Caution: Don’t skip fluency

With global competitiveness playing a central role in the education proposals of both President Bush and several governors this year (see stories, pages 10 and 34), strengthening math and science instruction has become a primary focal point of these plans. But at least one nationally recognized reading expert has an important message for policy makers and educators: Don’t forget reading fluency.

In a recent interview with eSchool News, Jon Bower, a Stanford-trained reading specialist with an MBA from Harvard, said he believes reading fluency is critical to ensuring that American students are prepared to succeed in an ever-evolving, global economy. Bower is president and CEO of Soliloquy Learning.

The United States, Bower said, has a 95 percent literacy rate, but only a 34 percent proficiency rate–meaning the vast majority of adults and children can’t read well enough to excel at their jobs or their school work.

This is holding the U.S. back, he continued, preventing the nation from being more competitive internationally and more productive in the workplace.

In the interview, Bower–a former Stanford University instructor who has spoken at numerous education conferences about cognitive development, reading, and technology–discussed proven reading strategies and explained how technology can help the many children not reading at a proficient level. The entire interview is available for viewing in streaming video format here:

Educators can do specific things to ensure all of their students, regardless of their skill level or learning pace, grow to become proficient readers, Bower said. He encouraged educators to choose a reading framework they can understand and implement it faithfully, following every step, to guarantee real reading proficiency.

“The science of reading is pretty well understood,” he said. “The five key reading skill sets are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The trick to all of that is not to get lost in one or another; it’s not how well we just do phonics, or how well we only focus on comprehension. [We should] make sure all students out there achieve all five of the skill sets, and then we’ll get 100-percent proficiency.”

Bower said one method shown to be effective through research is “guided oral reading,” which consists of an adult listening to a child read, correcting the child, guiding him or her through the text, and providing the vocabulary necessary to understand the text. While this is easily accomplished through one-on-one interaction between a student and his or her teacher or a private tutor, teachers often don’t have enough time to spend with each student–and private tutors are expensive. And that’s where technology can help, Bower said.

Thanks to improvements in speech-recognition technology, “now we can take a computer, have students wear a headset, and have them read out loud into the computer,” he said. “The computer understands every word they say in whatever their accent is, and it can provide that guided oral reading experience.”

He continued: “[The computer] can help them if they stumble, it can help them if they read incorrectly, it can give them vocabulary information if they don’t know what a word means. They can listen to themselves read and compare that to a modeled read–all methods that have been proven in the research to be effective, and now they’re cost-effective because we can deliver them for $40 to $50 per student, per year, instead of having an adult do that at $40 to $50 per hour.”

Soliloquy Learning offers such a computer-based solution for guided oral reading instruction, as do many other companies–including CompassLearning, Renaissance Learning, and Scholastic. AutoSkill reportedly plans to add a guided oral reading component to its product suite this year.

Bower compared this software-based approach to another popular reading instructional program, Reading Recovery.

“Reading Recovery … is nothing more than adults working with students in this fashion–but the cost is $8,000 to $10,000 per student, and that’s the problem,” he said. “We can do that for our worst-off students, and we do–but we can’t afford to do that for the majority of our students. Remember what I said earlier: Two-thirds of students are not becoming proficient in reading, which means that we need to do this for 3 or 4 million students a year in our schools today. And the only way to do that is through technology.”

Through a long-term, school-wide focus on literacy, and with the help of Soliloquy Reading Assistant, the entire fourth-grade class at Kentucky’s Brodhead Elementary School reportedly has achieved 100-percent reading proficiency.

“They’re one of very few schools in the country,” Bower said. “And they’ve done it simply by paying attention to each and every step and ensuring that every child has mastered every skill. That’s their focus as an elementary school–and the results speak for themselves.”

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