Parents often wonder what can be done to improve their middle or high school student’s reading speed and comprehension skills. In this article, Kevin Feldman, Ed.D., addresses this concern.

It is not done simply — like most complicated things in life. The recent report of the National Reading Panel had a whole chapter on reading fluency. And that’s really what we’re talking about is reading fluency and automaticity, which are directly linked to comprehension.

When you think about it, in order to comprehend, one must have all one’s attention focused on the meaning. If you’re reading slowly and struggling with individual words, sounding them out, even if you’re sounding them out correctly, all of your mental attention is wrapped up in the actual decoding. So you’re not paying attention to the point of reading, which is obviously the meaning. We find that fluency and automaticity are a very big deal.

How do we help increase their reading speed and fluency?

You could sum it up in a phrase, and that is “guided oral repeated reading.” There’s a notion of guided, meaning you’re either reading with a prerecorded cassette, as in programs such as Read Naturally, which you can visit at and find out about, or you’re working with a tutor, with programs such as Great Leaps. You can visit and find out about that. Or you’re just informally working with a partner, with a parent, with an older sibling. What’s important is the notion that it’s not just practice.

It’s the old adage of Madeline Hunter’s that “practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” It’s good practice (that’s needed); that’s why this guided practice issue, but it’s the repeated reading. We find that we have to engage students in reading text that they can read accurately. But they have to read it oftentimes three, four, five, six times to be actually fluent. And what happens is, if they engage in that guided oral repeated reading regularly with short, say 150- to 200-word passages, over time that generalizes and their overall rate does increase.

That doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen with just one session. But we find it is effective to use programs, for example, such as the ones I mentioned, Read Naturally, Great Leaps, or the REWARDS program from Voyager Sopris Learning. We have good examples of research-validated programs that engage students in this guided oral repeated reading which indeed improves their fluency, which then improves their comprehension. There are no shortcuts, but it absolutely can be done and is being done in classrooms and clinics across the country.

How do we get a middle school or high school kid to read out loud to us?

In silent reading we never know, Is it actual reading? Is it skimming? Is it spacing out? Who knows what’s going on? And on the issue about how to (approach it), there are a couple of things. One is reading materials that are actually of interest to the students. So what makes programs like Read Naturally or REWARDS so effective is that they carefully select short but coherent passages that stand alone, that actually communicate interesting information. For example, they’ll read about the woman who invented the potato chip. Now that won’t help them pass their SAT exams, but it is interesting. And it is legitimate information.

One element is reading short, coherent passages about information that is of interest to an adolescent, and the second is to make it a game, much like a computer game. Have you ever wondered why students (or people of any age, really) will play the same game over and over? And you ask them, “Gosh, why are you doing this?” And they say, “Oh, Mom; oh, Dad, I got to get to the next level,” right? It’s this issue of having a specific goal. Say I want to be able to read at 80 words a minute. And my first time through I’m at 45. Part of it is having something worth reading. The other part of it is making it a game, where we have a daily goal that we want to reach. And it engages students by making it a bit more playful.