Critical Reading Skills

a) Reading Fluency

Those learning to read often struggle on a word-to-word basis. Reading fluently means reading smoothly and expressively at speeds approaching regular speech¹. The report of the National Reading Panel found that two instructional approaches working in combination were most effective in developing reading fluency:

  1. Guided repeated oral reading — This technique is outside the scope of RocketReader’s instructional design. It should be noted that teacher or parent led, guided repeated oral reading should be conducted in conjunction with the use of RocketReader to optimize reading development.
  2. Independent silent reading — RocketReader excels in this instructional technique. Students can choose readings from one of the many topics of interest and select a reading at an appropriate grade level. To facilitate this, all readings are presented in order of increasing difficulty for each category. There is a choice of over 500 graded readings. The wealth of graded reading material promotes extensive reading on a wide variety of topics. Extensive reading practice is a critical component of reading skills development, and has been proven to improve reading speed and comprehension[3]. To demonstrate the breadth of the included RocketReader Readings, the histograms in Figures 2 and 3 show the number of readings that correspond to the RocketReader grade level² and the Coleman-Liau grade levels respectively. It can be seen that RocketReader provides an excellent diversity of readings through the spectrum of grade levels, in particular, grade levels three to ten.


Vocabulary skills vary widely between people. At the extreme end of capability, William Shakespeare penned 25,000 different words.

Figure 2: Histogram of the included readings in RocketReader according to RocketReader reading grade level. The Y axis is the number of readings the X axis is the RocketReader grade level

Figure 2: Histogram of the included readings in RocketReader according to RocketReader
reading grade level. The Y axis is the number of readings; the X axis is the RocketReader grade level.

However, Shakespeare was exceptionally intelligent, well educated, and had a particular fascination with words. In contrast, the active vocabulary of an average person is a humble 1,000 words. Most people can recognize around 5,000 words.
The importance of vocabulary is well known in the popular culture. Practical tips for improving vocabulary (Google search ‘improving vocabulary’) include:

  1. Installing and using the Concise Oxford dictionary software on your computer.
  2. Looking up words conveniently online by using and use when writing documents.
  3. Using the Microsoft Office thesaurus to vary use of words when creating reports.
  4. Consulting the online encyclopedia at for unfamiliar phrases, words and topics.
  5. Having a pocket dictionary on hand at all times.
  6. Having a dictionary reference on your desk.
  7. Reading more challenging books with a richer vocabulary set.
  8. Reading more often.
  9. Taking advantage of computer-based vocabulary training.
    Figure 3: Histogram of the included readings in RocketReader according to the Coleman-Liau  reading; grade level. The Y axis is the number of readings the X axis is the Coleman-Liau
grade level.

    Figure 3: Histogram of the included readings in RocketReader according to the Coleman-Liau reading grade level.
    The Y axis is the number of readings; the X axis is the Coleman-Liau grade level.

    Many adults have a strong sense their vocabulary can be improved and doing so would have a positive impact on their reading skills. In fact, the notion that vocabulary improvement will aid reading skills actually has a scientific basis. We will now consider the scientific connection between vocabulary proficiency and reading ability.

    Studies by Rayner [23, 24] found less frequently appearing words require the eye to fixate on that word for a longer time during the reading process. Typically, less frequent words may take an extra 50 ms per word. Additionally, this delay can slow down the fixation time for the following word — so the interruption has a run-on effect.

    These studies measured word frequency by analyzing word counts in a corpus of thousands of books. Such word frequency measurements are thought to approximate typical word familiarity for the average reader. However, Gernsbacher in [8], argues there are fundamental differences between an individual’s word familiarity and the frequency with which words appear in a corpus. This means that while a word frequency histogram derived from a set of texts may provide some indication of an average person’s vocabulary familiarity, it does not model the vast differences which occur in individual vocabulary knowledge. Discrepancies in individual word knowledge point to a need for better knowledge and familiarity with words, especially less common words. This will enable the reader to cast a wider net over the diverse set of words they are faced with everyday, leading to smaller fixation times and faster reading speeds.

    RocketReader can increase familiarity with less commonly occurring words to improve reading skills. This is achieved through the Memory training module in RocketReader, which relies on learning reinforcement to improve vocabulary. In addition, RocketReader’s wide range of readings incorporate a rich and diverse vocabulary set, providing indirect vocabulary training.

