Maybe it’s because my son has now reached my own height (which is insane). I find myself staring now and then at the doorway out of my kitchen, where all these little height marks on the doorjamb are labeled with a name and a date. I can see that year when he sprouted up a ton in the four months between his birthday and the start of the school year. And – almost too much to bear—I can see how tall he was at age 15 months.
There are some things from back then that I can’t see on the doorjamb. I can’t see just when he first spoke in full sentences, or when he first spent the night in big boy underpants. But those sure mattered a lot for how we adapted our parenting focus, while they were happening.
How do we measure these milestones, and what kinds of growth do we capture? It’s a critical question in early literacy, too.
Early Literacy in the MAP Suite
We designed our MAP Suite of assessments in early literacy to handle a parallel reality, around measuring what matters in these developmental years. You can see this reality reflected in the nature of reading standards. In most state standards, there are some “anchor” reading standards that span the entire K–12 space, that build upon each other as kids progress in facets of reading comprehension and vocabulary. Measuring those works on a continuous scale – like a doorjamb.
In the MAP Suite, the doorjamb is our RIT scale, continuous from K through 12 in Reading. The tool that makes those height marks is MAP Growth. Even before kids can read independently, they are making progress we can measure on these standards. When a teacher reads a story aloud to her students, she is still asking them to start comparing characters or noticing cause and effect relationships. With MAP Growth K-2, audio support lets us assess reading comprehension even before kids can decode words and sentences.
But state reading standards also include those shorter-lived standards, often called Foundational Skills. These include pieces that are, well, foundational while they matter, but then disappear altogether from the standards by late elementary grades.
Oral reading fluency is a key indicator of reading proficiency. But it’s got some issues, as it’s currently implemented in some schools. One of these is that we have a cadre of kids who are getting the wrong message: we’re teaching them that they can fast talk their way into college and career success.
Overselling reading speed at the high end
The wrong message is this: faster reading is better reading. And we’ve done a pretty good job of selling that idea to some kids and families these days. Millions of kids read aloud for one minute on grade level passages each season; teachers gauge their words correct per minute (WCPM) as a metric of fluency. If Sally’s “fluency” is 120 words correct per minute and Jane’s is 125, then both girls know who wins. And when Sally reads aloud for one minute next season, she’s going to be very focused on getting those words out faster than she did last time. When we teach kids that more and more WCPM is the goal, we steer them wrong on how literacy for college and career will work.
Unless, of course, their career aspiration is to become a fast-talking auctioneer.
Even back in 1985, proponents of fluency measurement were warning that without an associated focus on comprehension, the one-minute oral reading approach presents some risk of unwanted results (Deno, 1985). Sure enough: researchers have found that the pervasiveness of this isolated WCPM metric moves many teachers towards a “faster is better” orientation as they teach reading (Newman, 2009; Deeney, 2010).
Is oral reading fluency assessment bad? Heck, no. It’s an amazingly robust measure, used well. Revisit this blog for a recap…
Cindy Jiban has taught in elementary and middle schools, both as a classroom teacher and as a special educator. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, focusing on intervention and assessment for students acquiring foundational academic skills. After contributions at the Research Institute on Progress Monitoring, the National Center on Educational Outcomes, and the Minnesota Center for Reading Research, Cindy joined NWEA in 2009.
As young kids amaze us all by developing reading fluency (remember this blog?), they typically move toward greater and greater comprehension of what they read. That’s good: reading with comprehension is, after all, the point of learning to read fluently.
But not all kids have enough of what they need to get to reading comprehension. Some kids have strong phonics and word recognition skills, but still fail to comprehend. Others show solid, insightful comprehension when you read TO them, but fall down in comprehending what they read on their own.
What gives? This sounds complicated.
Actually, it’s helpful to focus on how simple it is. An important model for reading comprehension is one asserted by Gough & Tunmer (1986). Their model, the Simple View of Reading, is described by a simple formula: RC = D x LC
This is “simple” because it only has two moving parts, the D and the LC. Just as a simple lever only has two parts, handle and fulcrum, the development of reading comprehension can be modeled as being, at its core, simple.
Decoding (D) is the ability to turn printed words into the right word sounds, more and more automatically. Phonics instruction aims toward increasing decoding proficiency.
Language Comprehension (LC) is the ability to understand spoken words in sentences. When we speak with easier words and less complex structures to very small kids, we are reaching toward their less proficient language comprehension.
In this model, D and LC are multiplied together, not added. That’s important because it means this: when one is weak, you can’t just compensate with a heavier dose of the other…