Improving Oral Reading Fluency (and Comprehension) Through the Creation of Talking Books

Grace Oakley

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In this article I discuss a formative experiment in which 9- and 10-year-old girls created “electronic talking books” in an activity designed to improve oral reading fluency. I outline facilitative and inhibitive factors that emerged during this process, as well as some unplanned outcomes, such as an improvement in the students’ comprehension. I also suggest how the creation of talking books may be preferable to more traditional techniques for developing fluency.

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Background | Fluency | The Study | The Formative Experiment | Results | Discussion and Implications | Future Directions | References | Software


Teachers are expected to use information and communication technologies (ICT) in meaningful ways in the classroom, but they are often given little information on how to do so to reach specific pedagogical outcomes. What role can ICT play, for example, in teaching oral reading fluency? The answer seems to be that such technologies have the potential to be helpful in many ways.

Fluency is somewhat more complex than it may at first appear, in that it involves the orchestration of many different reading “proficiencies.” In teaching for reading fluency, there is scope for various uses of a wide range of software, such as using electronic talking books as a context for repeated readings (Glasgow, 1996-97; Lewis, 2000). Even drill-and-practice software designed to improve automatic word recognition may have a role to play in improving oral reading fluency. The “digital language experience approach” may also help facilitate fluency as it reinforces the link between written and oral language (Labbo, Eakle, & Montero, 2002, online document; Oakley, 2001, online abstract; Turbill, 2003, online document).

Although the possibilities are broad and interesting, this article focuses on how a multimedia authoring program, Illuminatus 4.5, was used collaboratively by three 9- and 10-year-old girls to create an electronic talking book, and how the activity seemed to improve their reading fluency as well as their comprehension. The 10-week project, which was part of a larger study (Oakley, 2002), encouraged the participants to self-monitor their oral reading for fluency (appropriate rate, smoothness, and expression) and to think about phrasing as they worked to highlight written text to accompany their oral narration. It also necessitated repeated readings of the collaboratively written text.

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Fluency: What, Why, and How

Fluency is a somewhat amorphous concept, with no single definition (Kuhn & Stahl, 2000, online PDF document). However, there is some agreement that it consists of rate, accuracy, and automaticity of word recognition, as well as smoothness, phrasing, and expressiveness (Worthy & Broaddus, 2001-02).

It is also closely associated with comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000, online document), although the nature of the relationship remains unclear (Clark, 1995). According to LaBerge and Samuels (1974), automaticity of word recognition is a prerequisite of comprehension. Without automaticity, an excessive amount of a reader’s available cognitive resources are used up in lower level processing, leaving insufficient resources for the higher level cognitive processes necessary for comprehension. According to this view, automaticity is seen as necessary but not sufficient for comprehension to occur. However, it is known that comprehension derived through semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic cues can facilitate word recognition, and thus fluency (National Reading Panel).

To complicate things further, some definitions focus on oral reading fluency, while others may also be concerned with silent reading that is smooth, effortless, and successful in making meaning. The various definitions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but can be seen as components of a more complex and interactive definition of reading fluency than has usually been put forward. An attempt to synthesize these definitions is represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Schematic Representation of Reading Fluency and Its Relationship to Comprehension

diagram of related components of fluency and comprehension

According to this representation, automaticity of word recognition, the use of syntactic cues (such as punctuation), and a degree of comprehension are necessary for silent reading fluency, although the weightings of these elements will vary according to the child and the context. A degree of reading fluency, whether oral or silent, may in turn facilitate comprehension, automaticity of word recognition, and the ability to use syntactic cues. In order for oral reading fluency to develop, and possibly also to facilitate fluent silent reading, access to models of expressive reading is also necessary.

Why Teach Reading Fluency?

It is necessary to teach reading fluency explicitly because many children don’t just “pick it up.” It is crucial that children become fluent, primarily because of fluency’s (probably reciprocal) relationship with comprehension, but also because fluent readers tend to have more positive attitudes toward reading and a more positive concept of themselves as readers (Rasinski & Padak, 2000). As a consequence, fluent readers are more likely to read more and learn more, and become even more fluent. In addition, fluent readers may enjoy rather than dread reading aloud to an audience. There are many situations, such as reading out reports and delivering presentations in the workplace, in which reading aloud is necessary. Furthermore, fluent readers are able to provide good models of reading to others and play a part in helping others learn to read.

How Is Fluency Usually Taught?

Some 20 years ago, Allington (1983) argued that fluency was a neglected reading goal. To some extent, this seems still to be true today. However, if fluency is taught, the following strategies seem to be the most widely accepted:

The major components in traditional strategies for teaching reading fluency, then, are the provision of models of fluent reading, the availability of support from a proficient reader, repeated readings, and the development of syntactic sensitivity, along with discussion about the elements of reading fluency.

