Teachers of any subject will be familiar with the student who struggles to work their way through a text. These students find difficulty completing classwork, because they often have trouble extracting information from reading material. It’s difficult to help such students with their reading when trying to teach subject content to the whole class. As David Didau pointed out in his recent webinar Five Things Every Teacher Needs to Know About Reading earlier this month, dysfluent reading limits comprehension because of the extra load it imposes on working memory.

Slow and laborious reading impacts comprehension, as Jan Hasbrouck explains in the short video clip below. Without fluency, it takes enormous effort to slog through to the end of the paragraph, and by the time the student finally gets there, they can’t remember what they read at the beginning.  In this scenario, any hope of good comprehension is lost.

The obvious answer is to develop fluency. If children are fluent readers, they will understand the material better, have more working memory available to think about it, and cover the curriculum more quickly. It seems obvious – but there is a snag.  In the same way that we need to be able to walk before we can run, we need to be accurate before we can become fluent.  Many children who lack fluency are not yet accurate readers. In fact, for many children, their slowness is because they’re painstakingly trying to decipher the text. Why is reading accuracy so difficult to achieve for so many, and what can be done about it?

It’s interesting to note from the findings of the research by Seymour, Aro & Erskine (2003) on the errors in word reading at the end of first grade across Europe, that these range from 2% in Finland to a whopping 67% in Great Britain.

Errors in word reading at the end of first grade


Is this discrepancy due to excellence in the Finnish education system and abysmal failure of teaching in the UK? Rest assured that this is not the case. As the authors show in the table below, there are critical features in each of the languages to account for this discrepancy.

What does this mean? Orthography is the way in which the spoken form of a language is represented in written form i.e. the writing system:

The orthographic depth dimension contrasts alphabetic European orthographies 145 writing systems which approximate a consistent 1:1 mapping between letters and phonemes (e.g. Finnish) with those which contain orthographic inconsistencies and complexities, including multi-letter graphemes, context dependent rules, irregularities, and morphological effects (e.g. French, Danish).  (Seymour et al)

Unfortunately, not only does English have the deepest orthographic complexity, it also has the deepest syllabic structure:

The syllabic structure refers mainly to the difference between the Romance languages, which have a predominance of open CV syllables with few initial or final consonant clusters (e.g. Italian, Spanish), and the Germanic languages, which have numerous closed CVC syllables and complex consonant clusters in both onset and coda position (e.g. German, Danish, English). (ibid.)

The implication of all this for teaching is that these factors make learning to read English a more difficult challenge for native speakers than, for example, learning Finnish or Spanish. For some children, the complexity of English orthography can be extremely difficult to master. Consider the fact that we have an alphabet of 26 letters to represent all the sounds of English, but 44 – 46 different phonemes, depending on accent. These phonemes can have different representations, such as the different spellings for /ʃ/ in words such as shrew, chef, passion, social, tension, action, issue, machine, conscience, fashion, liquorice, fascism and sure as a few examples. And the reverse is also true, in English: one spelling can have different sounds. For example, the spelling ‘ea’ represents different sounds in words such as break, bread and bead.

Worldwide, English-speaking countries see about 20% of children arriving at secondary school reading well behind their same age peers. [Addicted to Denial] For those children lucky enough to be taught with a quality systematic synthetic phonics programme, tricky orthographic features will be made explicit, from simple to complex code, with plenty of practice to consolidate learning. Unfortunately, many children who are learning to read through a ‘whole language’ (or ‘balanced literacy’) approach are taught to try to decipher words by looking at the beginning and ending of a word, seeing what would make sense, and using context to check if their prediction (guess) is likely to be correct. The results are sometimes highly damaging, even in the longer term, as the author of this short post explains: Thank You Whole Language

Under these conditions, building fluency is problematic. If we haven’t corrected the bad guessing habits that students have been taught, all we achieve is speeding up the guessing process, and rendering it less accurate still.

So, what can be done? Fortunately, quite a lot – but, for that to happen, there is quite a lot for us to do as educators.

First, a school needs to have a thorough screening and assessment system. This system should identify which children have decoding problems, which ones have difficulty with comprehension and also which children performed poorly, simply because they lacked the test motivation.

Secondly, we need to put appropriate types of support in place, depending on the kinds of reading difficulties students have, and how far behind they are compared with their same-age peers. Comprehension needs can be addressed in small groups, as can children who are reading within 2-3 years of their chronological age. However, children who are reading more than three years behind, will have their own individual set of gaps that need to be targeted, and will require intensive one-to-one intervention if they are to catch up fully before the end of their schooling.

The classroom is an excellent environment for practice activities to build reading fluency. Short paired sprints, longer tasks to build stamina, regular reading activities across subjects, guidance and matching with high-interest reading materials – all of these can help to build speed, smoothness and automaticity of reading within the student’s regular curriculum.  But without first achieving accuracy, struggling adolescent readers will benefit very little from all of this activity.

To teach a student to read accurately, with all the knowledge that this requires, and to provide the coaching that they need to help them overcome poor reading habits, is likely to require targeted, individual intervention from a well-trained reading teacher. School leaders need to be clear how they are going to achieve both strategic goals – fluent reading and accurate reading.

You may also be interested in:

12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science

Pulling the Strands Together

Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?


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