Comprehending Comprehension Complications

Speed reading tests are a big part of today’s entourage of standardized tests in elementary schools. These tests determine the child’s ability to read fluently and accurately. Comprehension tests, which are separate from speed tests, are performed a few times throughout primary school.

Standardized testing to a child is like the press following a Hollywood star; they are always there in your face, flashes of light glaring in the eyes, obnoxiously persistent and not sure if their presence is necessary or if they really prove anything. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between reading speed and academic success. Emphasis is placed on reading fluidly and accurately. How exactly do the experts determine what is fluid? Is there an exact speed to fluidity? These are questions to which I still seek answers.

Volunteering in grades K-6, specifically with reading fluency, over the years has given me a closer look at children and their reading abilities. I have observed children fly so quickly through a grade specific passage, that there is barely a breath taken, as if they just said one really long word rather than several words. I have observed other children get so lost in the words that comprehension still is not achieved because only one word is being recognized at a time, rather than words being linked to form a complete thought. The final example is the child who reads clearly with a consistent and steady flow, paying attention to punctuation and other key elements of a written passage, such as tone and inflection. This child’s reading speed is not fast, nor is it slow; rather it is a moderate to moderately high speed, allowing the child to absorb the essential details of the text. Another observation was that of how agitated children were when pressured for speed. They fumbled over words, got discouraged when the timer beeped, some squirmed through the whole test, others would drag their feet the whole way to the testing location and flop themselves down in the chair with a huff.

Now, I am no expert, but the experience I have reading with children, has shown that for some children, the pressure accompanying the speed tests, interferes with comprehension. Research regarding speed and comprehension uses vague terms, such as fast and slow, which insufficiently addresses what the most effective reading speed is and what the best methods are for encouraging a more relaxed experience for young readers.

A few suggestions for improving speed and comprehension: One, select text that is not too difficult and dense with unfamiliar words, but rather grade and skill appropriate. Some publishing companies publish books with specific reading level indicators making book selection easy. Two, choose short selections that are perfect for reading aloud. The E.B. White read aloud award is given every year to a book considered perfect for reading aloud (such as I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen and Wildwood, by Coin Meloy). Three, repeated readings. Selecting text specifically to be read multiple times reinforces word recognition, which increases fluency and comprehension; not to mention, confidence.

I appreciate research provided by Timothy V. Rasinski who said, “The goal in fluency instruction is not fast reading, but fluent and meaning-filled reading.” This can be achieved by following the above steps and by maintaining a relaxed atmosphere. As a parent of a child who struggles with fluency, I know all too well how my personal frustrations and agitations will influence my child’s ability to read fluently. So for parents, keep any personal negative feelings far away from the reading experience with your child, thus making reading comfortable and pleasurable, which in turn will foster fluency and comprehension.


Written by: Suzanna Tolman