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The Study

Participants and Setting

This article reports only one “case” in a series of formative experiments carried out in the city of Perth, Western Australia. Apart from myself, the participants were the classroom teacher, Nicole, and three Year 5 students, Brianna, Becki, and Claudia (all names are pseudonyms). Nicole selected these three 9- and 10-year-olds to participate in the study because she felt they had difficulties in reading fluently.

The girls attended a private, well-resourced, all-girls school that served students from families of relatively high economic status, although some parents could be described as “affluent working class” (miners, farmers) as opposed to “professional”, and may not necessarily have been highly educated themselves.

Standardized and nonstandardized tests administered prior to beginning the formative experiment confirmed that the three girls had some difficulties in the area of reading fluency, although the private school context did seem to demand higher standards in fluency than may have been required in other schools. Indeed, in an Australian public school context, these students may not have been identified as “struggling” in this area.

Because of the imprecise and contested definitions of reading fluency, its measurement is not without problems (Rasinski, 1990). In order to measure fluency in this study, two tests were used: The Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (Neale, 1988), a standardized reading test that measures rate, accuracy and comprehension, was administered because the three dimensions it measures seem to be important aspects of fluency. In addition, Nicole rated the students” reading rate (or pace), smoothness, and phrasing using the “Multidimensional Fluency Scale” (Zutell & Rasinski, 1991). The phrasing dimension also covers expression and intonation. The teacher used this scale to assess a tape-recording of the students’ oral reading of “Ali,”, an 83-word level 3 text from the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability with a RIX readability (Anderson, 1983) of 1.4, which is just above Year 4 level (8- and 9-year-olds in Australia). The girls had never encountered this text before, so were reading it “cold.”

Table 1 presents a summary of the students” results on the standardized Neale analysis, while Table 2 shows the results of Nicole’s application of the Multidimensional Fluency Scale.

Table 1
Summary of Results from the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability
Table 2
Summary of Results from the Multidimensional Fluency Scale
Student’s Name and Age Comprehension
Claudia; 9 years, 6 months 31 48 73
Brianna; 9 years, 6 months 54 37 28
Becki; 10 years, 0 months 49 26 72
Student Pace/Rate Smoothness Phrasing
Claudia Uneven mixture of fast and slow reading. Occasional breaks in smoothness caused by difficulties with specific words and/or structures. Mixture of run-ons, midsentence pauses for breath, and possibly choppiness. Reasonable stress/intonation.
Brianna Moderately slow. Several “rough spots” in text where extended pauses, hesitations, etc., are more frequent and disruptive. Mixture of run-ons, midsentence pauses for breath, and possibly choppiness. Reasonable stress/intonation.
Becki Uneven mixture of fast and slow reading. Occasional breaks in smoothness caused by difficulties with specific words and/or structures. Mixture of run-ons, midsentence pauses for breath, and possibly choppiness. Reasonable stress/intonation.

In addition to the administration of these tests, the participating children were asked about their conceptions of reading fluency with the question, “What do you do when you’re reading fluently, with expression?” Their responses seemed to indicate that they understood that fluency related to rate or pace, and that expression involved changes in pitch and volume. However, no mention was made of the importance of phrasing, or reading in meaningful chunks:

[When you’re reading fluently] you’re reading not too slow and not too fast, and you’re reading with expression for the people who are speaking [the dialogue].
Your voice changes when you’re trying to act like someone else. I think that you are...going at the right speed.
Fluency is when someone is speaking and it’s’s capital letters, you actually say it loudly.

The Research Design

The “formative experiment” was selected as the most appropriate research design for this study. This research methodology is not well known, although it has been used by several literacy researchers and seems to be gaining popularity (Jiménez, 1997, online document; Reinking & Watkins, 2000, online document).

The formative experiment was deemed to be appropriate for this study because it accommodates and even encourages change through researcher intervention. As in action research, it also allows teacher-researcher collaboration. In formative experiments, a pedagogical goal is selected and the researcher then “finds out what it takes in terms of materials, organization, or reach the goal” (Newman, 1990). In this instance, Nicole and I collaborated to design and then fine-tune a computer-based implementation to help the three students improve their oral reading fluency.

According to Reinking and Watkins (2000), it is important for researchers using the formative experiment methodology to document and analyze “facilitative” and “inhibitive” factors when implementing an intervention, and then to use this information to plan modifications to the implementation. Thus, a successful strategy may evolve based on the data collected. Formative experiments allow fine-tuning or radical changes of interventions that are geared to the students involved and to the particular situation. They also acknowledge that there may be no one best way to arrive at a pedagogical goal, and that it is often necessary to change teaching and learning strategies according to changes in a student’s abilities and needs. In this sense, formative experiments fit well with a “diagnostic” approach to literacy teaching, as recommended by Walker (2000).

