My youngest son, Oliver, started kindergarten at four because he has a fall birthday. He had already completed Pre-K and I knew that he didn’t need another year of that, so it wasn’t a hard decision about his readiness for kindergarten. Nevertheless, he struggled to read. In fact, one day in the spring, and asked me, “Mom, how can I get out of going to school? I hate it.”
“You can get suspended,” my daughter, Lilia at seven, told him confidently.
“What?! No. If he gets suspended,” I told her, “you’ll be in trouble.”
“What’s suspended?” Oliver innocently asked.
“Nevermind,” I said still giving Lilia the evil-eye. “If you want to get out of going to school, you have to graduate. In other words, you need to go through more school to stop going to school. You want to be a scientist right? Like daddy?”
“Well, daddy needed to learn how to read and go to school for a long time in order to become a scientist. You will need to do that too if you want to become a scientist.”
As if kindergarten wasn’t hard enough, first grade was even harder. Though Oliver had learned how to read a little, by the time he started first grade, his reading level was no better than a beginning of the year kindergartener’s. As the winter break approached, I asked his teacher if he could read Ten Apples Up On Top to the class if he practiced over break. She, of course, said yes. So he read and reread the book dozens of times over the next couple of weeks to build his fluency.
Around that time I attended a training by Jim Wright, author and expert on Response to Intervention (RTI) and creator of the website www.interventioncentral.org. Dr. Wright shared the strategy Reading Racetrack he created to improve student fluency (click here to read the steps and click here to watch a video explaining the steps).
I really liked the idea of this strategy and was excited to try it with Oliver. The words I used were ones that I thought he was having trouble with based on listening nightly to him reading to me. While I appreciated the practice that the strategy provided and that the words were limited to a certain number and then repeated throughout the racetrack, I wanted Oliver to learn that reading is done from left to right and not in a circle. Accordingly, I created my own strategy that I called “Read for Speed” that I included in my book The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies.
As well as the visual differences, rather than focusing on drawing the student’s attention to the missed words at the end, I drew Oliver’s attention to the words before we started so that he had a chance to prime himself and notice the words before he started. “This word is ‘the.’ What is this word? Right! And do you see how ‘the’ looks like this word? This word has one more letter at the end of it though. This word is ‘them.’ What’s this word? Right! ‘Them!’ and what’s that word? Right! ‘The!’” Both Reading Racetrack and Read for Speed last one minute and in both the students are trying to read as many words correctly in that time. Both end with a tally of correct words and incorrect words and both prompt the correct word when the child pauses for more than three seconds or gets the word wrong.
With Oliver, when he read books to me from his book bag, I would write down words he struggled with or ask him to tell me some words he wanted to work on. I also noticed that there were some letters he would mix-up, like lowercase Bs and Ds. I would then add those to his Read for Speed list. Every week he had about six to eight words that repeated on the list within the thirty spaces. I usually maintained two to four words from the previous week to really ensure automaticity and I would sometimes include one or two words from several weeks before just to check for retention. All of this was relatively easy because the Read for Speed document was created in Microsoft Word and I used the Find and Replace feature to type in the new word one and replace all the words that were being changed for that week. (Access free editable Read for Speed templates here https://cutt.ly/Read-For-Speed and access the directions for Read for Speed at https://cutt.ly/RFS-Directions)
This strategy is one that allows for personal goal setting. These “private victories” can actually be much more rewarding for students in a classroom who are demotivated by more public displays of progress (like bulletin boards). Since Read for Speed and Reading Racetrack can be kept in a folder or a notebook that only the teacher and/or parent/guardian and the student see, the student is being held accountable while the progress is being monitored without any publicity to how many words the student knows or doesn’t (yet). This same approach to privacy regarding progress can also be used for documenting progress on the acquisition of math facts, books, reading, etc.
Not only was I shocked by how quick and easy this strategy was (it was fewer than five minutes total each day between the priming beforehand, the one minute reading, and then the tallying at the end), but I was also shocked with how motivated Oliver was to do it. He liked being able to press the timer button on my phone and to see his growth over the week. Most importantly, it worked! As his sight word fluency improved, his reading fluency did as well. He went from being a below-level reader at Christmas to being an above-level reader by the year’s end. That cannot all be attributed to this strategy, of course, but the strategy certainly helped!
About the Author
Heather Lyon’s is the author of Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal): Mind-Changing Theory and Strategies that will Create Real Engagement and The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies. Heather has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and an Ed.M. in Reading from the University at Buffalo. She is an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology for Lewiston-Porter Central School District in Western New York. Heather has been a staff developer and held various administrative titles, but the professional title she likes best is learner. She is also a proud wife and mother who values the importance of work/life balance—which is so critical in a profession like ours. Heather lives with her husband and three children, who make her smile and teach her the importance of patience and humor!