Reading fluency and the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

Is reading fluency important for academic success?

I’d imagine everyone reading this would agree it was very important – crucial in fact.

This description from Quirky Teacher of many children’s reading in year 6 must sound quite familiar to secondary teachers:

I am worried that children in KS2, despite being officially ‘able to read’, are still not really fluent, even when they get to year 6. When you ask them to read to you, they stumble slowly through a text, sometimes randomly substituting trickier and new words, never able to add intonation and not really getting the bigger picture.

As I outlined in my post yesterday that does not mean that at secondary level we ensure children get enough daily reading practice to ensure our students DO read fluently. One reason for this is that the need for bulk practice is not appreciated. There is another reason why, even when the importance of sustained reading is acknowledged, children still don’t end up with enough practice to become fluent readers. This reason can be explained using the economic principle of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.

What is this principle?

I like using this cartoon to explain the principle when teaching my A level politics students (about ecologism).

tragedy-of-the-commons

The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.

At secondary level the ultimate goal of subject teachers is to ensure their students learn their subject, biology, geography, RE etc, probably measured through their success in public examinations. Aside from the ultimate benefit to the pupil, if children are fluent readers it helps all teachers achieve the academic goals they have for their students and therefore no teacher would quibble that reading fluency is important.  The reading fluency is a ‘common good’- a shared resource that benefits all teachers as they teach their subject to the student. However, that does NOT mean it benefits the individual teacher to focus on reading fluency. If you look at the wiki definition above, rather than gaining an individual advantage from ‘depleting’ a resource, subject teachers gain an advantage by not adding to a shared resource. It takes valuable lesson time away from subject learning to focus on building the commonly shared resource – fluent reading. I’ll explain using an example from my own teaching:

I want my year 9 students to learn about the 1916 Battle of the Somme. After a series of lessons the class will write an essay on whether the Somme was entirely a disaster. As a subject teacher I will get the most reward from getting the best possible essays as quickly and painlessly as possible. SO should I cover the key detail on the Somme by:

  1. Using a great article I found on the internet. I can abridge it to ensure that while it challenges the students it is accessible. I know this article covers the ground well but it will take a long time to read and the students won’t exactly be enthralled that they are doing lots of reading.
  2. Use a documentary from Youtube that covers all the issues in full technicolour and takes half the time the article would. Hey – we can practice note taking!
  3. Play some sort of fact finding games. Not as effective to get the content across as the article but it will look great if you are observed as the class will love it. They’ll walk out of the lesson saying they prefer history to geography. This means they’ll probably work harder on their history essay and opt for the subject at GCSE.

Let’s be honest. How often do we opt for A because we know it serves the greater good? The common goal of reading fluency is inevitably sacrificed. I don’t think individual teachers should be blamed for this. The incentives are all wrong. How many teachers can get by on a warm glow of self-righteousness when other teachers and other subjects get better results, no one opts for your subject at GCSE and the kids complain that (comparatively) your lessons are boring. We are far more likely to kid ourselves that what amounts to a tokenistic amount of reading is ‘doing our bit’ because we’re not into career suicide.

So what should be done? As my A level politics students know – this is an argument for centralised control. The incentives need to be changed by those with the power to do so – SLT. If sustained reading is the norm in ALL lessons then students just get used to it and will start to read the amount necessary each day to become fluent.

Perhaps this shift towards more sustained reading can be achieved as at Michaela School by having a quite centralised control over the materials used in class. Perhaps SLT can agree with subject departments a notional number of words a week that need to be read in each subject, as appropriate (i.e. not appropriate for maths!). Maybe lesson observation can be used or book scrutinies can look for evidence that there has been very regular sustained reading at the right level of challenge. Ultimately, a sensible, intelligently implemented,  way needs to be found to end what amounts to a ‘tragedy of the commons’.

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Why can’t our students read fluently?

Lots of children learn to read well despite very poor or minimal teaching. I think I was probably one of those children. I don’t think my mum ever listened to me read but somehow I now read fluently. I remember seeing my big sister chuckling over an Enid Blyton Image result for child reading blytonand feeling jealous because I couldn’t read and then I remember being able to read Blyton myself. I think I must have read constantly from about the age of six to twelve only surfacing for school lessons. With my sister I spent every Saturday in the children’s section of the local library. I had a long walk home from school and I would hitch my bag straps over my forehead to allow me to read my latest volume as I dawdled along the pavement.
At first sight my experience does seem to suggest that motivation provides the key to growing a strong reader and that is certainly the assumption of our schools. I disagree.

