Oral Reading Fluency

Oral Reading Fluency

Reading can be a joy for some and a chore for others, and that largely depends on a reader’s skill and ability. If you aren’t a strong reader, you might not enjoy reading as much as someone who has strong reading comprehension skills or who read a lot when they were younger. But the only way to build those skills is to practice, which is why building these skills during a child’s formative years (ages 0-8) is imperative for long term reading success. During these years, children undergo rapid cognitive, social, emotional and physical development, making it a prime time to learn the skills necessary to develop lifelong literacy skills. One of these necessary skills is oral reading fluency.

Oral reading fluency consists of three primary components/skills: accuracy, speed, and vocal expression. With those three components in mind, oral reading fluency is the ability to read connected text quickly, accurately, and with emotional expression. In doing so, there is no noticeable cognitive effort that is associated with decoding the words on the page. These skills lay the groundwork for reading comprehension, with readers who master oral reading fluency being much more likely to better comprehend the information offered to them from literature. 

In order to teach these skills, it is important that students understand the reasoning and process behind learning each piece of the pie. A great breakdown of these skills is explained in the blog post, “Teaching Oral Reading Fluency”, from the website “Teaching with a Mountain View”. The post breaks the process of oral reading fluency into five parts: accuracy, expression/prosody, punctuation, pace, and comprehension. 

Below is a breakdown of each skill and what success looks like in developing strong oral reading fluency:

  1. Reading accurately means that young readers are not eliminating or skipping over words when reading text, nor are they adding in words that are not included in the text they are reading. 
  2. Reading with appropriate expression requires students to inflect their voice at appropriate points when reading, without over exaggerating the content.
  3. A key follow up to reading with expression is paying attention to punctuation. Encouraging comprehension of punctuation teaches readers to understand the author’s intended interpretation of text by recognizing what the use of exclamation points, commas, italics, or bolded words mean.
  4. Proper pacing when reading means that students are not reading too fast, to the point where they are not comprehending the words on the page, but are reading at a pace equal to the flow of a natural conversation.
  5. The final building block of oral reading fluency is comprehension. This means that readers understand the text they are reading and are reading to learn, not just to check a task off a list or say they completed it.

In an article posted by The International Literacy Association, experts recommend that rather than encouraging students to read alone, silently, or to themselves, reading out loud or with groups helps to facilitate stronger oral reading fluency abilities. This can be listening to others read aloud, performing readings and books as plays to engage students, and making sure to acknowledge not only a student’s skills that need additional support, but also the skills they have mastered or shown growth in. This is why it is vital to read to children at a young age, by reading aloud and modeling strong reading fluency, children learn what accurate and proper reading looks and sounds like, helping them to do it themselves.       

To support the development of oral reading fluency in young readers, Pennez has developed a web application, Read2Think, which is intended to provide support as young readers work to build these skills. Read2Think is a web application that assesses a child’s oral reading skills. Stories are written for Kindegarten-Sixth Grade Readers. They are written on, above, and below. Read2Think utilizes Natural Language Processing software and is designed to be responsive, listening to the child, and adapting to their reading needs. Read2Think was created not only with the intent of providing evaluation of a child’s reading skills, but also to provide teachers and parents with a resource to better understand where a child is in their literacy education. Reading aloud, either with friends, teachers, family, or with Read2Think, empowers young readers to build their literacy skills to not only be able to understand the text in front of them, but to comprehend the meanings and intent behind those words as well. 



Making the argument for children’s literature that represents BIPOC

Making the argument for children’s literature that represents BIPOC

Growing up, what was your favorite book? Did you have one? Was it a common classic, like “Goodnight, Moon” or “The Giving Tree”? Or something unique to your upbringing? 

Who was the main character in your favorite book? Did they remind you of yourself? Did they look like you?

For many adults and children, the answer to that last question is probably, “no”. Children’s books historically have featured two types of main characters: animals and white children. And when 40% of the U.S. population identifies as Latino, Black, Asian, or Indigenous, that’s a problem.

According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, in 2013, of the 3,200 children’s books published, only 93 featured characters or storylines relating to the Black diaspora. That’s only 3% of children’s books published in 2013.

So, why is representation of people of color in children’s literature important and necessary? 

