Coffee Break with... Dr. Tim Rasinski
Having worked with struggling readers for many years, I have often referred and recommended Dr. Tim Rasinski’s work on fluency. He’s been my go-to researcher for all things fluency, from his books, The Fluent Reader, Increasing Fluency with High Frequency Word Phrases Grades 1-5, and Fluency through Practice and Performance, to his countless articles, a few of which can be found here, here and here. Much of his work has attributed to my students finding success in reading.
Dr. Rasinski newest book, The Megabook of Fluency: Strategies and Text to Engage All Students has a lot of authentic and practical instructional approaches for your students. He also has a wonderful website with an abundance of resources for fluency, which can be found at timrasinski.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @timrasinski1
I always get a bit nervous when I interview educators who have inspired me or had a big influence on my teaching and learning. After so many years of using Tim’s work, it was great to sit down and chat with him about authentic fluency instruction, phonics and the art and science of teaching.
Have a cuppa and enjoy the interview...
How or what was the impetus for your research and focus on fluency instruction?
Many years ago, back when I was a teacher in Omaha, Nebraska, I was an interventionist for kids who were not having much success. I was working towards my master’s degree, and I started reading articles from Jay Samuels, The Method of Repeated Readings, Dick Allington, Fluency: The Neglected Reading Goal, and Carol Chomsky, After Decoding: What? I thought, oh my gosh, maybe there’s something to this! When I started applying some of the methods that they wrote about with my kids who were struggling, these kids began to take off. The progress that some of them began to make was truly remarkable.
It’s interesting, as sometimes we talk about how we all come out of an academic world because of our pedigree, but often it starts with a real-world experience. It certainly was for me. To see these kids actually finding success by focusing on fluency, by making it an authentic type of fluency instruction.
What resources, for example, books, researchers, journals, etc., do you find most supportive in your growth as a literacy educator, and why are they important to you?
First of all, I would say professional journals; Reading Research Quarterly, The Reading Teacher, and the Journal of Educational Research. The research journals because they are cutting edge. They give us an idea of things that actually work with kids, but I also like the practitioner journals, such as, The Reading Teacher, because it provides examples of how teachers and other literacy educators have implemented the research. Sometimes the articles we find in research journals are sort of bare-bones and doesn’t give you the feel for how something might actually work in the classroom. I think it's important for us as literacy people to create the bridge the goes from research into practice. I think that’s what our practitioner journals like, The Reading Teacher and Language Arts do. They provide that bridge for us.
And of course, I enjoy reading books on the subject. Now, a lot of my work in the last several years is on the area of fluency, and I’ve written several of those books. I like the work of Lori Oczkus, who’s written a lot about very practical approaches to comprehension instruction. I like to read professional books by people who are out in the field working with teachers and working with children.
One of your books, that I used when I was an RTI teacher and coordinator, was The Fluent Reader. I thought your book was insightful with theory, yet very practical. Also, when I recently wrote a post on poetry and fluency folders, and when I presented to teachers in the past I would share one of your articles, Reading Fluency: More Than Automaticity? More Than a Concern for the Primary Grades? from Literacy Research and Instruction. I wanted to include that in my post, but I don’t have permission to post the article, but it's in the resources.
I post a lot of articles on my website, so educators can access my work as a resource. You can find those articles at timrasinski.com. And you can also write directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are unable to find a particular article of mine.
Thanks! It’s always great to have access to help inform and support instruction. What is one piece of advice you would share with other educators in the field? What is your nugget?
Well, I guess it would be more than a nugget. First and foremost, reading fluency is not making kids read fast. I think that has given reading fluency a bad name as there’s more to reading fluency. It’s unfortunate, we get well-meaning teachers who are encouraged by their school administrators to raise those DIBELS scores. It becomes stopwatch reading. That’s not fluency at all.
The nugget I would like to provide is that fluency is related to comprehension. When students can read the text automatically or effortlessly and with good expression, they are more likely to understand what it is they read. Let’s dispel that notion of reading speed, and more emphasis on meaningful reading, that’s what fluency is all about.
That’s the reason I started using poetry for fluency. Some students were focused on a number. Also, when I was in schools, I’ve seen teachers implement repeated readings and run out of time for comprehension questions or a retell. To me, that’s the example we don’t want. You don’t do a repeated reading unless you have time for comprehension.
Right. There should be a reason for doing repeated readings. The reason should be to try and better understand what you’re reading.
What do you believe is especially important for educators to understand about fluency instruction?
I think it’s important to realize that fluency instruction should be authentic reading. When we have kids do this timed reading, that to me doesn't reflect the real kind of reading we do as adult readers, so I would emphasize something more authentic, something reflective of an activity we do in real life. To my mind, the notion of repeated readings is just another name for rehearsal. So, if we know the kids are going to perform something, a poem, or song, maybe a script, they’re more likely to engage in rehearsal and repeated readings. But the rehearsal isn’t aimed at reading fast; it’s aimed at making a meaningful rendering of that text. So that an audience member can understand it, and get satisfaction from it. So make it authentic.
Also, the idea of success. Many of our kids who struggle in reading don’t often achieve much success in reading, in the sense that they never get to the point of being able to read like their higher achieving classmates.
Good fluency instruction allows kids to reach that point where they can read something just as well as anybody. In order to do that you have to rehearse the text, or practice it.
