Oral reading rate not a good indicator of reading comprehension, study warns

iStock_000016876858XSmallEvidence is mounting against the use of oral reading rate as an indicator of reading achievement and comprehension, especially for minority students and English Language Learners, write researchers, in a study of 83 4th graders from 4 urban schools recently published in Reading & Writing Quarterly. In the age of phonics instruction, a 4th-grade student may be able to read a grade-level passage fluently, but that doesn’t mean the child has any idea what the passage means, the authors say.

“Current CBM (Curriculum Based Measurement) methods continue to rely on reading rate to measure students’ progress in reading,” the authors write. “The results of this study show that reading rate, when looked at in isolation, may provide an overestimate of this population’s reading comprehension. Comprehension measures may be a necessary addition to CBM in order to determine whether these students are able to not only read the material but to understand it.

“Most students did not obtain comprehension rates of at least 75%, even when they were at instructional level for word recognition accuracy on the fourth-grade level passage,” the authors write. The teachers in the district speculated that one reason for this could be that the Open Court curriculum they used places greater emphasis on decoding than on comprehension.

Study goal

The study goal was to evaluate how students performed in reading assessments at different degrees of challenge (independent, instructional, frustration) to determine what level of challenge provides the most accurate assessment information. If teachers are to use assessments to guide instruction and decision making in reading instruction, it’s important to know which level of testing provides the most information, the researchers say.

At the independent level of challenge, students can recognize 98-100% of words; at the instructional level, between 93-97% of words; and at the frustration level, fewer than 93% of words, according to the authors.

In this study, students’ reading was assessed with the Qualitative Inventory-II (QRI-II), an informal reading inventory that contains narrative and expository passages from the pre-primer to junior high level. Each passage was followed by 6-10 implicit and explicit open-ended comprehension questions. Implicit questions require making an inference and explicit questions require the recall of facts or events.

Comprehension not related at all levels

Data was gathered in the following manner: Three passages of varying difficulty were chosen for each student. All students were first asked to identify and define 10 words in a 3rd-grade level passage. If the student correctly identified and defined at least 8 of the 10 words, the student was asked to read the passage and to answer comprehension questions about that passage. If the student correctly identified and defined 7 or fewer words, the student was asked to read an easier passage.

A second passage was then chosen based on the student’s performance on the first passage. If the student missed 10 or fewer words on the 3rd-grade level passage, the 6th grade level passage was selected; if 16-32 words were missed, the 2nd grade level passage was selected and if 33 or more words were missed a 1st grade passage was selected. Passages were then selected based on how students performed in the second passage until results for word recognition accuracy rates, reading rates and comprehension scores from all 3 levels of challenge (independent, instructional, frustration) were collected.

As was expected, researchers found a strong relationship between word recognition accuracy and reading rate. However reading rate did not correlate with comprehension score at either the independent, instructional or frustration levels.

Two of the schools that participated in the study had predominantly African American students and 2 of the schools had predominantly white students.

“This finding fits with research on reading rate and comprehension that has found only an indirect relationship between these variables above the 3rd grade level,” the authors write.

“Effect of Degree of Challenge on Reading Performance,” by Katurah Cramer and Sylvia Rosenfield, Reading and Writing Quarterly Volume 24, 2008, pp. 119-137.

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