In 1988, educator Emily Style introduced the phrase “windows and mirrors” to refer to literacy and books. The phrase refers to the fact that books have the ability to serve as “windows” into a world unknown or unfamiliar to readers, and as “mirrors” for readers to see their own likeness, experiences, and stories told by the author. This phrase expanded in 1990, when author and educator Rudine Sims Bishop added that books serve as “sliding glass doors”, giving readers the ability to see, and access, something they had never experienced before.

But when all the books you read tell stories that focus on anthropomorphic animals, which are animals given human mannerisms or characteristics; or children and characters that don’t reflect your everyday experience, it can be difficult to turn that experience into a “mirror” or a “sliding door”.

Author Walter Dean Myers acknowledged this in his 2014 article, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” In this article, Myers, author of the award-winning young adult novel “Monster”, reflects on the moment when his love for reading and his own identity as a young Black man collided.

Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today.” 

In order to ensure that students and children from historically marginalized backgrounds are able to engage, connect, and develop their love for reading and literature, it is imperative that they are given the opportunity to find literature that not only reflects them, but tells their own unique stories and experiences. But that doesn’t necessarily just start with authors.

In 2015, Lee & Low Books, an independent publisher of multicultural literature, published the first major study examining staff diversity in publishing. Results found that across the 40 publishing houses and review journals that participated in the study, 80% of staff self-identified as white. 

NPR focused on the topic of diversity in publishing in their 2016 article, “Diversity In Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too”, speaking with Kima Jones, owner of the Los Angeles-based publicity company Jack Jones Literary Arts. From Jones perspective, there is a dire need for diversity in publishing, not just authors and writers, in order to provide the systems level support for writers of color.

There needs to be more women of color in publishing, in positions of power, period. As I see other book clubs and speaking series, reading series, organizations pop up that are dedicated to writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers, other marginalized writers, I’m like: yeah, do that! This is what we need.”

In order for authors to tell stories about diverse characters and experiences, they have to not only make it through the publishing house doors, but ensure that the team working with them on publishing, marketing, and distributing their books understand the story being told and the audience being emphasized. If they’re unable to do that, they run the risk of having their book be underpublicized, not reaching the communities they are trying to uplift.

Diversity in children’s literature doesn’t just benefit children of color, but all children, allowing from an early age for conversations to take place relating to race, religion, ability, and other ways that we, as humans, each come from different backgrounds while sharing similarities. Offering stories and characters that represent people of color allows children not from these groups to build empathy for others, while simultaneously encouraging positive recognition of self for children of color. Think about it, if you are making soup, you need a grouping of diverse ingredients: water, broth, vegetables, seasonings, and meat. When these ingredients blend together, you are fed and sustained. Similarly, a range of ingredients and experiences from people of color can enrich the minds of youth and build their understanding to reduce fear and improve care and love for not only their in-group, but those around them. While anthropomorphism (characterizing animals or other non-human entities with human characteristics/abilities) in literature does have its benefits, allowing writers to tell stories about morals, ethics, and serious situations while placing an emotional distance between the reader and the characters, when every children’s book places that distance, it can be difficult for readers to connect with the story on a human level.

As parents, reading to your child is a necessary part of child development and is one of the simplest ways to foster a love of learning and build connection with the little human you’re raising. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind what values you hope to instill in your child as they grow up, and how their exposure to literature that reflects not only the world they experience every day but also the world beyond their lived experience can contribute to their development. Making an effort to seek out children’s books and resources that reflect BIPOC and their perspectives, is one of the simplest ways to build your child’s ability to empathize with others, especially those who may not look like the people they are exposed to everyday. 


Democratizing Artificial Intelligence with POC

Democratizing Artificial Intelligence with POC

We’ve all been there: we’re in the car or doing chores at home when we think of a song we want to listen to on our smartphone. So, we say “Hey Siri” or “Hey Google”, to put in the request and keep doing what we’re doing. But Siri and Google don’t pick up on what we said the first time. Or the second time. And by the third time, we’re just reaching for the phone to search for the song manually. Maybe it’s the name of the song, or the way we’re pronouncing it, but in this situation, speech recognition software supported by artificial intelligence (AI) misunderstanding us is comical at best, frustrating at worst.

