Growing Reader


When Reading Speed Matters for Kids

by Cindy L. Rodriguez

Photo credit: Hill Street Studios, Blend Images/ Getty Images

I am a slow reader. I always have been. I have also always been a voracious reader and an excellent student.

Being a slow reader does not equal being a bad reader.

Yet, as a middle school reading specialist, I gauge how long a student takes to read a text and administer regular fluency checks to determine a student’s correct words per minute.

So, which is it? Does speed matter? Yes and no.

First, let me try to explain why and when reading speed matters.

When children first learn to read, they learn to recognize and then assign sounds to letters. Those letters become words that are decoded, slowly at first, and then, after practice, are recognized and read accurately and automatically. When the brain is not focused on decoding words, it is freed up to focus on comprehension. This is why reading teachers, especially in the early grades, are concerned about a child’s reading fluency, which is a combination of rate, accuracy, and expression. Note that rate is not and should never be the only factor. Still, studies have shown that a child’s fluency development in early grades is a bridge to comprehension development.

If one of my sixth-grade students reads 92 correct words per minute, which is the average at this time of year for a second grader, instead of the sixth-grade average of 140, then I am concerned, especially if he is pausing to mentally or orally decode many words and/or mispronounces words. This is a sign that he should be further evaluated to determine vocabulary and comprehension levels and may need intervention to fill some gaps. Please note that I never base my recommendations only on fluency scores. If intervention is needed, and progress is not made, the student may need further evaluation for a reading disability.

So, yes, fluency matters, but…

After many years of teaching and from my own experiences, I can say that I am less concerned about a student who reads slowly but accurately and understands what is read than I am about a child who reads quickly and inaccurately or quickly and accurately but does not comprehend the material. I have had many students who could read aloud beautifully but could not answer questions about the text.

Comprehension is key.

And purpose also plays a part.

When you read closely and deeply, you will naturally slow down. Example: a short poem read for an academic purpose will take me much longer to read and dissect than a People magazine read for pleasure.

When you read something unfamiliar for the first time, you will naturally slow down. Example: when I read scientific articles about the brain for my reading certification, I read turtle-slow, highlighter in hand, brow scrunched because this was new territory. When I read The Outsiders for the 100th time, I breezed through it, smile on my face, nodding at familiar parts, surprised that I noticed some new things along the way.

If you have a child who is a slow and inaccurate reader, then I suggest reading intervention at home and at school to improve word recognition, fluency, and comprehension.

If you have a child who is a fast reader but doesn’t understand what was read, then I suggest working with her teacher to practice comprehension strategies at home. Also, encourage her to slow down and even stop to jot down notes, discuss what was read, or informally answer questions. This shouldn’t feel like a chore. A Post-it note at the end of every chapter about main events, a reaction, question, or personal connection is enough. Questions like “What are you reading? What’s your favorite part so far? Is the main character like you at all?” are fine. You could also read the same book together. What a great way to model good reading, your thought process, and have literary conversations with your child!

If you have a child who is a slow but accurate reader, I suggest easing up on the pressure to be faster (if there is any) and encourage him to read independently, deeply, and widely.

Regular independent reading should be a part of every child’s life. This will naturally increase vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency over time.

Other tips:

  • Model fluent reading: Read aloud to your kids, even the older ones.
  • Paired reading: Take turns reading with your child or have a child read with a sibling, friend, or another student when reading is done in school.
  • Vary the reading: Don’t always plop a 300-page book in front of your reader. Read short things, too, like song lyrics, poems, or items from news online or in print.
  • Audiobooks: Use them! They are great for reluctant and slower readers. They are portable and downloadable onto devices. Many libraries offer audiobook rentals.

And “this above all,” encourage a love for reading. When children get hooked on a particular book — they find the just right one that is funny or touching or relatable — magical things happen and chances are, they’ll become a lifelong reader and learner, reading a rich variety of texts at their own pace.