When my first grader reads aloud he plows right through periods as if they don’t exist. When I ask him about what he just read, he has only a vague idea. How do I help him?

It sounds like your son might be having a fluency problem. Fluency is one of the four components of reading and involves three skills:

  • Accuracy—decoding the words to pronounce each one correctly.
  • Speed—reading at a pace which is fast enough to connect words into ideas.
  • Prosody—reading with expression so that the words and sentences sound meaningful.

Assuring he can pronounce most written words properly is the first step. Since you don’t mention pronunciation problems, I assume he can decode just fine.

dhild running with book in handsSpeed is the next consideration. Is he reading at a normal reading pace—not too slowly because he is stumbling over pronunciation, and not too fast because he is racing? From your question, I assume he might be racing and jumbling too many words together to understand them. Insist that he stop at a comma and a period, and if he forgets, stop him and ask him to reread the sentence. Then ask him what it means.

Lastly, listen for the way he reads. Does he raise his voice at the end of a question? Does he change the tone of his voice when the big bad wolf is talking? Does he say some words louder and some words softer to show he understands the meaning behind the words? If he is not doing this, he will have a more difficult time figuring out the meaning because he is leaving out emotion.

One key for you to know that your child is comprehending what he is reading is his use of inflection, that is, altering his voice in tone or pitch. Children who plow through sentences don’t inflect. They are reading too fast to decode and to inflect at the same time.

When a child first learns to read, accuracy is most important. But it sounds like your child is beyond this stage of decoding, at least with the kind of books he is reading.

How can you help him?

  • Make sure your child is reading books just slightly beyond his level of reading, not books too advanced for him.  Does he understand the vocabulary he is reading?  Does he understand the topics?  If not, comprehension will go down.
  • Consider reading aloud to him more, modeling inflection. Just because he can read alone is no reason why you should stop reading aloud to him. He still has so much more to learn about reading—vocabulary, for example, and making conversation sound real.
  • Is he allowed to stop reading when he has finished a certain number of pages? If so, he might be racing in order to end his reading session early. Change your strategy.  Ask him to read a certain amount of time no matter how many pages he reads.
  • Let him know he is going to need to explain what he has read when he is done, and if he can’t explain it, he is going to need to reread it with you. Needing to explain or redo will force him to slow down.

Another possibility is that your child is a high functioning autistic person.  People with autism can have high intelligence, but emotions baffle them.  Because they cannot “decode” emotions in their everyday lives, they cannot “decode” emotions in books, so stopping for punctuation might add no meaning to what they read.  If your child is autistic, early intervention can help.  Contact your school counselor or your pediatrician for an evaluation.

But from what you have said, I suspect your son is in a hurry and needs to learn that speed reading without understanding is a waste of his time.

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