But what if AI’s misunderstanding was the difference between life and death, or success and failure?

That’s an everyday reality for many non-white, non-Male, and non-American tech users across the world. Research shows that AI consistently shows bias in favor of white, English-speaking men, in comparison to other demographics. This imbalanced bias particularly impacts women of color, with Black women facing the most negative experiences with AI technology.

According to the 2018 study, Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification”, gender classifiers developed by Microsoft, IBM, and Chinese startup Face++ were compared against one another in their ability to accurately recognize whether an image shown portrayed a man or a women, and whether that man or woman was white or Black. As explained in the article, Facial recognition software easily IDs white men, but error rates soar for black women”, across all three technologies, the software error rate for identifications was extremely low for men, with identifications of white men having the lowest error rates, and higher for women, with error rates for Black women being 29 percentage points higher than the average error rate for white men.

The failure of AI for women and communities of color doesn’t just fall in the realm of facial recognition technology, but also, as referenced earlier, in voice recognition technology. In 2018, researchers partnered with The Washington Post to study the inequities in voice recognition technology for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. The results of this study were published on The Washington Post’s website, in an article titled “The Accent Gap”, and showed stark differences in technology’s ability to understand and respond to accents from over 100 people from 20 cities.

While some of the data showed smaller error rates, such as Southern American accents being 3% less likely to be understood by the technology than Western American accents, the largest error rates came for non-native English speakers. Across the board, for non-native English speakers, inaccuracies occurred 30% more often than for those who grew up speaking American English. For example, individuals who speak Spanish as their first language were misunderstood 6% more often than individuals who grew up speaking English on the West Coast, where many tech companies are based.

The reasoning for this is straightforward, according to data scientist Dr. Rachael Tatman.

“These systems are going to work best for white, highly educated, upper-middle-class Americans, probably from the West Coast, because that’s the group that’s had access to the technology from the very beginning.”

Dr. Tatman’s study, “Gender and Dialect Bias in Youtube’s Automatic Captions”, shows that not only are diverse dialects negatively impacted by voice recognition technology, but that women are also shortchanged by AI’s ability to understand and respond to voice. According to the study, women posting content on YouTube are 13% more likely to be misunderstood by the site’s automatic closed captioning when compared to men. This is particularly damaging, considering that Youtube’s automatic closed captioning is in place to ensure equity for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

So, how do these errors and technological failures affect under-resourced members of our community? In more ways than you might think.

For differently-abled folks who rely on recent advances in technology to make their day to day lives easier, if the technology they’re using doesn’t understand their voice, make correct translations of voice to text, or won’t recognize their face, they could be left in a difficult situation.

As more and more companies and organizations rely on facial recognition technology, including the police force, to identify employees, clients, and potential suspects, hearing that people of color and women can be erroneously misidentified should bring you a feeling of concern.

Unlike many forms of technology, artificial intelligence has the ability to learn by exposure and interactions with humans. Siri, for example, learns how to better serve its users over time by building knowledge off of common voice commands or methods of use. And that’s the goal of Mozilla Common Voice. Through their website, Mozilla Common Voice offers the opportunity for anyone, from any background, to contribute voice recordings of common words, such as numbers, in an effort to diversify the recordings being used to teach AI to understand the human voice. The goal of Mozilla Common Voice is to “help make voice recognition open and accessible to everyone”.

In order to lessen, and eventually eliminate biases in AI, it is imperative to ensure that not only are these technologies made available to all individuals, but that individuals from Black and Brown communities are in the room during the creation and implementation of these technologies. By allowing for wider exposure, and a team of more diverse engineers, scientists, and software developers, AI can, like a child learning how to respect others, learn to better serve women, people of color, and other members of underrepresented  communities. It is these actions that can help to democratize artificial intelligence and make it accessible (and equitable) for all.




From the Achievement Gap to the Opportunity Gap: How can communities support students from all backgrounds?

From the Achievement Gap to the Opportunity Gap: How can communities support students from all backgrounds?

For the past 50 years, the conversation around equity in education has surrounded a central topic: the academic achievement gap. But what is the academic achievement gap? 

