Go to just about any elementary school in this country and you will see teachers with stopwatches assessing “nonsense word fluency,” says Thomas Newkirk, a former high school teacher and currently professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, for the Washington Post. When I first heard the term, I though someone was pulling my leg. Fluency in reading, I had always thought, was about meaning, about understanding. It had nothing to do with nonsense. But children are tested regularly in 60-second bursts on meaningless letter combinations—often pushed to go faster than one per second. Fluency equates to speed. I understand the importance of decoding skill, and I’m sure that some kids—the sprinters—might like this form of racing. But I wonder what image of reading we are passing on, and how the stragglers feel…

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