During formative experiments, it is also important to note any unplanned outcomes and to try to determine whether one intervention is to be preferred over another. It has been suggested that preferability should be measured on the following dimensions (Reigeluth & Frick, 1999):

Read additional detail about this methodology and how it has been used to date in literacy research.

Creating the Electronic Talking Book

Nicole and I started off by showing the students the first two screens of Eric the Magic Elephant, an electronic talking book. The girls thought this story was “Awesome!” and asked if they could use the first two screens as a “story starter” for their own work. Story starters may facilitate the creation of student-made electronic talking books, at least while students are in the early stages of learning how to create such texts.

After the selection of the main character and setting, the first task in the creation of the talking book was to make a paper storyboard -- a series of sketches of each page or screen, showing text and pictures. The storyboard also notes the interactivity that each page will feature: what will happen if the user clicks on a certain picture, what sounds and animations will be featured on each page, and so on. The purpose of the storyboard was explained to the students:

Are we going to have to put our story on that? [pointing at the paper storyboard template, and frowning]
Yep. You’ll need to do that so that it’s [the electronic storybook] properly planned. If you don’t plan it, especially when you’re using multimedia, it can mean such a lot of wasted time and work. It can take quite a while to get the talking on, and all the sounds, so you want to get it right first time.
Actually, it’s a little bit like the storyboard where you had the little boxes for your picture book, so you knew exactly what pictures you were going to put in.
You have to be able to say what pictures you’re going to have, and what’s going to happen when you click on things...and also the text and the page number.

The creation of a storyboard was facilitated in this project by the fact that the students had sampled a range of commercially produced electronic talking books, such as Arthur’s Teacher Troubles and Mercer Mayer’s Just Dad and Me. They therefore had a good idea of what such books might look like and what sorts of features they might contain. Nicole and I decided that the girls’ electronic talking book should be limited to roughly 10 to 12 pages, with a total 100 to 200 words. This would allow it to be a useful resource for for computer-assisted repeated readings by other students. Another reason to limit length was the limited time frame we had in which to produce the electronic book.

It soon became apparent that the students found writing the storyboard on paper somewhat onerous: They avoided this task and never worked on the storyboards on their own time, despite being asked to do so. These students were accustomed to using technology in a wide range of circumstances. They each had a laptop in class, which was used for word-processing, keyboard practice, creating presentations, desktop publishing, and accessing CD-ROM encyclopedias and the Internet for research purposes. It be useful to know whether they would have found computer-assisted storyboarding more acceptable, but the relatively short duration of the study did not permit this investigation.

Because the students wanted to “get their hands on” the computer as quickly as possible, we completed the paper storyboard for the first half dozen pages (screens) only. In addition, we discussed the setting, characters, introduction, complication, and resolution as a group and made brief notes about how the story might proceed. As this was the girls’ first attempt at creating an electronic talking book, it seemed reasonable to allow them to experiment with the software and the possibilities for interactivity, instead of locking them into a story plan too early. It must be noted that multimedia authoring tools that incorporate storyboarding features are available. Hyperstudio 4 is one example, but this software was not used for the project, since it does not support text highlighting synchronized with speech. The Illuminatus software we used does have this feature.

Several difficulties did result from the fact that a storyboard was not fully completed. First, precious time at the computer was wasted with the girls debating possible storylines. Indeed, on one or two occasions, the “scribe” took executive decisions and decided to write what she wanted, disregarding the suggestions of the other two students. Second, screen dumps had to be printed out regularly to enable the students to see what they had written and to practice reading the texts. The girls also needed to read from these when narrating, because the full Illuminatus screen and the sound recorder screen could not be viewed simultaneously.

The students were initially keen on the idea of each of them creating their own electronic talking books, rather than producing a single one collaboratively. Two factors prevented this from happening:

  1. Both the girls and Nicole decided that an electronic talking book featuring only one person’s voice would be rather boring, a criticism they had of some of the commercial products we”d explored.
  2. Because multimedia productions can take up a great deal of hard drive space, the school’s technical services team was not in favor of installing Illuminatus on the students” laptops. This meant that the girls had to share a single computer with the software installed. (We used my laptop because it has a large hard drive and a Zip drive, which facilitated the transfer of the electronic talking book to a computer with a CD burner. Any computer with plenty of hard drive space, a sound card, speakers, a microphone, and a CD or DVD burner or Zip drive could have been used just as easily.)

As alluded to above, each of the three students took turns at being the scribe who keyed the story into Illuminatus. This process was facilitated by the fact that Illuminatus has an interface that in many ways resembles that of a word-processing program. The students already knew how to create a text box and select font faces and sizes. The girls usually came to an agreement about what they would write for each page. Sometimes they would jot it down on paper, and then the scribe would type. Sometimes Nicole or I would suggest more complex vocabulary or sentence structure, thus expanding the students” use of language. The two students who were not acting as scribe at a particular point were vigilant and attentive to what the scribe was doing, and in most instances they quickly pointed out spelling and punctuation errors. (These were referred to as “typos,” to save the scribe from embarrassment.) However, such errors were not always noticed, so we upgraded from Illuminatus 4.5 to Illuminatus Opus, which has a built-in spellchecker. This alerted the students to possible errors.