Born of the movement for standardized testing, the academic achievement gap is, as it is most commonly referred and simply put, the difference in scoring between students of color (Black, Latinx, Indigenous) and their white counterparts, with students of color historically receiving lower test scores than white students at a similar age or grade in school.

One of the most common examples of standardized tests and the academic achievement gap comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or sometimes called The Nation’s Report Card. The NAEP is a standardized test administered by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) on a recurring basis since 1969, selecting a sample of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders across the nation for exams in areas such as math, reading, writing, and science. According to the most recent research by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA), on the 300 point scale measured by the NAEP in math and reading, white eighth graders scored an average of 23 points higher than their Black peers and 21 points higher than Latinx peers in reading. In math, white eighth graders scored an average of 28 points higher than Black peers and 21 points higher than Latinx peers.

However, the academic achievement gap as it is presently viewed, while seemingly cut and dry, does not account for two influential factors: improvement in scores over generations and the difference in learning styles, ability, or cultural differences for students from under resourced backgrounds.

When looking at the difference in scores on the NAEP 8th grade reading exam, what isn’t emphasized is the difference in scores between 8th graders over a 30 year span. The same research from the Stanford CEPA shows that in the years between NAEP exams taken in 1975 and 2015, Black students in 2015 scored an average of 18 points higher than their historical counterparts in reading and 32 points higher in math. Similarly, Latinx students scored an average of 15 points higher in reading and 30 points higher in math than their 1975 counterparts. Meanwhile, white students scored an average of 4 points higher in reading and 18 points higher in math exams in 2015 than in 1975. This difference in scoring shows that while the “achievement gap” exists, it is closing in as the years progress. 

Why is this significant?

This “closing” of the “achievement gap” highlights that over the years, as a greater focus and case for anti-racist education has entered the mainstream, students are given access to greater opportunities, more culturally competent curricula, and changes in policy that emphasize equity over equality. As stated by Ibram X. Kendi in his 2016 article “Why the Academic Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea”, “Americans have been led to believe that intelligence is like body weight, and the different intellectual levels of different people can be measured on a single, standardized weight scale. Our faith in standardized tests causes us to believe that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black test takers–and not the tests”. 

When considering the definition of the word achievement, many would agree that it’s meaning is: success garnered through effort, courage, or skill. However, under that definition, can it be said that students of color are not putting forth enough effort, maintaining enough courage, or building enough skills to compete with their white peers? 

Shavar Jeffries, head of the group Democrats for Education Reform, emphasized this view of the achievement gap in Kevin Mahnken’s 2020 article, “The achievement gap has driven education reform for decades. Now some are calling it a racist idea”.


“If we name this an ‘achievement gap,’ particularly in a country that has a racist history, it reinforces a context where people are already predisposed to think that certain folks of color can’t achieve the same way as others. You can call it marketing if you want, but I think how we frame things matters.”

By emphasizing equity in education, rather than equality, the idea of the academic achievement gap has slowly begun to dissipate, as educators and administrators recognize that in order for students from under resourced backgrounds to score at or above the level of their white peers, these students need advocacy from their community outside of the classroom. While scores show that the “achievement gap” has closed significantly in the past 30 years, there is still much work needed to be done for students of color. This means that, as a community of advocates for students, we must focus not on the achievement gap, but on the opportunity gap and the aspects of our society that influence the gap in access for students of color and those from under resourced communities. 

The use of the phrase “opportunity gap” has been adopted on a nationwide scale by a number of organizations and leaders across the realm of education. The 2018 blog article, “Why We Say ‘Opportunity Gap’ Instead of ‘Achievement Gap’”, posted by Teach for America defines the “opportunity gap” as: “the arbitrary circumstances in which people are born—such as their race, ethnicity, ZIP code, and socioeconomic status—(which) determine their opportunities in life, rather than all people having the chance to achieve to the best of their potential”. 

As a society, by introducing the idea of the opportunity gap into our everyday knowledge and conversations around education and access, we shift the blame for educational inequities from being the fault of the child struggling with academics, to the fault of the systemic influences that serve as barriers to their success. And, as a society, together we can find ways to eliminate these systemic barriers, through mentorship and community engagement, financial support of educational organizations, or policy changes in local elections, to ensure that all students, regardless of their background and upbringing, can bridge the “opportunity gap” and achieve long-term academic success.