The need for speed

A couple of years ago, on Clare Sealy’s recommendation, I started reading Daniel T. Willingham’s brilliant, but rather unfortunately named, book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ (if you haven’t read it yet, you should). His simple explanation about how we draw on on prior knowledge to help us understand new information struck a chord.

I then went on to read about what is known as ‘The Baseball Experiment’. You can read about it here and in more detail here. The findings of this research was that poor readers who knew a lot about baseball performed far better at a reading comprehension about baseball than good readers with little knowledge of baseball, suggesting that prior knowledge has a big impact on our ability to comprehend what we read.

I teach in a very deprived area in Merseyside. Many of our children have a huge deficit in life experiences (prior knowledge) as they don’t visit places outside of school. Although we do our best to address this, by ensuring every topic has an educational visit, many of our children still have a huge gap in general knowledge and also vocabulary compared to peers from less deprived areas.

This social inequality and its negative impact on children’s performance in Y6 reading SATs (amongst other things) is hardly a revelation, but what I did realise last school year is that we were further disadvantaging our children. We used PM Benchmark to assess children’s understanding as well as their ability to read a text fluently. If a child did not show suitable understanding of the text they were not allowed to read at that level – even though they were able to read it fluently. 

It seems so obvious now that this is ridiculous but we were labouring under the idea that we could teach comprehension and that we must help children to develop their comprehension skills by keeping them at a level they could read easily so that didn’t distract them. Once you realise that you can’t teach comprehension – only test technique – this idea of holding a child back is ridiculous. So we quickly stopped. Now children can read any (age suitable) book they are able to read fluently. This began the drive to develop fluency.

We do whole class reading in my school. It has been very successful but the focus is mostly on understanding the vocabulary and the text rather than on fluency. We do a lot of book talk in these lessons and examine questions about the text. Fluency was still an issue.

In the summer term, I led a staff meeting for TAs where we looked in depth at reading fluency and why it was important. We used several exercises from The Megabook of Fluency which is the absolute Bible of developing fluency as far as I’m concerned.


In a staff meeting with teachers, we talked about using the simple view of reading grid to identify the children who were the first priorities for intervention to develop fluency. As part of our work on developing fluency, it was also agreed that reading speed and developing reading stamina were important. I said that I would go away and put together an assessment for assessing reading speed, during the summer holidays.

It was a bit of a headache because I wanted to match it to book bands and PM Benchmark levels so that we could standardise the texts being chosen. I based it on the 50th percentile of Hasbrouck and Tindal’s words correct per minute oral reading fluency norms that can be found here.

The problem was that I needed the end of Year 2 words per minute (WPM) to be 90 so I had to rejig that a bit. The other problem was that PM Benchmark only goes up to level 30 which I think is Sapphire book band. There is also no Silver and Emerald (we’ve created them to give further breadth) so I’ve been a bit creative with that too. However, if everyone is using this standardised method it should work for our school.

There was a fair amount of interest on Twitter tonight when I asked if people had a sheet with recommended WPM per year group so I’ve uploaded the sheet I made here for people to use. I hope it’s useful.

We will target particular children at first, to work on developing reading stamina and a quicker reading time. We will use the appropriate PM Benchmark text identified in the assessment guide to assess how many words are read correctly in one minute. This will be monitored. As a whole class, we will also work on this using Twinkl’s 60 second reads amongst other things.


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