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.,
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 readers 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
Abe (Case Study)
Abe (not the students 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"). Abes 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
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 Abes
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 Abes 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
Abes confidence and motivation to read thus providing him
with more practice and instigating a cycle of interacting positive
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).
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, &
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 students
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,
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,
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.
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. Stines 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 Abes performance over nine sessions.
At the first session, he read 51 words of the narrative passage
with seven miscues. Abes 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
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.
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 Abes 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 Abes copy of the passage
as a prompt. The prompt was erased after two correct readings.
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,
& OShea, 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 students 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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Department of Educational Administration, Foundations and Psychology
(Graduate Student - M.Ed programme)
Faculty of Education
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg MB R3T 2N2
Department of Educational Administration, Foundations and Psychology
Faculty of Education
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg MB R3T 2N2
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