Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to two students reading aloud to each other during an elementary intervention program designed to improve reading fluency. As part of the program, the students were required to read the same text several times to develop fluency, take a test and then begin a new passage. To practice for the test, students had to read to a partner. While one partner was reading aloud, the other was supposed to mark any words that caused difficulty or impaired fluency.
As one ELL student read the sentence, “The bats flew out of the shed…”, he pronounced the last word as ‘shade’. His partner caught the error and asked him to reread the word. He slowly sounded it out: SH-E-D, but then he blended the sounds together saying shade again when reading the word in context. I noticed that he was capable of making the short ‘e’ sound and knew the phonics rule, but he twice changed the word from shed to shade. I was curious to know why.
I asked the student if he could tell me what shed was. “Oh yes!” he said excitedly. “It’s where the sun doesn’t shine. I saw the bats on the school playground sleeping in the shade under the roof at recess.” By connecting to his background knowledge about bats, he tried to make sense of the passage. He didn’t actually know what a ‘shed’ was, so he replaced the word with a close approximation that made sense to him. Although he knew the phonics rules for sounding out the word, he chose a word that made sense instead. This was the 5th time he had read the passage and continued to make the same ‘error’ despite corrections. Until his partner explained that a shed was ‘like a garage’, he insisted that ‘shed’ was ‘shade’.
Because this intervention program was designed to focus on fluency, the teacher had spent very little time on building comprehension of the passage. This brief example highlighted for me the truth about fluency: without comprehension, there is no fluency. I encourage teachers to make comprehension central to all their lessons, regardless of the skill or strategy they are teaching.