    There is ample research to support the link between vocabulary skills and its benefit in reading proficiency. As early as the 1940s and 1950s, a series of studies using factor analysis found that vocabulary size was the highest loading factor in reading comprehension ability (Anderson and Peabody). In recent times, the National Reading panel analyzed 20,000 research citations and found that vocabulary instruction led to gains in reading comprehension [20]³. In their comprehensive 2004 report on vocabulary instructional techniques, the National Reading Panel made a number of key recommendations relating to vocabulary instruction. We discuss how RocketReader performs against each recommendation.

    1. Vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly. RocketReader comprises many graded readings, with each reading accompanied by multiple choice questions. The readings expose students indirectly to a broad vocabulary range, while the comprehension questions facilitate a direct method to learning new words. For the older student, there are hundreds of vocabulary words in the SAT module of RocketReader. These specifically train in a rich variety of vocabulary words and are accompanied by comprehensive vocabulary quizzes in multiple choice format.
    2. Repetition and multiple exposure to vocabulary items are important. Learning reinforcement and repetition are emphasized in the inherent design of RocketReader’s exercises, which focus on high comprehension reading. Users are first exposed to new vocabulary in the contextrich format of readings. The user’s understanding of new vocabulary is then tested in the accompanying comprehension tests. In addition, RocketReader maintains and displays a count of how many times a particular reading or quiz has been done. This allows teachers and students to monitor their learning, according to how many repetitions they have done.
    3. Learning in rich contexts is valuable for vocabulary learning. RocketReader provides a rich vocabulary set within its readings so users are continually exposed to, and learn new words, in context with the story. Learning within rich contexts helps users to reinforce their understanding of a word, as opposed to tediously learning words in isolation. The new words learned while reading are further reinforced through comprehension testing. The carefully selected range of readings also introduce words in their natural context, relating to user’s interests and experiences. For example, some readings are geared toward boys aged eight to thirteen, with stories on topics such as skateboarding and dirt biking. Vocabulary procurement is enhanced when learners can relate new words to their own interests and experiences.
    4. Vocabulary tasks should be restructured when necessary. RocketReader has a flexible authoring facility that allows teachers to create readings with associated comprehension modules. The module is easy to write using a simple mark up language. RocketReader software automatically and interactively delivers this module to the student, scores the result and provides the appropriate student feedback. This enables the teacher to design vocabulary learning tasks and restructure them to student needs. For example, some students may need supplementary vocabulary training in specific areas. The teacher can easily author these on an ad hoc basis as required. An example of this follows, in which a teacher has prepared a simple text file that contains the specification for a two-word vocabulary exercise:

      He was so thirsty that he quaffed his glass of water. Quaff means <choice>. {to drink quickly, to spill every'where, to empty the contents, to evaporate}

      The old man was fooled into buying the sick horse. This means he was <choice>. {duped, stifled, vilified, decimated, liquidated, ratified}

      In the above examples, RocketReader will present these two questions to the student as a series of multiple choice questions. RocketReader will present the answers in alphabetical order, and when the student has completed the test, it will display any' required corrections4. It is easy for the teacher or advanced user to formulate more complex questions that demand that the student experiment with multiple possibilities in order to find the best fitting set of answers. Consider for instance, the following question:

      The <choice> king demanded that he <choice> his gaze then <choice> the general with a <choice> of <choice> <choice>.
      {irritable, affable, forlorn, fetid}
      {avert, cancel, devour, jostle}
      {abased, ignited, ratified, decimated}
      {tirade, turnbuckle, travesty, tumescent}
      {ignoble, fatuous, nebulous, viscous, couscous}
      {profanity, alacrity, melancholy, vim}

      The correct answer is ‘The irritable king demanded that he avert his gaze then abased the general with a tirade of ignoble profanity’. To reach the correct answer the user must grapple with what makes sense as well as the word meanings implicit. Although the above exercise shown is somewhat complex, it serves to demonstrate the flexibility of the RocketReader quiz engine. RocketReader’s design enables the customization of stories and restructuring of quizzes, to drive an individual’s vocabulary procurement needs and enable optimal vocabulary expansion.

