Reading is not a race

"Will the following nonsense words encourage you to read further? Bov Nuk Thi Toc Puv."

I doubt it. Yet this is exactly what DIBELS — Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — has our children reading in the name of literacy. DIBELS is a test that presumes to judge how well a student reads by measuring the number of nonsense words a child can say or by measuring the number of words a child can read in a sample passage.

Teachers are not encouraged to read stories to children and children may not be encouraged to read themselves, but in some districts children are being encouraged to practice reading nonsense words at home with their parents. The emphasis on this test has lead to administrators retaining children in kindergarten for failing one sub-test. Forget Winnie-the-Pooh, there's too much at stake!

Teachers are required to test one child at a time, leaving the rest of the class doing … well, usually some kind of repetitive work. Teachers must focus on the child while testing because a word omitted or substituted is an error, hesitation counts as an error at three seconds, but if self-corrected within three seconds counts as accurate, and the child's academic future can hang in the balance.

One of my young relatives announced that she can read 183 words a minute. She knows this because of DIBELS testing. She is rather proud of that fact, although it is clear she understands little of what she sprints through. I have pondered this and wondered how fast I, a humble Ph.D., can read. Reading is not a competitive sport and word sprints are unnecessary. By DIBELS standards, would I be a school success?

The DIBELS Web site acknowledges that teachers often thought the measures were invalid. Therefore, the DIBELS brain trust added 'retell fluency' to address comprehension. In DIBELS, reading comprehension is but one of five standards measured.

As DIBELS' critic Elizabeth Jaeger points out, comprehension isn't part of reading. It is reading. I don't speak Spanish but I know the pronunciation rules. I bet I could read in Spanish at a high rate of speed but I'd get nothing from the material.

We need to cultivate reading interest. It counts for so much more than speed. I have noticed that only one of my four school-aged grandchildren, raised on this new reading program, actually likes to read. And the one who claims to enjoy reading read exactly one book during her entire summer break.

Is reading meant to be some kind of fraternity chugging contest? Do you really care how fast kids can chug words? I'd rather promote thoughtful sippers.

As with any of us, I read at varying speeds. If the material isn't important or well-written, then sure, I might turbo-read. But with well-written literature, I often linger over the words and may even read a passage through a second time to savor it, to admire the precision of the author's word choices. The pleasure I feel in reading isn't based on how many paragraphs I can race through in 15 minutes. So many students don't care very much about reading because they haven't experienced this pleasure.

If our students elect to attend college, they will need to relocate first gear for their reading skills. Studying means paying attention to what is being read and means reading very slowly. I am mystified at what purpose this speed reading serves at all.

As Ghandi said, "There is more to life than increasing its speed." In many areas of our lives we are encouraged to slow down. One of the first things Weight Watchers will tell you is to savor what you are eating. Chew slowly. We are being told to walk more and enjoy the view. I expect soon that we will be employing a new reading strategy for our word chuggers because this mad strategy is brutal.

Meanwhile, I need some help exorcising the image of a child reading, flanked by her teachers bearing stopwatches, chanting "chug, chug, chug."

Laura Manuel has her Ph.D. in educational psychology and teaches at Front Range Community College. A former police officer, she lives in Greeley with her husband, Criss Clinton.
Greeley Tribune - Sunday, October 21, 2007

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