Help! My son is reading like a robot

We didn't expect the phone call from my son's teacher, we had assumed his education was progressing well.    

Daniel is not reading well enough, he’s reading like a robot!
— Miss Kell, Daniel's (8 years old) school teacher

The shocking news jolted us into action, we did not want our son falling behind.   Especially with his reading; we knew he needed to learn to read as early as possible because the rest of his education relies on that fundamental skill.     We had read to him as a baby and tried to keep that daily habit, though if I'm really honest we'd skip it if we were too tired or busy.

So what does it mean if he is reading like a robot?

How do we fix it?

My name is Shawn and I live in Sydney with my family, I spend a lot of time working away from home for a large mine in northern Australia.     The FIFO life is hard on my wife and two young boys who have to deal with everything whilst I'm away working for months at a time.

Here's what I found out & how we helped Daniel to read better.

Why do children read like a robot?

Children have a limited amount of capacity for complex tasks and, in order to deal successfully with all the activities that make up a task, a certain number of them must become automatic.
— LaBerge and Samuels (1974)

Reading like a robot is very common as children learn to read.   It's actually a normal phase they go through, it's the difference between 'automaticity' and 'fluency'.

As children begin to read, they read very slowly.   Overtime they speed up, with practice, as they recognise more words faster.     They achieve automaticity (or automatic word recognition) where they read as if it were a list of words in a monotone voice, they lack expression and are not fluent.

Children who views words as units, processing them quickly and accurately are said to have reached automaticity in word recognition
— Beers, 2003;

What is Fluency?

Fluent readers have developed their decoding skills well enough to recognize words accurately & automatically, allowing them to focus on the meaning of the words as well as the text as a whole.    Though don't be tricked into thinking your child now understands the story their reading just because they sound better!    

Fluency is the ability to read expressively and meaningfully as well as accurately and with appropriate speed
— Padak and Rasinski (2008)

Comprehension is a different skill, as their fluency improves they learn how to understand the meaning of what they are reading beyond what is written on the page. One of the most powerful moments is when fluent comprehending readers learn to enter into the lives of imagined heroes and heroines.   You'll know this has been achieved when its difficult to get them to put a book down!

So how do kids become fluent readers?

To learn fluency takes time and a lot of practice.      It's also situational: that is, not all readers are equally fluent with all texts.   Even a skilled adult will exhibit disfluent reading when engaged with unfamiliar content, try it for yourself and see how well you read a quantum physics book!

The child should read books at an appropriate level of difficulty.   So they can practice their reading speed and focus on fluency instead of decoding words.

Basic Rule: to focus on fluency they need to read most of the words easily (i.e. 95% word accuracy).

Suggested activities to improve fluency

Below are the various activities we used to improve Daniel's reading fluency, you can try them with your own child and help them to work on their own fluency.

Read easy books 

If there are too many difficult words your child has to focus on decoding words instead of fluent reading.    Choose easier books, a lower reading level, where the child get fewer than 5% of the words wrong.

Ask your school teacher for some extra home readers 2 or 3 levels below their current ability, we also had access to 100's of digital books using Chatty Kidz.    A mixture or real world and digital books ensured we had plenty to practice reading with.

Read silently (in their head)

We asked Daniel to spend some time reading a book in his head before he read it out loud, this allowed him to become comfortable with the text.

Model reading fluency

Read to your child regularly and ensure you focus on lots of expression and engage your child with your story telling skills.   Tell them to listen to your fluency, the speed and your voice as you read.

We would read books to Daniel daily using books at home and I could even read to him when I was away working using Chatty Kidz, you can video call each other & read books.  Simple really!    My mum even chipped in and helped reading to Daniel, she lives in the UK.

Self analysis 

We would record Daniel reading a book and he'd watch himself reading, we found this to be a particularly interesting exercise.   Daniel enjoyed the fact we were recording him and that, overtime, he could see the improvements for himself.

Re-read books

We'd have Daniel rad the same book several times, the teacher advised us no more than 5 times per book.   This would ensure Daniel was familiar with a story and he could practice his fluency re-reading the book several times.

Practice, practice, practice

This speaks for itself, there is no magic pill to solve your child's reading problems.   Get practising as often as possible and you'll see tangible results faster.

Read aloud in unison

I encouraged Daniel to read along with me as I read a book, both reading out loud.    I'd maintain an appropriate reading pace and model fluent reading, whilst Daniel tagged along and copied me as best he could.

Take turns reading pages

My mum liked this exercise where she would read with Daniel during a video call 3 times a week, she loved the extra time with her grandson.     They would take turns reading the book pages which would let Daniel relax a little and enjoy reading with his granny.

Celebrate success

Make a big deal when they improve and celebrate major milestones.    Everytime he'd make it to the next reading level was a cause for a mini celebration, we'd even set targets and take Daniel to the cinema every 5th level he progressed,.