Rethinking the 'five finger rule'

I bet most of the educators out there have heard this pearl of teaching wisdom before: Don’t smile before Christmas. Yes, we’ve all heard it, and thankfully we mostly reject it.

Here’s another directive you might have heard (one we’re supposed to tell our students) that’s widely accepted even though I believe it, too, can be misguided: “Every time you encounter a word in the text that you don’t know, stick out a finger. If, by the time you reach the end of the page, you’ve popped out all five fingers, close the book. It’s too hard for you to read independently on your own.”

Known as the five-finger rule, this advice doesn’t jibe with what the Common Core Standards now ask of us regarding complex text, nor with what we know about language. Simply put: language is redundant. The information in every sentence is signaled in more ways than one. Indeed, language circles back on itself, creating cohesive chains of meaning that readers can follow across a text, picking up clues, not unlike Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs through the dark woods.

When we cut kids off after just five missed words, we short-circuit their search for meaning. We stop them from attempting to make sense of the text before them.

Linguist Steven Pinker makes the point with this exercise:

Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt X xm wrxtxng xvxn xf  X rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn x.

Or, consider this sentence: The girls are feeding their chickens. We encounter four cues that signal plurality: the <s> on girls, the are form of be, the plural possessive pronoun their, and the <s> on chickens. As language educator Kenneth Goodman notes, “Redundancy is one way language makes up for ambiguity; it provides extra cues to the same information.”

And this brings us to another nugget of conventional wisdom that’s also all-wrong and deserves to go the way of the grumpy teacher who refuses to smile before Christmas: Reading is getting the words. I disagree. Reading is a process of constructing meaning from the complex, naturally redundant network of syntactic, semantic, and graphophonic information that comprises written language. Hence, in the grand scheme of a whole text, each individual word that makes up the text is relatively unimportant.

Consider this passage from the Armstrong Sperry story, “The Ghost of the Lagoon.”

The island of Bora Bora, where Mako lived, is far away in the South Pacific. It is not a large island—you can paddle around it in a single day—but the main body of it rises straight out of the sea, very high into the air, like a castle. Waterfalls trail down the faces of the cliffs. As you look upward, you see wild goats leaping from crag to crag. Mako had been born on the very edge of the sea, and most of his waking hours were spent in the waters of the lagoon, which was nearly enclosed by the two outstretched arms of the island

If we require our students to follow the five-finger rule, they might not make it past the first two lines. After all, island and castle are relatively low frequency words—and Bora Bora, Mako, and South Pacific are proper nouns, which kids need to learn how to read around (consider how you handle the Russian names in Dostoyevsky!). Each individual word embedded in this particular opening passage, which reflects Sperry’s brilliant efforts to establish the setting of his story, work together to create a highly supportive network of meaning. What a shame to deprive kids of the riveting “Ghost of the Lagoon” just because, in the first two lines, they encounter five words they might not know! If they’re allowed to press on, the additional text provides more support, making it easier—not harder—to construct meaning and yes, eventually crack open even the unknown words.  

As Ken Goodman pointed out years ago, it’s easier to read a whole text than just a paragraph; easier to read a paragraph than just a sentence; and easier to read a sentence than a single word. More text provides more support for the reader.

Take for example twelve-year-old LaTeesha; she didn’t recognize the word coyote the first time she encountered it in the story “Sheep Dog.” But as she read deeper into the story, following cohesive chains of meaning that included predator, hunter, and attack—she suddenly exclaimed, “I know! Coyote!” 

When readers encounter words they don’t know, they should ask themselves, “What would make sense here?” If they don’t know, they can backtrack and see if it helps to review the text they’ve already processed—or, they can forge ahead. All readers have their best shot at comprehension when they’re immersed in whole, cohesive text. Indeed, in this way, even words that stumped them the first time may—just like LaTeesha’s coyote—suddenly make sense.

What do you tell your students if they come to a word they don’t know? What strategies do you suggest they use?

For more about the importance of working with whole text, see Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment available through Scholastic.

