substitution miscues. All of the miscues were either uncorrected high quality miscues (i.e., they did not disrupt meaning), or they were partially acceptable miscues that were then corrected. His understanding of the text demonstrated through his retelling in which he was able to summarize the plot and describe the characters without any prompting. His retelling was complete.
So, why then did he read so slowly? The brief answer is that he was engaged in solving problems he encountered, and that he was savoring the story—commenting aloud on the text as he read.
There were several instances in which he read very slowly, or paused and took several seconds to produce an oral response. For example, he read the second half of the following sentence very slowly: “The inner walls of the [small intestine] were covered with tiny “fingers” called villi.” Then he paused for a couple of sentences and said “‘Fingers,’ okay, I get it.” Our subsequent RMA conversations revealed that it wasn’t a pronunciation that caused him to pause, it was the placement of the particular word in a new context that caused him to reflect and integrate this new information with what he previously knew. It was the word “fingers,” a word he knew, that caused him to pause and reflect, not “villi,” a term that was new to him.
There were other instances in which he seemed to be wondering aloud about some problem he had just encountered. For example, he read crunching and munching for churning and mashing in the sentence, “The walls of the stomach moved in and out, churning and mashing the food into a thick liquid.” At the end of the paragraph, he stopped orally reading and said “One thing I don’t get about this is ‘crunching’ and ‘munching.’ If you’re munching, don’t you have to, like, grind it against something like your teeth?” And then moments later, after glancing back at the text he said, “Oh, that’s mashing…Well, it kind of means the same thing, so it doesn’t bother me.”
Each miscue observation and RMA conversation has helped me understand that reading is so much more than quickly identifying words, as the DIBELS-like assessments would lead us to believe. Reading is thinking, and thinking takes time. Readers deserve time to think.
Alan Flurkey for retrospectivemiscue.com