Precision Reading: Improving Reading for Students with Learning Disabilities

with Learning Disabilities

by Mary-Ann Updike and Richard Freeze


Difficulties in reading fluency have long been considered to be among the most common characteristics of students with mild disabilities and other special needs. Precision reading (Freeze, 1989, 2001a, 2001b), a combination of the methods of repeated readings (Samuels, 1979) and precision teaching (Formentin & Csapo, 1980), was developed in an attempt to improve reading accuracy and fluency by increasing word recognition automatically. The premise is that the strength of each will augment the benefits of the other, creating a synergistic instructional effect. Research on reading fluency, repeated readings and precision teaching is reviewed and the implementation of precision reading with a struggling reader is used to illustrate the strategy. Classroom applications of precision reading are discussed.


Literacy can be considered the most functional skill in society. Unfortunately some students, particularly those with mild disabilities (including learning disabilities, emotional disturbance and developmental disability) or other special needs, struggle with learning to read. Although difficulties with word reading skills and reading comprehension are often noted, one of the most common characteristics of struggling readers is a slow, laboured rendering of a passage (Adams, 1990; Mathes, Simmons, & Davis, 1992) commonly referred to as disfluent reading.

Slow disfluent reading suggests that the student is an inefficient reader. Although the student may have some success in decoding, it is far from a smooth, automatic, and efficient process — the kind that requires little investment of attention or cognitive energy. According to automaticity theory (Sternberg, 1985), the human mind has a limited amount of attention available for information processing. When we are learning a new skill, the demands of learning that skill use up nearly all of our attention and we find we are able to pay attention to only one task at a time. A skill can be said to have reached a level of automaticity when it can be performed along with one or more other tasks (McCown, et al., 1996).

In the case of reading, an individual is required to perform at least two interdependent tasks; the reader must determine what words constitute the text while simultaneously constructing meaning. Unfortunately, the combined attention demands of decoding and comprehension are greater than the reader’s attention resources (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). Therefore, beginning readers focus their attention on the decoding task and then switch attention to comprehension to understand what they have decoded. Although the beginning reader is able to comprehend by switching attention back and forth in this way, the process is slow and difficult. With practice, students are able to recognize words automatically. Then, because so little attention is required for decoding, they have enough left over for comprehension (Howell & Lorson-Howell, 1990). Now they are able to focus attention simultaneously on decoding and comprehension and the transition from learning to read to reading to learn (Chall, 1996) proceeds smoothly.

Inefficient readers continue to expend a disproportionately large percentage of their attention on decoding, which significantly reduces their overall reading rate. In addition, cognitive resources that could have been used for comprehension must be reallocated to word recognition. As a result comprehension suffers (Pinnell et al., 1995). Improving their level of word recognition automaticity will enable struggling readers to focus on the real goal of reading — meaningful involvement with text.

Unfortunately, excessively slow, disfluent reading can result in a cycle of interacting negative consequences (Stanovich, 1986). Unrewarding reading experiences lead to less involvement in reading related activities. Students avoid reading when they do not feel successful, which eliminates the one thing that will improve their automaticity — practice (Allington, 1977). For the teacher of the struggling reader, the dilemma is how to provide more practice in a task that the student avoids and probably dislikes. Considering that illiteracy is positively correlated with unemployment, low wages, poverty, crime, and low self esteem (Brunner, 1993; Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993; National Institute for Literacy, 1997), it is a dilemma that must be addressed.

One possible solution to this predicament, precision reading, is examined in this article. The experiences of "Abe" will be used to illustrate the procedures and implementation of this strategy.

Abe (Case Study)

Abe (not the student’s real name) was a 10-year-old boy in fifth grade at a small elementary school located in a culturally diverse, low-income catchment area of a large western Canadian city. Last year, Abe attended a division-based remediation program that develops and implements instructional strategies primarily related to Language Arts. Students must be reading at a level that is at least two years below their current grade level to be eligible for this program.