There are, in fact, many factors that make it more likely that children will read well, the area is very well researched, but perhaps the most crucial factor tends to be overlooked – bulk practice. Surely, you may say, we all know children need to read lots. Schools bend over backwards to encourage children to read lots. I’m not so sure we really DO appreciate the importance of bulk practice for reading fluency OR that we do the right things to ensure that this practice happens.
At the heart of the problem is the faulty supposition that the only lever teachers have is exhortation. The assumption seems to be that we must persuade our children that reading is fun and if they won’t listen we just throw our hands up and bewail the situation or embark on ever more elaborate campaigns to entice reluctant readers to open a book. Motivation is important. We do want to ensure our children have good role models, attractive environments and great reading options. Schools are right to ensure these elements are in place. I think though that we forget that it is not motivation that grows a reader – it is reading that grows a reader – bulk reading. The world renowned reading researcher Keith Stanovich calls this the ‘Matthew Effect’.
It is true that I was motivated to read but that is hardly surprising when you consider that my unusual childhood involved no computer screens, no television, no after school activities; nothing to provide higher gratification than I could gain, aged six, from puzzling out the letters that let me into the world of St Clare’s and the hilarious tricks the girls played on their French mistress. I had nothing ‘better’ to do and so I read in bulk. Can we simply cross our fingers that children today, faced with a plethora of instant forms of gratification, will be persuaded to persist with a book?

Image result for child on a screen

One way or another children need to read enough words in a day, a week, a month, a year, to attain fluency. As Quirky Teacher pointed out in a recent blog, at primary level the typical group reading sessions involve very little sustained reading (see here also). At secondary levels teachers try and cut the amount of reading in lessons, using other mediums to make the subject learning more accessible. Thus in the average school day a child does not encounter anything like the number of words they need to read to become fluent readers. To be blunt, currently the education provided through school alone is not adequate to create fluent readers.
The fascinating work of the late Jeanne Chall suggests this drive for accessibility has been very counterproductive. She found that in America schools had been gradually reducing the reading age of subject textbooks to make learning more accessible which correlated with a decline in reading ages. Chall suggested that, as children were less challenged, the reading ages of children gradually dropped, creating a negative spiral in which textbook publishers continued to lower the challenge of text to keep up with the falling reading age of the students.
Children need to read lots because the vast majority of the vocabulary children encounter in text is not used in everyday speech. Written communication follows different conventions to the spoken word. However, even those children who do enjoy some David Walliams aren’t therefore being exposed to more academic forms of writing which build the stamina for engaging with more abstract texts that children will need if they are to succeed academically (as I explain here.) For this they need to engage with the more academic forms of writing they should repeatedly encounter at school.

Whatever children may choose to read should be a bonus. Something as crucial as reading fluency should not be dependent on whether we can cajole children to read for pleasure.  In their schooling they should encounter enough text, fiction and subject based, at the right level of challenge, to ensure they progress towards becoming fluent readers. This may be partly through initiatives like ‘Drop Everything And Read’ although for weaker readers this won’t help –they need more time reading with an adult. Not much of this bulk reading should be in maths or PE lessons BUT sustained reading should be a normal part of most lessons – including science, geography, business and RE etc. At one school (which many on the blogosphere may have heard of it) children read ten thousand words a day. I’ll repeat that with emphasis TEN THOUSAND WORDS A DAY! I think we can rest assured that Michaela school is growing fluent readers! I’d suggest that in most schools children don’t come anywhere near this total. When children present as struggling readers it would be interesting to investigate just how much bulk practice they have had in the past. I’d bet quite a lot that it was not very much!

For a very clear and more detailed outline of the problems of primary see this.

Developmentalism v Mastery

I wrote piece recently for Schools Week on the problems with the idea of waiting until children are ‘ready’ to learn:

Developmentalism vs mastery: should teachers be ‘flinging mud at the wall’?