There was always a degree of “scribe envy,” however, as illustrated by the following exchange:

Can I at least have a type?
Can I type? I’ve missed three goes at typing! We didn”t type last week...we only talked!

These three students had not engaged in a lot of collaborative writing since the previous year; they did most of their writing independently on their laptops. Because of this, there were some teething problems in getting them to work efficiently as a team. Roles and rules were established, after which the students worked together with relatively little time-consuming conflict.

Font colors and background colors were tentatively decided in the process of typing in the text, but the girls were asked not to spend too much time on this after it became apparent that, left to their own devices, they would spend a lot of time “chopping and changing” the fonts and colors. The students were also asked to think about what pictures and animations might suit each page, although no graphics were created at this stage. The girls were reminded that, as in traditional children’s books, pictures and written text in electronic books should complement each other but not necessarily overlap. There are occasions when the picture can tell the story or add to the story, rather than merely illustrate it. The students were also asked to think about how interactivity and animation might play a role in enhancing the story.

After typing the text for three of four pages, Nicole and I thought it was time for the girls to record some narration. Software is required for audio recording and, although a program for this was included in the laptop’s operating system, it was not used because the recordings it produced were deemed to be of inadequate quality. There are many shareware audio editors available (e.g., GoldWave, FlexiMusic, and Cooledit 2000); we used Speech Analyzer.

Initially, the students practiced the narration (one page at a time) away from the computer, and when they were happy with the sound, they recorded. However, they soon began to prefer practicing their reading while recording, as they found it useful to hear the “replays” and to see the wave patterns, or “waveforms,” on the screen. The audio recordings and wave patterns facilitated some interesting discussions among the students about what fluent reading should sound (and look) like. For example, they often gave one another advice about intonation, volume, pronunciation, and phrasing. The first time they saw the wave patterns on the screen, Becki pointed at a section of the waveform and, correctly identifying her portion of the recording, said, “Oh, look at me!” to which the others responded, “You were the loudest!” On another occasion, after recording the sentence “Eric was safe!” the students looked at the associated waveform (Figure 2) and Claudia gasped, “Oh, boy!” to which Becki responded, “It’s supposed to be loud!”

The students usually recorded narrations three to six times before they were satisfied with the sound and “look.” On several occasions they were influenced by the waveform. If it was “fat,” they would laugh and say they must have been speaking too loudly. If it was particularly “skinny,” they said their narration must have been too quiet. If there was a big gap, they discussed whether they had paused for too long. Usually, the girls agreed immediately on whether narrations needed to be rerecorded, although they did not always articulate why this was so:

Can we do that bit again?
We need to do it again.
Figure 2
Waveform for the Sentence Eric was safe!

wave form image of audio recording of Eric was safe!

Often, they laughed at their narrations and immediately rerecorded; there seemed to be implicit agreement that the recording was not fluent. There was no embarrassment evident when the students made mistakes in their oral reading. Indeed, they referred to these as “bloopers.” They rarely disputed whether sections needed to be rerecorded, but below is an example of one disagreement, when Becki had made a mistake in her reading, but Claudia and Brianna had played their parts” flawlessly:

It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.... It’s really good!
It’s not OK, it’s not OK.... I did a mistake!

Below (Figure 3) is a screen capture of a “waveform” of the narration from page 23 of Eric the Magic Elephant (top), with the screen itself below. Click on the waveform to hear the sound file.

Figure 3
Waveform and Corresponding Page from Eric the Magic Elephant

waveform of narration of page from electronic talking book

corresponding page from electronic talking book

(Readers on the Windows platform can view an excerpt from Eric the Magic Elephant. Please note this will involve downloading a small plug-in from the Digital Workshop for viewing Illuminatus documents, available only for PCs. The girls selected their own pseudonyms for their narrations.)

At the beginning of each of our twice weekly one-hour sessions, the students reviewed what they had already written. This necessitated a form of repeated readings, which may have been beneficial in improving their oral reading fluency. However, as the book grew longer, the repeated readings took longer and became somewhat tedious. The electronic book, originally planned for 10 to 12 pages, had grown into a 43-page story with multiple endings, included to allow each author a chance to provide an ending and also as a way to encourage the audience to read the story repeatedly. There was also a quiz, designed primarily by Nicole, although more student participation would have been desirable had time permitted.

In terms of graphics for the project, the initial intention was to produce and scan in hand-drawn pictures. (We avoided using existing pictures because of copyright issues.) As the project grew, however, it became apparent that creating the pictures would be far too time-consuming. We therefore decided to take digital photos of toy elephants.