While Abe showed some confidence in his reading ability, his reading was slow and labourious (average rate of 45 correct words per minute) and he got tired and discouraged easily. He continued to rely heavily on a "sounding out" strategy for identifying unknown words and often misread basic sight words (e.g., "how" for "who"). Abe’s comprehension of text seemed to be directly related to how fluently he had read it. Abe had more difficulty with expository texts where the high number of unknown words limited his opportunities to use context clues for word identification, resulting in little comprehension of the text.

By all accounts Abe spent very little time reading. His mother noted that it was virtually impossible to get him to read at home and his classroom teacher relayed many examples of Abe’s avoidance strategies. He always seemed to have trouble finding a book that interested him when the class went to the library; time devoted to sustained silent reading was spent looking for the checked out book which had mysteriously disappeared; and books sent home were frequently lost or misplaced for many days.

A volunteer tutor administered Abe’s individualized follow-up program and it was decided to include a precision reading intervention in an attempt to improve his reading accuracy and fluency. Since research in the psychology of reading indicates fluency as a necessary condition for enjoyable reading experiences (Nathan & Stanovich, 1991), it was hoped that hearing himself read fluently would increase Abe’s confidence and motivation to read thus providing him with more practice and instigating a cycle of interacting positive consequences.

Origins of Precision Reading

Precision reading (Freeze, 1989, 1998) is a short, daily reading activity designed to improve sight word recognition and the reading fluency and comprehension of students with low reading achievement. It is not an entirely original invention but rather a combination of the methods of repeated readings (Samuels, 1979) and precision teaching (Formentin & Csapo, 1980).

Repeated Readings

The method of repeated readings emerged largely from the teaching implications of automaticity theory and is modeled on the methods used to train athletes and musicians. It consists of rereading a short, meaningful passage until a satisfactory level of fluency is reached (Samuels, 1979). The purpose of repeated reading is to provide the practice necessary to make decoding automatic, thus enabling the reader to concentrate on comprehension. There is strong evidence that the method of repeated readings is effective in increasing word recognition, fluency, and comprehension (Blum & Koskinen, 1991; Dowhower, 1994; Mastropieri, Leinart, & Scruggs, 1999).

Precision Teaching

Precision teaching is not so much a method of instruction as it is a precise and systematic method of monitoring learning and evaluating instruction (White, 1986). It is a form of authentic assessment (Pike & Salend, 1995) since it (a) directly measures student learning, (b) is a continuous process, (c) occurs during real learning experiences, (d) involves both students and teachers, and (e) the findings can be easily communicated to others (West, Young & Spooner, 1990).

Precision teaching procedures can be applied to a wide variety of social and academic skills without changing the basic approach to instruction (Berquam, 1985). Lindsley (1990) has described the fundamental elements of precision teaching as: the principle that the learner knows best, daily measurement of rate of response, the use of self-recording and the use of a graphic display.

The fundamental guiding principle of precision teaching is simply that the learner knows best, or in other words, the student’s behaviour can tell us better than anything else whether or not instruction has been effective. If the child is progressing, then the instructional strategy is presumed to be effective to that child. If progress falters, different strategies must be tried until one is found that reverses the trend.

The evaluation of pupil performance and progress in precision teaching is based on an analysis of the number of correct responses observed during each minute of the assessment period on a daily basis. Daily measurement allows for continuous monitoring of the effectiveness of instruction and measuring both accuracy and rate of response provides a more complete picture of learning (West, et al., 1990). In almost all fields, the proficient or fluent worker is not one who does every task correctly, but one who does tasks correctly within set time limits.

The third principle involves the use self-recording. Students self-record their performances by counting the number of correct responses and graphing the results. Charting their own data keeps students motivated and excited about their own learning. Each student can feel good about his/her own success, without being compared to another student. Many teachers have found that changes are much greater when students take an active role in counting and recording their progress.

Changes in performance can be studied more easily when scores are plotted on a graph and inspected visually. The teacher can easily monitor changes in performance and evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Decisions to adjust instruction are made for each student, thus individualizing each instructional program (White, 1986).