Photo: wwworks


I think this article exaggerates, or possibly just misunderstands, the breadth and purpose of the five-finger rule's application.

The "rule" is a teaching tool for helping children learn how to choose books, not -- I would hope -- a rule imposed by teachers, parents, and librarians to dictate whether or not a child is allowed to read a text that interests them.

Most storybooks geared at independent reading at the emergent reader level have a few, and mostly high-frequency, words on the page. They often also have pictures to put the important tough words in context. In cases like this, it's pretty fair to assume that if, by the time a student gets to the end of the page, they still don't understand the meaning of those 5 words -- even though there are only 20 words on the page, and the hard ones have been repeated and explained in various contexts, and the pictures show the meaning of them -- they're not at the level to make significant meaning of that book, so it's probably not the ideal book for them to read ***independently***.

As children get to be proficient, they also start to have a better idea what they want to read, and the 5-finger rule is no longer really a necessary tool for them. I've rarely seen it applied, for example, beyond the third grade. Once students have learned to use and make sense of definitions in a dictionary, the rule becomes obsolete for them.

It's not there to hinder, it's there to help. For the child to whom it's not helpful, like any tool, it's obviously not the right one -- so thank goodness there are other tools available, such as "check for understanding", or "I PICK".

Temayna, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I certainly agree that the key to success always lies in the hands of sensitive educators who know their students, understand the reading process, and, moment-by-moment, know how best to respond to and support their developing readers. Informed flexibility, as you note, is essential. For me, as a first grade teacher (admittedly, many years ago!), I found that when I considered the multi-faceted support of an entire, cohesive text—together with the reading interests of the student—then five missed words on the page didn’t have to be an automatic trigger for book abandonment, even for independent reading.

Exactly - We use the whole book approach and use read Alouds, shared and guided reading to model and practice how readers interact with the text. I like 'I PICK' and use the 'choosing a new pair of shoes' which includes interest, purpose, content, and knowing the words. Independent reading is a focus. As teacher librarian in a collaborative K-5 learning climate, we have boosted reading interest, reading time and engagement, questions from students and further inquiry into authors, and genre and personal interest. I have always found the five finger rule to be restrictive and most limiting because it does not promote critical thinking and questioning and meta cognition - tapping into prior knowledge and context. As a young reader, and I was voracious, I remember skipping over the words I didn't know and guessing at what they mean so I could keep on reading to find out what was next. Often times I would go back and re read and make sense of it. Infrequently I would ask an adult or older sibling and as a last resort...go to the dictionary. Love your site. Thanks for the professional talk. Fancy Nancy Peel DSB

Great article. To be honest I was never a big fan of the five finger rule. Five errors per page of print -- What if the page had 20 words, what if the page had 200 words? Big difference. Rather than have students make simple yes/no decisions about a book or text based on the number of difficult words, I'd prefer to have students wondering about words and what they might mean and what the text might mean. I had an old professor who used to say that interest trumps difficulty. I'd like to see students choose books based on their interests rather than on the number of difficult words. And, if the student chooses a text that contains difficult words to have strategies for dealing with them. To this day in my independent academic reading I come across texts with plenty of challenging words. Rather than ignore the reading, I have strategies I employ for dealing with the words. Think of all the children who were able to make it through Harry Potter, and all the unusual words found in the series, because they were interested in the books.

Thanks Lois for an intriguing article that gets us to think more about our instructional practices.

Lois, now that you mention the five-finger rule and how language actually works, I can see just how limiting that “faux rule” could be. It seems to cut kids off just as they are getting into the puzzle. It tells them they could not possibly make meaning out of this text, that it’s beyond their capabilities—certainly not at all what we wish to convey.
I think this rule grows fixed mindset students who feel they can’t puzzle things out, instead of flexible mindset kids who enjoy the journey and love working to make meaning, to understand, and who love the fizz of learning.

As a major strategy, I briefly told my students about Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and her idea that a growing a flexible mindset and emphasizing trying things out different ways can help us accomplish and understand amazing things in our lives.