    5. Vocabulary learning should entail active engagement in learning tasks. RocketReader provides interactive learning tasks which actively engage users into learning vocabulary. Its use of multiple choice questions to check understanding, and the review of answers in the correction phase, ensures that users receive valuable feedback on their learning, instantaneously. In addition, users are actively involved in their own learning, with the option to choose readings in their areas of interest and to an appropriate level of difficulty. The user’s ability to opt for self-directed learning and monitor their own progress ensures vocabulary learning through RocketReader is interactive and rewarding.
    6. Computer technology can be used to help teach vocabulary. RocketReader software uses unique computer technology to drive learning outcomes. Its AI-driven operation intelligently ascertains the level of challenge appropriate to users, guiding the user’s learning. In addition, RocketReader provides a networked class environment. RocketReader also harnesses computer technology to provide instantaneous, valuable feedback on student progress, to teachers and students. Teachers can conveniently print class and individual reports at a click of a button. Each student’s progress is saved under their own login name, so RocketReader can train and appraise student over the longer term.
    7. Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning. RocketReader provides hundreds of readings that expose readers to a vast variety of words, promoting incidental vocabulary learning. These readings are all graded using RocketReader’s grading metric to ensure the vocabulary learned at each level is suitable to the user’s skill level. For instance, the easiest reading has a RocketReader grade level of one and is called ‘When I Grow Up’5. The most difficult reading in RocketReader is an excerpt from a 1908 article in the Times newspaper called ‘Sleeping Sickness in Uganda’ and has a grade level of 136. Readings are available in a wide range of topics including mathematics, science, SATs, English, history, celebrities, sport and many more. The broad range of available readings ensures users have many opportunities to develop their vocabulary in a wide variety of areas.
    8. Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning. RocketReader employs multiple methods for vocabulary improvement. Users develop their vocabulary indirectly by being exposed to a rich and varied word set in RocketReader’s database of readings. Vocabulary development is then reinforced through the direct method of specific comprehension questions, to test their understanding of new words.

    c.) High Comprehension Reading

    The secret to reading well is the ability to comprehend and extract the appropriate meaning and relevance of what is being read. Comprehension depends on the complexity of the text, and the sophistication of vocabulary. Some texts, like Dr. Seuss’s ‘Cat in the Hat’ are very simple to understand as they contain short sentences, a small average number of letters per word, a small average number of syllables per word, include many common words, and include reading clues such as pictures and rhyme. Other texts, such as ‘The American Constitution’ are very difficult to comprehend as they contain complex words and long sentences. In the last twenty years, there has been a focus in the business world on simpler language. Legal contracts have become easier to read. Business letters are less elaborate and more direct. Gone are the days where a sentence contains hundreds of words and many compound clauses. These are the days of plain English. Despite this trend, we are faced with the onerous task of having to comprehend piles of notes, books, emails, letters and reports throughout our working lives. Although the format may be simpler, the volume of information we have to digest in these modern times is unprecedented.

    Critical readers are aware that often the goal of a written text is to persuade the reader to accept the author’s point of view on the subject. We should aim to effectively identify, reconstruct and evaluate the author’s arguments. This gives us power of knowing that our own opinions are formed as a result of logical reasoning. With critical reading, we can see through manipulative and persuasive writing techniques.

    Underpinning RocketReader is a focus on high comprehension reading, which will lead to an enhanced ability to read critically. From RocketReader’s comprehension tests, readers quickly learn whether they are extracting the right meaning from the readings. RocketReader meets the two criteria of comprehension monitoring and question answering in the recommended types of comprehension instruction from the National Reading Panel[20].

    1. The speed of regular speech is around 180 words per minute for a regular speaker. The average reading speed is around 200 words per minute for an average reader or 230 words per minute for a college-level reader.
    2. The RocketReader grade level is a comprehensive measure of reading difficulty based on number of words per sentence, number of syllables per word, the presence of large words, the absence of very short words, the presence of common English words, the incidence of profanities, the number of sentence clauses, and the use of numbers and symbols. This metric was formulated in 2004 by Dr. Ronald and can be applied to any document using the RocketReader Gold software. The development of this metric is beyond the scope of this paper.
    3. It was noted that the instruction was most fruitful when it matched the age and ability of the reader.
    4. In the list of options, the correct answer must appear first so that RocketReader can use the correct answer in the scoring and review phase for the user. RocketReader moves the correct answer into alphabetical order with the other alternatives when presenting the options to the user, so as to provide no obvious clues about the correct answer.
    5. The first sentence of RocketReader’s easiest text is “When I Grow Up I’ll be a dancer...a writer...a nurse...or a firefighter.”
    6. The first sentence of RocketReader’s most difficult text is “We publish this morning an important communication from Mr Hesketh Bell, the Governor of Uganda, containing an account of the terrible ravages of sleeping sickness in that territory, and an appeal to the people of this country for pecuniary assistance toward the alleviation of sufferings which are calculated to excite the most lively compassion in the minds of all who are able to realize either their character or their extent.”