Toward the end of the project, we managed to acquire one of the school’s two digital cameras, which always seemed to be in great demand by other teachers and students. Although the students took some photos under Nicole’s supervision, they were not happy that they truly illustrated or advanced the story. Because the teacher also had to supervise the rest of the class, the girls had not been allowed to venture far from the classroom door. Under my supervision, they were able to spend an hour out on the school grounds, taking photos of the elephants in the “zoo,” in “the park,” “down a hole,” and in various other locations, and talking about the story and how best to illustrate it.

Figure 4
Thumbnails of Selected Pages from the Electronic Talking Book

screen shot of thumbnail images

Once the photos were imported into Illuminatus and touched up with Paintshop Pro, we added some sound effects and animations to the story. The students found this hugely entertaining and put a great deal of thought into how best to use animation and sound to add to the story, without creating too many distractions for the audience.

The ability to split sentences into phrases is an important aspect of fluency (Hook & Jones, 2002; Rasinski, 1994; Rasinski & Padak, 2000; Schreiber, 1980) and is also important to comprehension (Irwin, 1991; Schreiber). As previously mentioned, a central aim of this project was to create electronic talking books as a vehicle through which students could practice phrasing. Asking the students to “chunk” the sentences in order to decide where the text highlighting should go helped realize this aim.

Nicole thought it would be useful for the girls to have a lesson, away from the computer, on chunking text; as far as their teacher knew, the students had not received explicit instruction on this previously. We did this in a half-hour session in which I explained how the girls might split sentences into “meaningful chunks” by using punctuation and meaning as clues. First, the students were asked to listen and view an electronic talking book that I had made with two preschool children and to think about why the highlighting of text on the screen had been positioned in the way that it had. We then discussed this:

All the highlighted parts [words] are joined together and then you’ve got a little breath before the next part.
Did anyone notice that the highlighting didn’t cover whole sentences? Where were the sentences split up?
Well, sometimes it [the highlighting] ended at full stops [periods] and sometimes it ended at the end of a line.
Did anyone notice anything else?
Just have a look at this bit, then.... [replaying a section that contained several conjunctions]. It [the highlighting] often ends just before a joining word....
Later in the session, after I’d read the children a section of a story....
What happened to my voice at the end of the sentence?
It went the other way.
It went down, didn’t it?

We chunked some texts collaboratively and drew slashes on the paper to mark phrase boundaries. Later, the students carried out a similar activity independently. They then divided text from Eric the Magic Elephant into phrase units (Figure 5). After they had each done this, we discussed their attempts at phrasing and came to an agreement about where the phrase boundaries (text highlighting) would go in the electronic talking book. Most of the time, there was a high degree of agreement among the students as to where these phrase boundaries should be, and they were usually able to justify their decisions.

Figure 5
Claudia’s Chunking of a Page of Text

handwritten text, with phrasing indicated by insertion of slashes

Unfortunately, the end of the school year was fast approaching, and we did not have time to check these paper-based judgments about where phrase boundaries should be against the recorded narrations. This would, perhaps, be a worthwhile addition to any future projects of this kind. Or, perhaps better still, the paper-based chunking could be done before the narrations are recorded, to facilitate fluent reading. This is what we had initially planned to do, but because the students wanted to move quickly to working on the computer and skip over the storyboarding, this plan was suspended.

Because we were short of time, I inserted most of the autonarrations (a feature in Illuminatus that links audio files with text and creates text highlighting) and edited the text highlighting. This can be a somewhat time-consuming process and, although children of these girls’ age are capable of doing this themselves, it might be more expedient if parents or other volunteers are recruited to do this task in future projects.

The students appeared to be pleased with their finished product, even though they would have liked to spend more time on it, adding still more sound effects, animations, and endings. They often made enthusiastic comments such as “I like that!” or “Oh, my gosh!” about parts of the story. Eric the Magic Elephant was “published” onto CD-ROMs, meaning that it could be run on most computers (PCs only, because of the requirements of the Illuminatus plug-in). There is also a facility in Illuminatus to publish to the Internet, although it is recommended that such publications be much “leaner” in terms of audio and image files than our production was.

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Although the main aim of this project was to identify facilitative and inhibitive factors in using the creation of electronic talking books as a context for improving oral reading fluency, standardized tests were administered at the end of the project (summative assessment) to verify any gains in fluency and to help identify any unexpected outcomes. The teacher had been informally assessing the students’ fluency throughout the project and had noted improvements (formative assessment). It must be stressed that, although it may appear that the outcomes attained by the children and the facilitative and inhibitive factors encountered during the project constitute two different foci, in reality they cannot be meaningfully separated in a formative experiment, as the progress of the experiment is determined by formative assessment, as well as other factors. In other words, the pedagogical goal or outcome cannot be separated from the process.