I do love your articles, Lois. You peel away layers of false reasoning from common classroom practices, and help your readers discover what is really going on.

I agree with Tremeyna that the 5-finger rule is just a tool to help children select an appropriate book. It is not (or certainly should not be) something a teacher uses to prevent students from reading books. Because I want my intervention students to be able to self-select a book to practice at home by re-reading (as Tim Rasinski endorses), I want them to pick a book that looks interesting to them, but not be bogged down by too many difficult words, which defeats the purpose of the fluency-building practice. It is a SKILL-building endeavor, which will increase the likelihood of comprehension and enjoyment. Children can use a level (A.R. level or guided reading level) as a guide, but sometimes there are still too many difficult words for a child to read, even though the level is appropriate for a child. The 5-finger rule is just another tool to help the child pick a "just-right" book to read and re-read.

Regardless of whether or not the five-finger rule is actually enforced by teachers or librarians, students **of any age** don't need a tool for figuring out how hard something is. If a kid reads through something that he/she can't grasp, then he/she already knows that he/she can't grasp it, or that it might be too hard (also, most kids just do this anyway by picking up the book and reading the first page to see if they might like it).
What's more, this is a rule that teaches students to focus on how hard something is (or might be when they get further into it), rather than encouraging them to push themselves. This creates habitual self-doubt which, especially when someone is so young, can lead to things like insecurity and low self esteem. Any rule that so much as hints at the notion of encouraging children to give up trying to read a book because they think it might be too hard is unacceptable.
This also deprives a child of the feeling of accomplishment that occurs when they succeed at something that, beforehand, they genuinely thought they were incapable of (anyone who has played through a seemingly impossible level in a video game knows this feeling).
And keep in mind these are things that hold true **whether or not this rule is actually enforced**. It only has to be taught (and if it's not meant to be enforced, quite frankly teachers should then label it as a "guide-line" or a "trick" or a "tip", not a "rule" which implies that it is meant to be a thing that you have to do, because isn't everything else that you are absolutely supposed to do labeled as a rule at that age?). If it is implied to a child that they *should* choose and easier book (<--- quote from the actual five-finger rule) if they find the book they are trying to read too difficult, then not only does that suggest to the child that they should not bother pushing themselves, not only is it redundant in the fact that if a child doesn't feel like he/she wants to trudge through any more of a particular book that they will just decide to put it down anyway, it is also like a trap in the sense that if a child *does* actually decide to make use of the five-finger rule when picking out things they may want to read in private, then they will be telling **themselves** that they shouldn't read things that they think may be too difficult for them, and that in a way, is much worse than being told that by a teacher or a librarian, because the voice comes from inside, as part of yourself, and would have the same outward consequences.
It also isn't going to damage a child if they get a few pages into a book only to find that it might be too hard for them (much in the same way getting stuck in a video game may be frustrating, but it isn't damaging. That's the point when you go online and look for level guides. And yes, they have this sort of thing for books too, it's called a dictionary. They're online these days too, it's great. Perhaps a more useful tool would be to teach your child how to use a dictionary or a dictionary app, that way they could actually learn things from those texts that they think are too hard. Education!).
So, at it's core, the five-finger rule really isn't necessary to begin with, and the most it can do may actually end up working against a child rather than for them.

(excluding things like read-alouds of course, I'm just talking about a student choosing to read something independently)

I just want to point out diversity in learners and thank you for this article. Both our children having similar reading and writing learning disabilities, as well as enjoying high average intelligence, vocabulary and comprehension but low fluency and phonemic automaticity. If they followed the five-finger rule there would not be much for them to choose from for independent reading except audiobooks. Nor would it help them to practice some of the corrective and compensatory strategies learned with specialized learning programs outside their regular school. These strategies, not the five finger rule, have helped them take on impressive and very much preferred texts despite needing more time than their nonLD peers. I wonder how they might be limited in their exposure to interesting texts if limited to the five-finger rule.