Reading on Autopilot
By Robert Schroeder
Imagine two pilots, cruising their jumbo jet at 40,000 feet, with shoes off, feet resting on the yokes, coffee and magazine in hand.
Think that's how autopilot works? Not exactly. There's a whole lot of data input and output from the pilots ensuring the autopilot runs smoothly.
When young children struggle to read, they often read like pilots on autopilot, constantly decoding individual words to find meaning in a sentence.
The goal of National Louis University's Kristin Lems, Ed.D., is to convert these readers to the peaceful, carefree passengers reading with ease in the cabin. Lems, a professor in the National College of Education, is the co-author of a pair of new books, "The Fluent Reader in Action," on reading fluency, a concept that words can be able to understood automatically without thinking of the meaning of each one.
"Fluency is helping kids get from individual words to the whole point of a text," Lems said. "It's like learning to ride a bike or learning a musical instrument; you do it awkwardly for a while, then it becomes more automatic, and you don't have to think about it until you hit some bump, pause and have a fix-up strategy."
Lems researched fluency strategies ranging from as close as Chicago's Ravenswod neighborhood to as far away as Sydney, Australia. She found teachers creating fluency centers in classrooms where students can practice reading passages aloud and timing themselves, chart their progress on a graph, read with a partner or read silently.
Reader theater is a popular technique, in which students create scripts from books and literally act out text. At the Ravenswood School in Chicago, a teacher created the "Ravenswood Broadcast Company" and cast students as radio or television announcers.
"The amazing thing about fluency is that you don't have to spend very much time in the day doing it," Lems said. "You can learn a lot about how a child reads from one minute of reading."
While most reading fluency activities are oral, the strategies can impact standardized test scores. Reading fluency interaction gives teachers a snapshot of how a student is progressing or regressing, allowing for early intervention. The overall goal of reading fluency remains increased comprehension; increased test scores are a positive side benefit.
Lems says some teachers reject reading fluency because of a belief that fluency is solely about reading faster. While the outcome of reading fluency activities may include an increased reading rate, its goal is reading with comprehension.
"Fluency is like practicing with the throwing arm if you are trying to be a better baseball player," Lems said. "You work on that one thing in isolation, but it helps the whole synergy."
At the end of a flight, the autopilot turns off and the pilots assume the controls for a manual approach. Lems' hope is that the on-off switch for young readers' autopilot never has to be accessed again.