Precision teaching has been shown to be effective in producing a wide variety of learning gains (Lindsley, 1992). Furthermore, precision teaching has been used successfully to facilitate the progress of learners ranging from the severely disabled to university graduate students, from the very young to the very old (White, 1986).

Precision Reading

Precision reading (Freeze, 1989, 1998) applies the measurement and evaluation procedures of precision teaching to the repeated readings procedure. Students read the same passage aloud to their instructor for one minute every day for seven to ten school days, engage in corrective practice for their errors daily, and graph their improved fluency (speed and accuracy) at each reading. When one passage is mastered to a pre-set criterion, another is begun.

Strategy Implementation

The general directions for implementing precision reading are presented first, followed by an explanation of how they were carried out with Abe.

Passage selection. A passage on a topic of interest to the student is chosen from grade level classroom reading materials and converted into precision reading format. Abe chose a book of interest to him, R.L. Stine’s The Barking Ghost (1995), and since the class would soon be studying the prairie provinces, an expository text on the city of Edmonton was also selected (Schemenauer, 1986).

A passage was chosen from each book and typed onto separate pages. A running tally of the number of words in the passage was written at the end of each sentence in the right side margin of the page. Two copies of each passage were made.

Daily reading. The student reads the same passage aloud for one minute on a daily basis. As the student reads the passage, the following miscues are marked: omissions (letters or words deleted from the text), insertions (letters or words added to the text), substitutions (mispronunciations or real word replacements), and inversions ("no" for "on"). Self-corrections also are marked.

So that he would understand why rereading is done, Abe was engaged in a discussion of how he develops skill at a computer game. Abe acknowledged that he had to play the same game many times before he was able to play it quickly and achieve high scores. It was noted that precision reading uses this same type of practice.

At the first session, Abe received one copy of the first passage and the other was used by the volunteer tutor to note miscues. A different coloured pencil was used each day to mark miscues. Abe set the timer for one minute and he was instructed to read as quickly and as accurately as possible. When he was ready, he started the timer.

Graphing. Once the reading is completed, the total number of words read and the number of miscues are recorded. Omissions, insertions, substitutions, and inversions are counted as miscues. The student completes the graph.

Figures 1 & 2 show Abe’s performance over nine sessions. At the first session, he read 51 words of the narrative passage with seven miscues. Abe’s reading was very hesitant and he spoke very quietly. At the ninth session, he was able to read 118 words of the narrative passage with only two miscues. Overall, the number of words Abe read in the narrative passage increased by 131% and his miscues fell from seven to two or from 13.7% to 1.6% when increases in the number of words he read are taken into account.

Figure 1. Precision reading graph for narrative passage

Figure 2. Precision reading graph for expository passage

The same procedure was repeated with the expository passage and similar results occurred. Abe read 50 words with four miscues at the first session and 115 words with only one miscue at the ninth one-minute session. The number of words Abe read in the same time frame increased by 130% and his mistakes fell from four to one or from 8% to 0.8%. Abe read more confidently and was very proud of his progress.

Corrective practice

Following the graphing, the miscues are discussed with the student. If the same substitution miscue occurred in successive readings, the word was written on the back of Abe’s page and reviewed before the next reading. When the word had been read correctly twice, it was no longer reviewed. If the same word was omitted more than once, it was underlined on Abe’s copy of the passage as a prompt. The prompt was erased after two correct readings.

Performance criteria

This process is repeated for seven to ten sessions or until the reading rate has doubled or tripled with 100% or near 100% accuracy. In only nine minutes of precision reading (one minute per day for nine consecutive school days), Abe more than doubled the number of words he read and reduced his miscues to near zero.

Limitations and Delimitations

The precision reading strategy (Freeze, 1989, 1998) was delimited to implementation with a single struggling reader using only narrative and expository passages. Therefore, its effectiveness with other students and other reading materials is unknown. However, both repeated readings and precision teaching have been shown to be successful with students with and without special needs (Lindsley, 1992; Samuels, 1979).

