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Reading Rate – The Answer to Good Comprehension?

by Paolo Martin

"I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." - Woody Allen. 

With the publication of the National Reading Panel's April 2000 report, "The National Reading Panel's Report: Teaching Children to Read," many people have identified the five essential elements of good reading instruction as phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.  The last item, fluency, has been an area of particularly strong investigation.  According to the National Reading Panel's findings, fluency--a child's ability to read text quickly and automatically--is important to reading because when children read text quickly and effortlessly, they are able to comprehend the text better.  This is because it frees cognitive energy which can then be devoted to negotiating the meaning conveyed by the text.  Today, many schools have begun a program of increasing the reading rate of students as a way of increasing reading comprehension.  One blogster at who endorses speed reading has written, "...comprehension increases when you input information rapidly into your brain without lingering over it."  And test companies like Dibels use fluency tests as an indicator of comprehension ability.

But as more and more educators equate reading rate with fluency and fluency with comprehension, we need to ask ourselves whether we should really be focusing our attention on getting kids to read faster.  Unfortunately, fluency research does not tell us HOW students are negotiating meaning.   Different research employs different standards for judging the acceptable reading rate for a child in a particular grade level.  For example, the range for first grade varies from 30 words per minute to 90 words, as listed in  Also, some say reading rate should vary depending on the purpose:  reading for memorization (under 100 words per minute [wpm]), reading for learning (100-200 wpm), reading for basic comprehension (200-400 wpm), and skimming (400-700 wpm).  As with other ways people use to make sense of what they read, the bottom line ultimately comes down to the individual:  does that student or adult find that reading faster improves his or her understanding of the text?  Perhaps that depends on what he or she reads.  Perhaps it depends on the situation, like reading for pleasure, reading a medical book, or reading a passage in a standardized test.  Unfortunately, in today's climate of high-stakes tests as mandated by No Child Left Behind, standardized tests have become the bottom line as indicators of reading success both for school accountability and in many research programs sponsored by the government.  If kids are taught to read faster to ultimately do better on state tests, the message conveyed is that reading for understanding is only as authentic as those standardized tests make it.  On the flip side, why spend months reading War and Peace, only to understand that it's about Russia?

Tags: fluency, speed reading, reading speed, reading instruction, reading fluency

  1. Adeilson
    Reply 03/19/12

    I bought this for my 6 year old norgdsan who was having a lot of trouble sounding out words, writing, working with any speed, and retaining information. We have been working with this for 4 days. His writing has improved. He is sounding out words. He is more willing to sit down and do school work than he was in the past. This software and the books have definitely helped, but I think it’s overpriced and low quality given the available graphics and technology. It teaches by using pictures, but what good are pictures if neither the child nor adult can make out what they are? The three books are printed on 8.5 x 14 paper, folded in half, and look like they were printed from a low quality dot matrix printer. The graphics used on the computer aren’t much better. For almost $200, I would expect more.

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