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Fluency Study Looks at New Way to Unleash the Power of Reading

ATLANTIC, Iowa – Reading has gotten plenty of attention since Iowa lawmakers passed the Early Literacy Initiative in 2012. The Department of Education says the state is making progress.  70 percent of kindergarten through third grade students met or surpassed statewide benchmarks last year, but more work needs to be done. A research center in Iowa is charged with helping students succeed.

It's common to hear students reading passages to partners in classrooms around the state. Adler Bruce, 4th-grade student, said, "Some fluency passages can be really cool."

The 4th-graders at Schuler Elementary in Atlantic could be turning the page on how students across the state improve their reading. Adler said, "We're working on fluency for a program to help 4th graders in Iowa."

The school is taking part in the Iowa Reading Research Center's Fourth Grade Fluency study. IRRC Director Dr. Deborah Reed said, "We targeted 4th grade because there is so much pressure to get kids to read on grade level by 3rd grade, that we were a little concerned about messing around with this instruction that occurs up through 3rd grade."

Fluency is how quickly and easily a student can read. Most schools use an evidence based approach called repeated reading. That's when students read a selected passage three times. The partner times how long it takes and marks any errors. Braxton Gipple, 4th-grader, said, "We want to try our best to beat more than our goals."

In the fluency study, some students do repeated reading, while others do something called varied reading. Instead of reading the same passage three times, they read three different passages with similar words. Reed said they wanted to see if that could help students improve fluency. "In our various visits in our work within schools, we noticed that teachers are pretty frustrated with fluency. They feel as though they're doing everything they know how to do and they're not getting results," she said.

The Iowa Reading Research Center provided binders for each student and timers for all the schools participating. About 20 schools in 10 districts across the state are taking part. Schuler Elementary Principal James Northwick said, “We’re excited to be able to take advantage of seeing different opportunities for our kids that are similar to what we’re doing right now, and maybe a little better or a little different than what we’re doing.”

The fluency study is not the only project of the Iowa Reading Research Center, which is located at the University of Iowa's School of Education. It formed six years ago as part of the legislature's Early Literacy Initiative. It is funded through the state’s general fund. The appropriation for the 2018 financial year is $957,500.

Reed said the center's work has reached schools in all 99 counties. In addition to tackling problems schools bring to its attention, the IRRC partners with Area Education Agencies, the Department of Education and about 30 teacher preparation programs across the state with the goal of finding ways to make reading easier.

She said, "We want students to be highly successful in their reading. That takes time. It's not something anybody can snap their fingers and happen overnight."

For the fourth-graders, they recently completed their final fluency session. Adler said, "It's just kind of really fun, but sometimes it can be boring."

It will take time to know if the little change in reading intervention could make a big impact in something so fundamental. Reed said the study would need to be replicated and more research will need to be done. “We would also want to see, what if we just have students continue to read in a chapter book, for example. There should be a good deal of overlap from chapter to chapter in the same novel. So, would you get the same sorts of improvement that we see in these very carefully contrived passages.”

Reed said parents can help children improve reading skills, just by reading with them. She said to find something that interests the child, even recipes and instruction manuals count. As children get older, families can set aside time to read together, even if that means just reading your own books near each other. That way parents model the importance of reading.

The Iowa Reading Research Center offers resources for parents and teachers online.

You can view assessment results from the Iowa Department of Education here.