Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Reading Life Tip # 7: Change the 5 Finger Rule!

Have you heard of the 5 finger rule? Perhaps you have even taught it to students (like I did for 6 years). It’s a very catchy and easy to follow strategy for helping students choose “just right” books. Read any page in a potential independent reading book and if you read 5 or less unknown/challenging/tricky words before the end of the page, the book is just right (given that it is on a topic of interest and you understood what you read).  Other teachers might say “If you have 5 fingers up by the end of the page, the book is too hard.” but this means that 4 words are okay.
This year, I have strongly reconsidered the “5 finger” strategy and retrained students because of my reflection. If there are 200 words on a page, and a child is unable to read 5 of them, he/she is reading at 97.5% accuracy. This is an appropriate overall accuracy percentage, but if you consider that a child could misread 5 words on every page of the book, there may be 1000 unknown words in a 200 page book. I know this is an extreme example and the child would probably abandon the book before reading it all, but I hypothesized a reading experience like this to help my students understand why I wanted them to abandon the 5 finger rule in exchange for a 2-3 finger rule.

Because I want my students to read easily and fluidly without too many starts and stops, I decided to change the 5 finger rule to the 2-3 finger rule. I explained to students that if you truly stopped on 5 words a page, reading would feel frustrating. We called it a “stop-and-go” kind of reading and compared that kind of reading to having been on a long trip where you just want to get home, but you have to stop at EVERY stop light on the way home (not fun!). We decided that we wanted our reading to be like a smooth ride down the interstate. We might have to tap our breaks every now and then, but we can enjoy the ride without frustration.

I had to break students from their 3rd grade take on the 5 finger rule, but with repeated minilessons and discussions, they now understand that reading is supposed to be enjoyable and feel comfortable (almost all the time!). In order for that to happen, they needed to be able to read most of the words on the page and 5 unknown/tricky words is just too many.

What does this have to do with building a reading life? Having positive experiences with books allows readers to gain momentum, get rid of the “I don’t like to read” attitude, and because of their increased enjoyment and increased momentum—surely we see increased growth and confidence in the classroom. I know my apathetic (reading the wrong books!) students have grown tremendously this year.

Real readers read books that they can read!

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