Fluent reading is the ability to read "like you speak." It involves reading with reasonable accuracy, at an appropriate rate for the task, with suitable expression. Fluency has been clearly identified by substantive research as one of the critical building blocks of reading because fluency is directly related to students' ability to comprehend. The questions that face professional educators include: How can we help our students develop reading fluency? What should fluency instruction look like? And, what can we do to help students whose fluency is far behind their peers? The purpose of this document is to address these questions with some practical suggestions that are both research-based and classroom-tested.
Fluency means reading faster, smoother, more expressively, or more quietly with goal of reading silently. Fluent reading approaches the speed of speech. Beginning readers usually do not read fluently; reading is often a wordby-word struggle.
Research over the past two decades has identified repeated reading as the key strategy for improving students' fluency skills . Repeated reading has two essential elements:
- giving students the opportunity to read and then re-read the same text;
- having students practice their reading orally with an opportunity to receive corrections and guidance (if necessary).
There are two general approaches to improve fluency. The direct approach involves modeling and practice with repeated reading under time pressure. The indirect approach involves encouraging children to read voluntarily in their free time.
The direct approach: Repeated readings. We often restrict reading lessons to "sight reading." Who could learn a musical instrument by only sight-reading music and never repeating pieces until they could be played in rhythm, up to tempo, with musical expression?
In repeated reading, children work on reading as they would work at making music: They continue working with each text until it is fluent. Repeated reading works best with readers who have reached at least a primer instructional level. Use a passage of 100 words or so at the instructional level. The text should be decodable, not predictable. The reader might select a favorite from among familiar books.
Two ways to frame repeated reading:
- Graph how fast students read with a "1 Minute Read." Graphing is motivating because it makes progress evident. Emphasize speed rather than accuracy. Set a reachable but challenging goal, e.g., 85 words per minute. Have the student read for 1 minute. Count the number of words read and graph the result with an easily understood chart, e.g., move a basketball player closer to slam dunk.
- Use check sheets for partner readings. With a class of children, pair up readers to respond to one another.
Begin by explaining what you'll be listening for; model fluent and non-fluent reading. For example, show the difference between smooth and choppy reading. Show how expressive readers make their voices go higher and lower, faster and slower, louder and softer.
In each pair, students take turns being the reader and the listener. The reader reads a selection three times. The listener gives a report after the 2nd and 3rd readings. All reports are complimentary. No criticism or advice is allowed.
The indirect approach: Voluntary reading Sustained silent reading (SSR, a.k.a.
DEAR, "drop everything and read") gives children a daily opportunity to read and discover the pleasure of reading. Each student chooses a book or magazine, and the entire class reads for a set period of time each day.
SSR has been shown to lead to more positive attitudes toward reading. In addition, the use of peer discussion groups with SSR leads to gains in reading achievement. When students share their reactions to books with classmates, they get recommendations from peers they take seriously.
Tierney, Readence, and Dishner, in Reading Strategies and Practices  list three "cardinal rules" for SSR:
- Everybody reads. Both students and teacher will read something of their own choosing. Completing homework assignments, grading papers, and similar activities are discouraged. The reading should be for the pleasure of the reader.
- There are to be no interruptions during USSR. The word uninterrupted is an essential part of the technique. Interruptions result in loss of comprehension and loss of interest by many students; therefore, questions and comments should be held until the silent reading period has concluded.
- No one will be asked to report what they have read. It is essential that students feel that this is a period of free reading, with the emphasis on reading for enjoyment.
Other essentials for encouraging voluntary reading include a plentiful library of books and frequent opportunities to choose. Children should be allowed and encouraged to read page turners (e.g., easy series books) rather than the classics for their independent reading. For gaining fluency, quantity is more important than quality.
Book introductions help children make informed decisions about what they want to read. For an effective booktalk, choose a book you like. Show the illustrations to the students. Give a brief talk, hitting the high points: the setting, characters, and the inciting incident leading to the problem or goal. Do not get into the plot, and especially not the resolution. If there is no clear plot, ask a have-you-ever question (e.g., Have you ever been afraid of the dark?) and relate the question to the book. Good booktalks often feature some oral reading, e.g., of a suspenseful part.
Reading Fluency Strategies
The following strategies and activities are designed to achieve two primary goals:
- To help children read words accurately and effortlessly.
- To help children read with appropriate rates of reading fluency.
Katie and I frequently discuss the keys that allow us to help many new or struggling readers achieve the above goals. From our experience, we both agree the creation of fluent readers is dependent on two instructional ingredients (it is also nice to know our conclusions are backed by research as well).
Research has also determined that having students read aloud along with a model of well-paced, expressive reading and receiving specific feedback through systematic progress monitoring also helps improve students' fluency skills. So, what are the best methods to use in the classroom to help students become fluent? The answer depends on whether the student is just beginning to read, has learned to read and is making adequate progress, or is struggling. Let's start with beginning readers, those students in kindergarten and grade one.
Teaching Beginning Readers to Become Fluent
Beginning readers are not usually fluent, but classroom practices can help them develop this important skill.