This intervention was also limited to reading accuracy and fluency. Its effect on other reading skills such as reading comprehension, vocabulary development, and text processing is unknown. It is also unknown if word recognition skills will transfer to new texts or if the gains in reading fluency will be maintained. However, research literature cites numerous studies linking improvements in reading fluency with positive effects on reading comprehension (Dowhower, 1987; Henk, Helfeldt, & Platt, 1986; Herman, 1985; Homan, Dlesius, & Hite, 1993; Samuels, 1979; Sindelar, Monda, & O’Shea, 1990). In the area of text processing, researchers suggest that repeated readings increases factual retention (Barnett & Seefeldt, 1989) and encourages deeper processing of the text at all levels of development (Dowhower, 1989). Furthermore, there is evidence that repeated reading increases overall reading ability across new passages (Dowhower, 1994; Weinstein & Cooke, 1992) and that fluency produces greater retention and generalization (Chomsky, 1978; Jenkins, Barksdale, & Clinton, 1978; Young, West, Howard, & Whitney, 1986). Selecting reading materials used in classroom instruction and using a series of passages from the same text will ensure that vocabulary is repeated and will increase the likelihood that the skills acquired during this intervention will be generalized to and maintained in the classroom (Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985).


Although the effectiveness of precision reading cannot be determined on the basis of this single implementation, several benefits are apparent. One advantage of precision reading is the minimal time requirement for both the student and teacher. The student must read for only one minute, which is non-threatening even for the most reluctant reader. From start to finish, daily sessions range from five to ten minutes, which is not time-consuming for the teacher. The one-to-one instruction provides the student with individual attention, intense instruction, and corrective feedback. The powerful effects of tutorial arrangements are well documented (Shanahan & Barr, 1995; Wasik & Slavin, 1993).

Precision reading allows the struggling reader to read material appropriate to his or her age level, thus circumventing a problem that increases as schooling proceeds: The struggling reader becomes less and less able to read age-appropriate material, an additional factor contributing to the distastefulness of reading (Nathan & Stanovich, 1991). Repeating the process for seven to ten days provides a great number of response opportunities. Research has shown that the number of opportunities to respond is consistently associated with gains in academic achievement (Fisher & Berliner, 1985; Greenwood, Delquadri & Hall, 1984). In addition, rereading the same passage provides the practice necessary to develop reading automaticity (Howell & Lorson-Howell, 1990). Furthermore, practice in students’ corrected miscues means that they avoid repeating their errors.

Timing each reading session and graphing the student’s daily performance provides feedback to the student and the teacher and also establishes an incentive system. Students compete with themselves by trying to improve their correct reading rate while decreasing their miscue rate. Furthermore, daily graphing provides visible evidence of improvement over time.

In another study of precision reading with early years students (Freeze, 2000), it was found that between 100 to 130 daily five minute sessions (involving the precision reading of 12 to 17 successive passages) were necessary to secure significant improvements of 1.5 to 3 grade levels, pre-test to post-test, in word recognition, word comprehension, oral fluency, and passage comprehension on a standardized test of reading.


Unfortunately, effective remedial programs like precision reading may reduce the pressure for meaningful educational reform by placing the responsibility for school failure largely on the student (Dudley-Marling & Murphy, 1997). Furthermore, individual remedial programs fail to encourage change in classroom instruction and may, by there very presence, discourage change (Skrtic, 1995). While implementing an individual intervention such as precision reading is preferable to doing nothing, it may be beneficial to consider how the effective aspects of precision reading could be incorporated into classroom instruction for all students to prevent failure and enhance achievement.


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Submitted by

Mary-Ann Updike
Department of Educational Administration, Foundations and Psychology
(Graduate Student - M.Ed programme)
Faculty of Education
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg MB R3T 2N2

Richard Freeze
Department of Educational Administration, Foundations and Psychology
Faculty of Education
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg MB R3T 2N2

  International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Volume 1, No. 1 Canada
ISSN 1703-3381