In our reading clinic at Kent State University, when we meet for the first time with our teachers, one of the first things I tell them is that these children have not achieved much success in reading. One of my goals and I hope it is for the teachers, is for these children to feel successful every single day, so they can go up to mom or dad afterwards, with the feeling that they can read as good as anybody else, and say, “Listen to me read this...!” To get to that level the children need opportunities to practice, maybe a little more practice than some other kids need. I think that cliché, “success breeds success” really is true for many of our kids. We see it in our reading clinic all the time.
That’s true. A former student who was in the poetry fluency folders group said the following year, “You know Mrs. Hancock, I’m not the best reader in my class, but I love to read.” I believe he was finding success through authentic readings. I also think degrees of success motivates them to continue with the work we’re asking them to do.
I often tell my students to think of the things they’re not very good at themselves as adults. We tend to avoid those things because we’re not good at it. It’s an uncomfortable experience, whether it’s playing a piano or cooking in the kitchen. When we have children who don’t feel successful in reading, their natural inclination is to avoid it. Of course, that’s not a recipe for success in learning to read. We really want our kids to feel that sense of accomplishment - they don’t get enough of it in their classrooms.
I’ve heard you say, “The Art and Science of Teaching.” Is this what you’re talking about specifically in fluency? That the science is knowing that repeated readings are a proven strategy, but the art of teaching is knowing when to leave the words per minute graphing and use repeated readings in more purposeful, authentic and practical methods?
Right. Let’s talk about phonics, the importance of phonics, and how kids need to sound out words. We often use word families to teach phonics. That’s the science. What’s the art? The art is to find texts for kids to read that contain whatever word family or phonogram you may be working on. The natural text for that are poetry and song. That would be the art of teaching. The art and science can yield something that is engaging and effective at the same time.
What do you believe is especially important for educators to understand about fluency?
Find ways to create instruction that is engaging for kids. Something that is enjoyable. One idea is performance. Once kids get over their initial shyness, they actually like to perform in front of a crowd or groups of classmates, and they feel they’ve done a good job of performing a poem or song.
Also, games. Have you ever noticed how many games we play as adults? How many of those are word games? Well, often the games in school are for when the work is done, and kids who struggle never get the work done. How about making word study feel like a game. I’m getting a bit off the topic of fluency now, but a lot of people have commented to me about the Word Ladder books I created. They have a game-like feel to them. Again, that’s something that children find fun to do, and at the same time they are learning how to spell, how to decode and what words mean. All in a manner that kids don’t realize they are actually learning.
High engagement and motivation are so valuable - that gets back to the art of teaching. Much of the research that we read in many of our research journals dismisses the artful side of instruction because it’s hard to measure artful outcomes. How do you measure motivation? How do you measure those more affective dimensions? So they just disregard it and as a result, we’re missing a big piece of good instruction when we don’t consider how to make instruction for our kids more engaging. And of course, teachers are more likely to invest themselves in teaching when they find it engaging and they have a degree of ownership of their instruction.
If you hosted a dinner party, for literary heroes (authors or educators, dead or alive), who would you invite and why? Tell me, who’s on your guest list?
That’s a great question to ask. If you asked me tomorrow I would probably give you a different answer than I would today. I think about people I would have liked to have met, except they came a generation or two before me.
Certainly Edmund Huey, who wrote one of the first professional books, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. But also Edward Thorndike, as I had a chance to speak at Columbia University, Teachers College, and of course he was a big name there in psychology. I still remember an article he wrote called, “Reading as Reasoning.” He made the point that reading is more than just sounding out words. It’s actually about how readers use their minds to reason through and make meaning of a text.
I met Marie Clay a couple of times and we’ve had some interesting discussions. I would have loved to have learned more from her. She came to Ohio State the year I was finishing my doctorate in 1985, and that’s where she brought Reading Recovery to the States. I always regret that she didn’t come a year or two before, so I could have spent a little more time sitting in on her lectures.
John Dewey is not really considered a literacy expert, but who in education would not want to include him in a dinner party? What I loved about him was a quote that guided me for a good part of my career, along the lines of Schools should be an embryonic community that reflects what happens outside the school walls. It's making that bridge between home and school. He was making the point to that time, and is still true, that often, what we do in school has no reflection to what happens in real life. I would like to hear some of his ideas particularly those related to reading. Consider the notion I mentioned about earlier, regarding how DIBELS has become so ingrained in our literacy instruction. We may not often think about it, but where does DIBELS exist anywhere outside the school walls?
I would also like to chat with teachers. People who’ve actually made a difference in kids’ lives. People who’ve been out there in the front lines with kids on a regular basis, of which there are two that I think about. Sylvia Ashton Warner, who was the teacher in New Zealand with the Maori children, the indigenous population. She developed some unique ways of helping children who otherwise probably would have failed in learning to read. Some of her methods of getting kids to draw language out of themselves was a successful way to use as the basis for literacy. The other, with whom I’ve chatted is from California, Rafe Esquith. He’s not a literacy educator per se, but some of the approaches he has used gets kids engaged in real reading for real purposes are genius I think. I’d like to hear the conversation he might have with Sylvia Ashton Warner, and Huey, Thorndike, and Dewey. How would they interact and influence each other? What would they argue over?
Follow Tim on Twitter @timrasinski1