Getting Up To Speed
10th Jul, 2015

Getting Up To Speed

by Phyllis Fischer, Ph.D., University of Maine, Farmington.

Reprinted with permission from the International Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter, Perspectives, vol. 25, no. 2, pages 12-13, Phyllis Fischer, Ph.D. (It's worth joining IDA just to get Perspectives.

In the mid-70's, an intermediate grade student I'll call Steve attended our clinic for students with learning disabilities. Steve had an above average IQ and his verbal abilities were significantly above his nonverbal abilities. He quickly learned all of the patterns for decoding the single-syllable words and progressed nicely to multisyllable words. Within two years, Steve could read almost any word presented to him. The problem was that Steve, like so many other students who are dyslexic, could not read the words fast enough to sustain the effort of reading for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Students like Steve often do not become automatic at decoding even when they can read words of any structure; they are "stuck" at what Chall (1983) first called the fluency stage of reading acquisition.

Critics of phonics instruction express legitimate concerns that children may learn to blend sounds together to identify words, but that their slow decoding prevents them from following the meaning of the sentences. LaBerge and Samuels (1974) discussed the role of automaticity in successful reading as far back as 1974. More recently, in a summary of a study that looked at the reading skills of students with learning disabilities before and after intensive remediation, Torgeson (1997) noted that,"The primary limitation in their reading ability at present is in the area of fluency. …One of the most important questions I will pursue in the future research is how to assist these children to increase the fluency of their reading…"

Fortunately for Steve, I consulted with behaviorist friends and decided to address the problem very directly. I designed and began doing speed drills for a few minutes per day with students who had already learned to recognize phonic correspondences. One-minute seed drills with carefully chosen stimuli usually help children develop automatic word recognition skills that they can then apply to fluent reading. The term "automatic" means with little or no conscious attention. To help our clinic students, I created pages of alternating word sequences to be read as fast as possible in one minute. Through lots of work with Steve and others like him, I gradually honed what seemed to be the most efficient and beneficial speed drills.

These are principles I have learned through experimentation with many students. The first rule of thumb with speed drills is that they need to be easy — that is the only way they can be read fast and accurately. For children still struggling with blending, I often put only three or four different words on a page, repeated randomly in rows (e.g., fat, Sam, pat, Pam, pat pat, Sam, fat, Pam, Sam, fat, fat, Pam, pat, etc.). As the students become more accurate at blending and are reading more words, the speed drills are designed to work on the word structures that have just been mastered (meaning that they can be read with 80% or better accuracy). Usually a single speed drill contains words of only one syllable and vowel-sound structure (e.g., all magic-e words with consonant blends and the vowel /i/). They may, however, contain words of two different patterns that need to be contrasted (e.g., closed and magic-e words with single consonants and the vowel /a/, or closed syllables with /ch/ and /a/ and /i/). There are still only five to seven different words in each speed drill. Examples of words for individual speed drills are: ace, face, race, age, cage, page; chime, guide, rhyme, write, knife; chaff, chap, chat, chick, chill, chin.

As students read these speed drills they become automatic on the individual words. They also become automatic at decoding the individual graphemes in the words. This automaticity transfers to new words. When beginning readers become more fluent on closed syllable words with single consonants and the vowel /a/, they will read a new speed drill that switches to the vowel /i/ more easily and with greater initial speed than they read the first speed drills. This is because they have become automatic on the single consonants. It takes considerable time for beginning readers to become automatic on speed drills that cover all of the consonant units, but then they spend very little time developing automaticity on the speed drills that add the new vowel units. For instance, it often takes primary grade children 10 to 15 days to become automatic on drills that contain words like scale, skate, snake, state, space, stage, or clamp, tramp, ranch, grand, plant, grasp, and blast. However, when they get to drills that contain, for example, jeep, squeeze, greed, knee, sleeve, sweet, screech, queen, and wheel, they not only reach their speed goal within five to eight days, they can handle nine or ten different words on one drill.

Speed drills that contain phonetically irregular words should almost always have just five or six different words on a page. I often put words that go together either by sound or by part-of-speech relationship on the same page, but otherwise try to work on these words as they are needed for contextual reading on which a student is working. For example, I have a drill that contains the, was, to, were, and what, and one that contains say, says, said, have, and are (say is phonetically regular but I work on these three words together for both spelling and meaning). Sometimes I make a speed drill that contains only two or three words a student constantly confuses. Were and where are good examples of this, and I usually add there, hoping to create a connection between where and there. Sometimes I’ll even put words on a drill with diacritical marks above the vowel to emphasize the different pronunciations of the vowel: give, live, live, wind, wind.

To conduct a speed drill, have the student read the words for one minute while you keep track of the number of errors. Record the number of words read correctly on a chart that you share with the student. The student continues to work on the same speed drill until he has read it with the speed you have set as a goal.

Because you want the students to read the words quickly and accurately, you often need to help them. Review the words before starting the speed drill. If you need to, read with the student for the first row of the drill. If a student stumbles and can’t get going smoothly again, read a few words with her. If she consistently misses a word, say the word as you get to it, just before she reads it, saying it loudly enough so that she will repeat what you said.

To consider a speed drill mastered, the student must read it independently. This includes having the student do any pointing that needs to be done. With beginning readers, you will probably need to point to the words for quite a while – and you may need to read the words with the child for quite a while. If a beginning student reads at her goal with you pointing, that’s fine. As the students become more proficient, they should do the pointing themselves. Once in a while you will need to point to the words. If a student goes more slowly than you know she can, point across the row above the words just a bit faster than she is reading. If a student begins making mistakes or loses her place, point and read a few words with her to get her back on track.

To set a goal for a student, begin with these general guidelines: For six- and seven-year-old children at the beginning stages of reading, 30 correct words per minute is adequate. As soon as the children are beginning to monitor their own accuracy and speed, through about the middle of grade three, they should read 40 correct words per minute. From about the middle of grade three on, I set a first goal of 60 correct words per minute. When the student has met the goal for three days, that drill is considered mastered. As soon as their speed increases, students will meet their goal and continue to increase in speed for the next few days. At that point, continue with that speed drill until the student’s speed levels off for three or four days. take the average of those days and use that as the new goal. Most students in fourth grade and above can read words at a speed of at least 80 words per minute once they begin to develop automaticity on the basic drills.

Speed drills are so important to many students with reading problems that I encourage teachers to work on several of them at the same time, adding new ones as soon as older ones are mastered. Students who learn decoding strategies quickly but can’t apply them well in context often can benefit greatly from working on five to ten speed drills at a time. You might need to train volunteers, paraprofessionals, older students or whomever else you can rope in, to do speed drills with your students. Each student should have a file containing the speed drills being worked on and the chart for recording the times. Stop watches are so inexpensive now that I advocate getting a stop watch for each student’s file and putting the students in charge of getting someone to do speed drills with them. Most students become very motivated to increase their speeds, and putting them in charge of their materials helps them take ownership of meeting their goals and celebrating their achievements.

Speed drills with carefully chosen words, with students who can already decode them, for a few minutes a day, can be a very productive addition to a comprehensive reading program.


  • Chall, J. (1983).Stages of reading development. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • LaBerge, Dl, & Samuels, S.J. (1974). Toward a theory of Automaticity information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.
  • Torgesen, J. (1997). Research on the prevention and remediation of phonologically based reading disabilities. Perspectives, 23(4), 27-28.

Phyllis Fischer, Ph.D. is professor of learning disabilities at the University of Maine in Farmington. She is the author of Concept Phonics, a program that includes speed drills as well as other materials that develop automaticity in the decoding process.