Nicole was impressed with each student’s improvement in phrasing; each girl read in more meaningful chunks and paid more attention to punctuation and semantic cues. Brianna, whose rate of reading had been painfully slow, improved her reading rate, as well as her smoothness, phrasing, and expression. Becki, who had previously tended to race through texts, paying little attention to phrasing and expression, was now paying more attention to these aspects of oral reading. Claudia improved her phrasing and expression greatly, even on more difficult text passages.

Because of the essentially naturalistic design of this study, it is not possible to assert that outcomes observed were caused by the interventions. Nevertheless, analysis of the post-intervention tests shows that the participants’ comprehension had improved significantly (see Figure 6). Claudia’s comprehension increased from the 31st to the 87th percentile, and her accuracy from the 48th percentile to the 76th. Her average rate remained roughly the same, although it must be noted that this increased to the 94th percentile if measured only to the level 4 text (which was the highest level of difficulty measured in the first test). Becki’s comprehension increased from the 49th percentile to the 62nd. However, her accuracy remained low and her rate actually decreased, apparently due to her more expressive reading, in which she stretched out words and syllables for dramatic effect. She did not progress to a more difficult level of text in the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability. Brianna’s comprehension increased from the 54th percentile to the 84th, and her accuracy increased from the 37th percentile to the 52nd. Her oral reading rate increased from the 28th percentile to the 42nd. It must be noted that, like Claudia, Brianna progressed to a more difficult level of text. If measured only up to the level 4 text, her rate increased to the 56th percentile.

Figure 6
Pre-Intervention (Test 1) and Post-Intervention (Test 2) Results from the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability

bar graph showing results for each girl

The teacher used the Multidimensional Fluency Scale a second time, for a post-intervention assessment of the students’ oral reading in terms of phrasing, pace, and smoothness. The text used was Circus, another text rated at level 3 in the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability. Claudia’s fluency had improved greatly on all dimensions, as had Brianna’s (see Table 3). However, Becki’s results did not differ from her earlier results, even though it was noted that she was attempting to read with more expression and no longer tended to race through texts. She seemed to be reading for meaning rather than trying to read as quickly as possible.

Table 3
Summary of Post-Intervention Results from the Multidimensional Fluency Scale

Student Pace/Rate Smoothness Phrasing
Claudia Consistently conversational Generally smooth reading with some breaks, but word and structure difficulties are resolved quickly, usually through self-correction Generally well phrased, mostly in clause and sentence units, with adequate attention to expression
Brianna Uneven mixture of fast and slow reading Occasional breaks in smoothness caused by difficulties with specific words and/or structures Generally well phrased, mostly in clause and sentence units, with adequate attention to expression
Becki Uneven mixture of fast and slow reading Occasional breaks in smoothness caused by difficulties with specific words and/or structures Mixture of run-ons, midsentence pauses for breath, and possibly choppiness, reasonable stress/intonation
Background shading indicates areas of substantial improvement.

Major Facilitative and Inhibitive Factors

The facilitative and inhibitive factors identified can be broadly categorized into those relating to people, resources, and instructional strategies or activities (Figure 7). During the project, these factors sometimes overlapped, while at other times they seemed to cancel each other out. The nature of the boundaries and crossover points among these three broad categories seemed to depend largely on the particular context: In one situation, a factor might have been facilitative, whereas in another situation it was inhibitive. Facilitative and inhibitive factors can be seen as different sides of the same coin, or different ends of the same continuum. It is not possible, therefore, to produce a simple, generalizable list of facilitative and inhibitive factors, although it is possible to discuss the factors that seemed to be most salient in this particular project.

Figure 7
Categories of Facilitative and Inhibitive Factors

diagram of factors

Facilitative Factors   Inhibitive Factors

People Factors
Motivation. Perhaps the most noticeable facilitative factor during the project was the high level of engagement and motivtion the students brought to the technology-based tasks. The teacher was also highly enthusiastic about using ICT for learning, and even rearranged the students’ timetables to make possible the creation of the electronic talking book.

There have been suggestions that a “novelty effect” may complicate investigation of the relationship between motivation and the use of computer-based strategies to help children learn (Tergan, 1997). However, the students who participated in this project did not see the use of computers as a novelty, as they use them often in the course of each school day, as a tool for learning.

Collaboration. As well as being motivational, this computer-based activity encouraged and was facilitated by collaboration. On many occasionas, the students helped one another overcome difficulties experienced with the technology, reading, and writing.

Prior knowledge. The students’ prior knowledge, especially their existing ICT skills, meant that they learned the Illuminatus program relatively quickly and easily. They were able to work independently with the software after only a few hours of training, and were also capable of teaching features of the software to other students. Because they had previously read a range of electronic talking books, the girls also had a good idea about what sorts of features their own production might include.
  Collaboration. The three students were somewhat out of practice in collaborative writing and initially found it difficult to write collaboratively using the computer. They disagreed over the direction the story was to take and often found it difficult to come to a consensus. This was compounded by the lack of a storyboard.

