Assessing Reading Fluency – Word Recognition Accuracy

Reading fluency has been identified by the Common Core Standards as a foundational reading competency.   This means that readers must have a solid foundation in reading fluency before they are able to move on to deeper and more sophisticated levels of reading (e.g. deep reading).   The Common Core indicate that reading fluency is made up essentially of three sub-components – word recognition accuracy, word recognition automaticity, and expressive (prosodic) reading that reflects the meaning of the text being read.   In order to determine how well students are doing in their development of fluency, we need ways to assess the various aspects of their fluency.  In this blog entry, I describe a simple way to assess word recognition accuracy, the first component of fluency.

In order to read one needs to be able to accurately recognize (decode or sound out) the words in the text.   Clearly, if a reader is unable sounding out 1 out of every 10 words in a text comprehension will suffer.     How do we assess this ability in our students?  We’ve all heard about the five finger rule – is on a given page of text a reader has trouble with five or more words, then that text is probably too difficult for the reader.    While intuitively appealing, this rule is rather imprecise.   A page of text can have anywhere from 20 to 100 or more words.  Five problematic words can yield a word recognition accuracy level of 75% to 95%.  That’s a wide range that really does not provide good guidance on the appropriateness of a passage.

There is however a more precise way to assess word recognition accuracy.    Here’s how it goes.   Find a passage of text of about 100 words that has a readability (Lexile) level that matches a student’s assigned grade level.   Ask the student to read this passage orally to you.    As the student reads you follow along and mark any word recognition errors that a student makes that goes uncorrected.  A word recognition error is simply when a student gives a pronunciation for word that does not match exactly the word in print. For example, word recognition errors may include a student reading big for bag, dog for dogs, saw for was.     A word recognition error may also include words omitted by the student or words in which you the teacher have to pronounce the word for the student after they have examined or attempted the word unsuccessfully for a count of three.

Once the student has completed the reading you simply determine the percentage of words that were read accurately.    This can be done by dividing the number or words read accurately (total words in the passage minus word recognition errors) by the total number of words in the passage; and then moving the decimal two places to the right.   For example, suppose a third grade student is asked to read a third grade passage that contains 110 words.  She makes 6 word recognition errors that she does not correct.   To determine the percentage of words read accurately, we divide 104 (110 total words minus 6 errors) by 110 total words.   This can be stated as a fraction: 104/110, a decimal: 94.5, or percentage: 94.5 %.

Now you need to interpret this percentage.      Here’s a good guide to use:

91% or below:   Frustration level.   The reader’s word recognition abilities are not sufficient to successfully read passages at the grade level of the passage read.

92-98%:  Instructional level.  The reader’s word recognition abilities are adequate to successfully read passes at the grade level of the passage read with some instructional assistance.

99% and above:  Independent level.  The reader’s word recognition abilities are at a level that will allow the reader to successfully read passages at the grade level of the passage read without assistance.

Let’s return to the student for whom we earlier calculated her word recognition accuracy percentage.  Her score of 94.5% suggests that she is at her instructional level for grade three material.  As a third grade student then, we can assume she is just where she should be — she is able to read third grade material successfully, but may need some assistance and further instruction in word recognition.

A word recognition accuracy score of 99% for a third grader reading third grade material suggests this student has a relatively strong ability to decode words at her assigned grade level.  On the other hand, a third grade student who scores at say 89% word recognition accuracy is likely to have difficulty in word recognition of third grade material (and higher), and this difficulty is likely to cause difficulty in comprehension of third grade material.   Students who score at 91% or below when reading grade level material are likely to be in need of additional instruction and support in learning to recognize or decode words.

This simple protocol for assessing word recognition can easily be modified to gain more precise information.   For example if a student score poorly on a third grade passage, it is reasonable to check the student out on second or even first grade material to determine where the student’s instructional level is at.   Similarly, for the student who decodes well on the third grade passage, you may wish to have the student read even more challenging material to determine her instructional level for word recognition.

Word recognition accuracy is critical for successful reading.   With this simple method for assessing word recognition accuracy you can easily determine which students are doing well in this competency and which students may need additional intervention in this key skill.   In my future blogs I will share simple approaches to assessing those other two foundational competencies – automaticity and prosody.

Timothy Rasinski

Dr. Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University and director of its award winning reading clinic. He has written over 200 articles and has authored , co-authored or edited over 50 books or curriculum programs on reading education. He is the author of several bestselling books on reading fluency. His research on reading has been cited by the National reading Panel and has been published in many high profile journals.