Reading Fluency Workshop: An Interview With Michael Creighton

14th August 2017

This summer, for the second year, The Community Library Project ran an intensive summer reading camp for children in the Khirki Extension/Jagdamba Camp/Sheikh Sarai area. The morning session for 8-12 year olds was run in collaboration with the NGO Swechha and was held at their Khirki Extension offices. The afternoon session for 12-15 year olds was held in The Community Library Project-Deepalaya. Thirty children and youth completed the program this year.

What are the objectives of the Reading Fluency program?

First, and most immediately, we want to help members become better readers. If you aren’t able to read beyond a functional level, you’re excluded from so many wonderful, important ideas and stories. Real access to ideas and books requires both good libraries and good readers. We chose to focus on Hindi for several reasons. Not only is native language literacy obviously important in its own right, it also supports literacy in second and third languages. Once you can read Harry Potter or the Ramayana in your native language, you’ll be much better able to read complex texts in other languages For a short-term intervention like this, starting with Hindi made a lot of sense.

We chose to focus on reading fluency for three main reasons: it is important in its own right; it is easy to assess; and it is highly correlated to reading comprehension. It’s been well established that those who are able to read text with appropriate rate are not only able to read more material faster, but tend to understand what they read better. There are many possible reasons for this relationship, but an important one is that readers who don’t read most words automatically must use much of their mental energy decoding; as a result, they tend to have less energy left over for thinking about the meaning of the text they are reading.

Another goal of our reading fluency programs has been to answer a couple of questions: do practices that have been proven to work in English and other languages--like giving children time to read interesting books--also work in Hindi? And is three weeks enough time for an intensive intervention to show meaningful gains? We were pleased to find that the answer to both of those questions is yes!

What spurred us to take this on?

We’ve observed for years that most of our members can read, but few can read very well. This was confirmed last year, when we did a random fluency screening of 99 library members, and it was confirmed again this year: our data shows that most (though unfortunately not all) Delhi students can read, but very few can read very well. We need to figure out how to change this--for the members of our library, of course, but also for all students in Delhi. Our results suggest it is possible if all students are given access to books and regular time to read them. Without practice reading, it is impossible to become a good reader.

What kinds of readers participated this year?

Last year, we recruited participants from our library membership based on interest and the results of our random fluency screening. This year, in addition to an afternoon session at the library, we ran a morning session with the NGO Swechha, as part of their annual Pagdandi Summer Camp which draws primarily from Jagdamba Camp; we assessed these readers after they were recruited. Perhaps because many participants were not members of our library before the program, we found this year’s participants were, on the whole, even further behind than last year’s. In fact, about 20 percent of the students we initially assessed did not have the decoding skills required to read even simple connected text. For these students, we developed an intensive program to teach phonemic awareness and basic decoding skills.

Why did we decide to partner with Swechha this time around?

Swechha has a long history of working with youth in Jagdamba Camp, where many library members live. By working with Swechha, we were able to reach 8-12 year-olds who were library members or potential library members, but who might not have signed up for our program otherwise. Swechha hosted the morning session at their office in Khirki Extension and provided a variety of enriching activities for participants each day. These included art, theatre and dance---for some participants, this was a real draw. In addition to providing fun activities and several great volunteers, Swechha community mobilizers recruited the majority of morning participants and they also encouraged and tracked attendance of these participants.

Did we achieve our desired objective? What were the tangible and intangible outcomes?

Absolutely! We had really great results this year. For students in our fluency program, the average reading rate increased by 15 correct words per minute, from 65 correct words per minute to 80 correct words per minute. More than 80 percent of participants made gains of five or more correct words per minute; more than 60 percent of participants made gains of at least 10 correct words per minute; and 35 percent of participants made gains of 20 or more correct words per minute. All this in three weeks, with no decline in accuracy. Participants who could not read made impressive gains in letter identification and word reading skills. It’s a moving thing to see a child putting letters together to make a word for the first time--it’s like a flash of lightning. We saw that flash several times this summer.

I think all volunteers saw an increase in confidence and reading stamina among participants.. I love the fact that by the end of the program, most of our older participants had begun reading long books, including Hindi versions of Tin Tin, Harry Potter, The Famous Five and several condensed translations of classics such as Around The World In Eighty Days and The Three Musketeers.

Did we have any setbacks?

Well, it did rain a lot, and that was one factor that made attendance less consistent than last year. That’s always a challenge. And honestly, we hadn’t planned to teach kids how to read, just to read better and more fluently. The fact that we had students who could not identify many letters, or how to combine them to make words, was a big challenge, if not a setback. Fortunately, we had some flexible, hardworking volunteers--including three university students in teacher-training programs. Their willingness to try new things made it possible for us to address the needs of these children as well.

Were there any memorable days/incidents related to the program, that you want to talk about?

There were so many memorable moments. Every day, I walked four library members from Swechha in Khirki Extension back to the library. Or they walked me, I should say. They led me on a different route each day, and it was lovely to see this part of Delhi from a kid’s eye view: the corner where they snatched ice from a vendor on dusty afternoons, the deliberations over what kind of chips to buy when one of them had a few rupees to spend, the many ways to navigate rain-flooded gullies. It was a reminder that Swechha and the library are just two among many important points in the communities we serve.

Regarding the program itself, for me, seeing Maneesh putting letters together to make a word for the first time (‘म--ट--र → मटर!’) stands out. And the day that Aman finished the Hindi version of Harry Potter was also pretty special. But the older kids only really started reading longer books after they noticed that Aamir had quietly managed, over the course of three days, to actually finish a Tin Tin. We all took note of that--it was a kind of challenge to them, and they rose to it.

Are we doing this again next year?

I certainly hope so. And I hope other groups do as well. Teaching children to read better by giving them access to books and time to read is truly the easiest, most effective way to make improve reading--we know what works, and we’re happy to share our ideas!

Go here to read more about the Reading Fluency program.

[Michael Creighton is co-founder and Curriculum Co-ordinator at The Community Library Project]

The Community Library Project
Dharam Bhavan, C-13 Housing Society
South Extension Part -1
New Delhi - 110049
Illustrations provided by Priya Kurien.
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