Further, the girls often expressed frustration at having to wait their turn at the keyboard. Although they evidently enjoyed working together and the collaboration yielded a positive outcome, the students did not seem to like being in any role other than that of scribe. This may be partially explained by the fact that these particular students normally had a laptop each, and were not used to sharing a keyboard.

Resource Factors
Software. The Illuminatus software is relatively intuitive for those familiar with common word-processing and other packages, and the students found it easy to learn (although according to Nicole there was occasionally a degree of “fiddling” and “confusion”). In addition, the audio recoding software, which allowed the children to “see” their narrations as waveforms, helped them analyze and discuss their oral reading in terms of pace, smoothness, phrasing, and expression, thus expanding their metalinguistic abilities.

Hardware. All of the hardware required for this project was available and for the most part ran without problems. The students and the teacher were experienced computer users and knew what to do if the computer “froze,” the scanner didn’t work, or the floppy disk in the digital camera was full.

Space. The girls were able to work on occasion in a small side room, where they could engage in discussions and record their narrations without interruption and without disturbing their classmates. It should be noted, however, that Nicole stated that the project was not a distraction to the rest of the class, and the participating students didn’t seem to mind reading aloud in front of their more able peers -- as Becki pointed out, “They’re our friends!”
  Software. The students had to learn Illuminatus, because none of the programs they already knew offered text highlighting. Some aspects (e.g., editing the autonarrations) of using the software were time consuming. Another inhibitive factor that arose because of the nature of the software (and no doubt also because of the nature of the participants) was the fact that the students occasionally became sidetracked and wanted to play with multimedia effects, such as sound and animation.

Hardware. Access to hardware, such as the digital camera, was sometimes difficult. Also, the school’s computer technicians would not allow Illuminatus to be loaded on any of the students” laptops. They would probably have made quicker progress if they had been able to work on their electronic talking books at home, on their own time.

Time. Lack of time was a major inhibitive factor. The teacher couldn’t find enough time to become thoroughly familiar with the software or to spend with the participants, and the participants didn’t have enough time to spend on the project. This was largely due to the demands (and the inflexibility) of the curriculum. The teacher, because she was accountable to parents and to the school principal, was understandably unable to “risk” taking too much valuable time on an essentially experimental project.

Activity Factors
Prewriting. The provision of a story starter appeared to help the students in the initial stages. However, the prewriting stage of the writing process was extremely short in this study, largely because the students were eager to use the computer. It is acknowledged that, had the students engaged in brainstorming, role-play, reading other stories, and discussion, they may not have required the story starter.

Management. Undoubtedly, my presence as a researcher and, on occasion, a “teacher assistant” helped get this project off the ground. Nicole stated that she would not otherwise have had sufficient time to manage and supervise this project. Volunteers are probably needed in the early stages of such projects, until there are several classroom experts, who can train and assist their peers.
  Prewriting. The students did not want to plan a storyboard on paper or practice their narrations away from the computer. This was an inhibitive factor in that the limited time available for work at the computer could probably have been spent more productively if the girls had done some traditional prewriting activities. However, as already noted, being able to plan the story and practice the narrations at the computer was beneficial (though time consuming) in that it encouraged the students to experiment with multimedia and nonlinear text and allowed them to see and hear their reading.

Management. The teacher found it difficult to supervise the girls’ work on this project and teach the rest of the class at the same time. As with any small group strategy, training the participants in what to do and how to work together in the initial stages was relatively time-consuming.

Some Unplanned Outcomes

While it is not possible to make firm assertions about causality in a study of this nature, the most positive unplanned outcomes noted were improvements in the students’ comprehension and in their self-esteem. Nicole noted that the girls had become “experts,” and that this had elevated them somewhat in their own eyes and in the eyes of their peers.

Another unplanned outcome was an improvement in the students’ ICT skills. They became more proficient at using the digital camera, importing image files, recording audio files, and saving and opening files. All this was carried out for real, meaningful purposes.

In addition, the students’ awareness of audience for their work seemed to increase. They talked about who the audience for the electronic talking book would be (Year 3 students, or 8-year-olds) and what kinds of characters, settings, and plots they would enjoy. They realized that they would be able to use more difficult vocabulary and complicated language than they would have employed in a traditional printed book because the audience would have the narration to help them comprehend. This is consistent with research that suggests that audience awareness can be enhanced through the use of ICT for writing and reading (Baker, Rozendal, & Whitenack, 2000).

As mentioned above, the students were encouraged to expand their metalinguistic awareness through talking about language (expression, phrasing, meaning). In addition, they were able to practice their collaborative skills in an authentic, meaningful context; their ability to collaborate and resolve conflicts improved notably during the project. According to Nicole, the strategy also helped the girls develop concepts of multiliteracies, the knowledge that there are many types of texts and many ways of constructing and using texts.

