Katie Johnson, Author of Red Flags for Primary Teachers, Works with Fifth Graders to Investigate Their VIsion Problems When Reading

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Across the US, fifth-graders are tested in early January for how many words per minute they can read correctly. Teachers can use these findings for more than planning reading instruction: they can also get helpful clues about a child’s near vision.

Lily, holding the WCPM test about two inches from her face as she reads: "I can't see it if I don't hold the paper close."

Every October, January, and June, children across Washington are assessed for reading in various ways. The youngest ones are tested for letter recognition and sight words; the oldest ones are tested for their ability to deconstruct the arguments and points of view in an essay.

In between, children are sometimes assessed for comprehension, to find out whether or not they know what they have read; and in the fourth and fifth grades they must meet a standard for reading a passage aloud quickly and correctly.

The Words Correct Per Minute testing involves individual sessions with each child, for no fewer than three one-minute timings. The child reads three different passages for one minute each; the middle score of the three, the number of words read in that minute minus the number of words read incorrectly, becomes that child’s WCPM score.

This kind of individual assessment takes time. In Ms.M.’s class of thirty fifth graders, for example, it requires at least five minutes per child – three minutes for the readings themselves, one minute for saying “Nicely done; now read this one” two times, and one minute for thanking the child and asking her to send the next one to be assessed.

That would be 150 minutes minimum for Ms. M., who doesn’t have that kind of time in her day, or her week. She has to decide what not to teach when it is assessment time, three times a year.

Perhaps she will skip math one or two days, and try to give the kids work to do at their seats while she calls one at a time to her desk to do the timings; or maybe she can do a few every day during the twenty minutes set aside for silent reading. But either way, the room wouldn’t be silent, and the thirtieth kid would almost certainly have memorized the passages by hearing them so often.

Or she can get a volunteer to help, but it has to be someone who can make the children feel as much at ease as they do with their teacher, and someone who knows how to listen and score the readings.

So Ms. M. asks retired teachers, teachers who know the school and are relatively familiar to these older kids, to do this assessment for her. They can volunteer those 150+ minutes, and Ms. M. trusts them to know the test – indeed, they have done it themselves in their own classrooms.

Katie Johnson was Ms. M.’s volunteer in October of 2013 (and will be again in January of 2014). Of the thirty children tested in October, ten showed some evidence of problems with tracking the print they were reading. Six of the ten had scores well below the fifth-grade standard.

The best way to find out how a child is seeing print is to ask, "What are the words doing when you are reading?" It is an odd question, but if it applies, the child will say so. To standardize these responses it is important to ask exactly the same questions of each child, using the Convergence Insufficiency Symptom Survey, a document designed for a study by the National Institutes of Health

Some of the questions ask how the child is tracking print, such as "Do you lose your place while reading?" and "Do you have to reread the same line of words when reading?" A "yes" answer indicates that the child has to work hard to stay with the print, whether she is reading across a line or down a page. Some of the questions ask how clearly the child can see the words, such as "Do you notice the words blurring or coming in and out of focus when you are reading?" One boy answered this question with a quiet nod and the words, "All the time."

Children who cannot see clearly and predictably, or have to move their heads as they read, or experience blurred vision, need some help. At the least, they need to have their near vision, as well as their ability to see twenty feet away, checked at the beginning of each school year.

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