There were not only positive unplanned outcomes, however. The project seemed to make traditional, paper-based activities less appealing to the students in comparison to computer-based activities.


It is possible to assess a strategy’s “preferability” by using the dimensions of efficiency, effectiveness, and appeal (Reigeluth & Frick, 1999). In Table 5, I summarize aspects of the project in terms of these three dimensions.

Table 4
Preferability of the Strategy for Teaching Oral Reading Fluency

Efficiency This was a relatively time-consuming and resource-hungry means of teaching fluency. (However, it may have been more effective than other strategies.)
Effectiveness This approach was effective for teaching phrasing in an authentic context, encouraging students to monitor one another and to self-monitor for fluency, getting students to practice oral reading, and facilitating peer discussion about fluency.
Appeal The project provided an opportunity for students to use their existing ICT skills in an authentic way. The students were highly motivated throughout the project, and the final product was appealing to students and teachers.

With reference to the strategy’s preferability, Nicole stated,

I think the motivation is definitely there. I think in terms of...particularly in our school, which has an IT focus.... Anything that’s going to increase their skills, and lets them practice their IT skills, as well as.... I mean, that’s our whole purpose -- to integrate computers into every curriculum area, in whatever way is the best way. I mean, it’s definitely an advantage to us that we do something on the computer, as well as doing it the old-fashioned way. So, in our circumstances, I think it is preferable, especially at this level, where they all have their own laptops.

And also understanding that you don’t just focus on your reading or your fluency or whatever it is you’re targeting when you’re reading a book; you also read off the screen, you also read printed-out pieces of work, you read other people’s work -- and it’s important in all of those areas. It’s not just when you open up a book that you’re going to need expression in your voice, and read fluently.

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Discussion and Implications

From the results shown above, it would appear that creating multimedia talking books as a context for improving oral reading fluency can be seen as preferable to traditional strategies in several ways, even though certain difficulties may arise. However, some of the inhibitive factors may be “teething problems” that may recede as time goes on. An example of this was the students’ inability to collaborate satisfactorily in this context at the beginning of this project.

It must be noted that the participating students were also receiving instruction in THRASS (Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills) (Davies & Ritchie, 1996), a highly structured phonics program, during the first half of this study. This may have contributed to improvements in their decoding and accuracy. In addition, they were receiving ongoing support in the classroom. Further, one of the two weekly authoring sessions took place after school hours. The students were thus receiving some additional instruction, not merely different instruction.

Nevertheless, it would still seem that the project was successful in helping the students improve their oral reading fluency, especially in terms of phrasing and expressiveness. It also may have helped them improve their comprehension, which could perhaps be explained by their increased ability to read in meaningful units.

In conclusion, these three students, who had been performing near the bottom of their class in terms of oral reading ability and comprehension, were by the end of the project, performing with confidence and were on par with most of their classmates. They were justifiably excited about their new achievements in reading and writing and couldn’t wait to show off (and sell!) their CD-ROM electronic storybook to family and friends.

While I do not suggest that this strategy should or could replace existing strategies for improving oral reading fluency, I believe that it should be considered as an additional option that may be particularly useful for reluctant learners and in situations where the teacher would like students to gain competency in a range of outcomes, such as phrasing, ability to collaborate, visual literacy, and general ICT skills. Through this strategy, children can use various modes of literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing) in an integrated, meaningful, enjoyable, multiliterate way.

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Future Directions for Research

This is a relatively new area of research, and the formative experiment described was essentially exploratory. As a result, several issues worth of further research emerged. It would be useful, for example, to go through the process again in other contexts, to determine the extent to which the outcomes and facilitative and inhibitive factors might be applicable.

Also, it may be useful to investigate the use of other multimedia authoring software for creating electronic talking books without text highlighting. Synchronizing highlighting and speech was the most arduous and time-consuming aspect of this project and it may be the case that pen-and-paper chunking of text, along with practice in oral reading, self-monitoring, and discussion revolving around recording narrations, are sufficient to improve oral reading fluency. If this is the case, students would also be relieved of the burden of learning a new software application, since other authoring packages (e.g., PowerPoint, Hyperstudio) are widely taught and used in schools.

There are, however, two possible disadvantages with this approach:

  1. It does not seem to be possible to use an alternative sound recorder with PowerPoint, and the quality of audio recordings created within this program is not high.
  2. No waveform diagrams would be available.

In this context, students may be more willing to plan the electronic talking book more thoroughly, since storyboarding features are built in. Story planning could also be done using programs such as Kidspiration (Inspiration).

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About the Author

portrait of Grace Oakley   Grace Oakley is a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia. She is a former primary school teacher, and is particularly interested in the use of ICT to assist children who experience literacy difficulties. She also writes children’s fiction. Grace can be contacted at

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Citation: Oakley, G. (2003, March). Improving oral reading fluency (and comprehension) through the creation of talking books. Reading Online, 6(7). Available:

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