Because accuracy is a fundamental component of fluency, teachers who work with beginning readers must focus significant amounts of instructional time on basic word recognition and word analysis skills . To do this effectively, teachers should provide instruction that systematically presents daily opportunities for students to learn to read words accurately , which is the important first step in becoming a skillful, proficient, and motivated reader. Pushing students to "read faster" too soon could cause some students to begin guessing or otherwise undermine their focus on reading carefully.
There is no guidance from empirical research about precisely when teachers should formally begin encouraging beginning readers to increase their speed, but teachers usually wait until about the middle of first grade. Fluency researchers  recommend that students be given opportunities to re-read sentences and encouraged to make their reading "sound like talking" as soon as they are making good progress with basic decoding, demonstrating an understanding of the act of reading, and showing some degree of confidence-whether that happens in kindergarten or in first grade.
Teachers and parents should also frequently model fluent reading, demonstrating (and sometimes explicitly pointing out) how accurate reading can be done at a reasonable rate and with good phrasing, intonation, and expression. In the classroom, the teacher can read aloud from large-format books so the students can follow along.
Maintaining Reading Fluency for On-Level Readers
What about students in grades two and higher who are making adequate progress with their reading? Three techniques can be used very frequently with a variety of texts to help maintain and develop students' reading fluency: choral reading, cloze reading, and partner reading. All of these procedures can be used with readers at any grade level, with small or large groups, and with fiction or content-heavy nonfiction materials. Two additional techniques can also be considered for use: Readers' Theater and poetry readings. Let's review each.
For choral reading, the teacher and students read aloud together, following the teacher's pace, so students get the benefit of a model while they practice reading aloud. The teacher can stop at any time to ask questions, comment on the text, discuss a vocabulary term, or remind the class that s/he expects everyone to be reading. If choral reading is used with heterogeneously grouped students, it is possible that the lowest performing students may have difficulty keeping up with even a moderate pace. However, they can follow along, participating when they can, and still hear the text being read accurately and with good pacing and phrasing. Choral reading works best if the teacher directs all students regardless of age or ability level to use a marker or finger to follow along in the text as they read.
Of course, if at any time the student is having difficulty reading at the goal rate after the practice readings, the decision can be made to move the student down to an easier level or decrease the WCPM goal.
In addition to requiring the students to answer a set of comprehension questions at the end of each story, teachers can also require students to write a retell after each story.
Using the Read Naturally strategy for 30–45 minutes per day for three or more days per week can have a significant impact on improving students' reading fluency. In two studies reported on by  secondand third-grade Title I students, as well as sixth-grade special education students, showed significant improvement in their fluency. The second and third graders received, on average, 32 weeks of Read Naturally instruction. From fall to spring, the second graders' average WCPM increased from 17.9 to 71.6, meaning that they moved from well below the 25th percentile to well above it; they showed an average gain of
WCPM per week, which is significantly greater than the 1.2 WCPM weekly gain that second graders typically make.
Third-grade students had similar results. From fall to spring, their average WCPM increased from 42 to 93, meaning that they moved from just below the 25th percentile to well above it; they gained 1.6 WCPM per week, as compared to the typical growth of 1.1 WCPM per week. The study of sixth-grade special education students also found significant improvements. These students were reading at levels ranging from grade 1.5 to 4.0. They received Read Naturally instruction in a special education class for 20 to 32 weeks and improved their fluency by an average of 1.4 WCPM per week, which is double the 0.7 words per week that sixth graders typically gain.
A more recent study conducted by researchers found that students using Read Naturally had 39% greater gains in fluency than students in a control group. This study was conducted using Read Naturally Software Edition (SE), a computer-based version of the original paper-based version, Read Naturally Masters Edition (ME). This study was lead by Theodore Christ, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Educational Psychology .
We can also use some more strategies to improve reading fluency .
Cloze reading is similar to choral reading, except that the teacher does most of the oral reading while the students read along silently. Once or twice every few sentences, the teacher omits an important vocabulary or content word, not a simple sight word, and the students' job is to read it aloud as a class. Notice that with cloze reading, as opposed to choral reading, students spend less time practicing oral reading. Therefore, cloze reading is best thought of as an alternative to round robin reading.
Cloze reading allows teachers to cover text and keep students engaged while avoiding the pitfalls of subjecting the class to examples of poor reading and embarrassing the struggling students. As with choral reading, it is likely that the lowest performing readers will be unable to keep up or to correctly read every omitted word, but they will not be singled out, and they will be provided with examples of skillful reading.
Another method for improving fluency is to have students read aloud to a partner. This procedure works best when students are taught some techniques for giving feedback and managing their time and when the partners have been selected by the teacher.
One technique for assigning partners is for teachers to first rank the students from the strongest reader in the class to the weakest (making judgments subjectively or from assessment data) and then consider whether there are students whose reading ability is so low that partner reading may be inappropriate. These students could meet with the teacher for more direct instruction or closely supported partner reading while the other students do independent partner reading.
The teacher then divides the remaining students in half, forming pairs such that the strongest reader is paired with a mid-level reader, and so on, ensuring that each pair has a slightly stronger reader but that the difference in the students' ability is not so large that it would cause embarrassment or confusion.
At times, the stronger reader may be directed to read first, providing a model of fluent reading.
Then the less fluent reader reads the same text aloud. The stronger student can help with word recognition and give feedback and encouragement to the less fluent partner. Another effective technique pairs student who read at the same level and asks them to re-read a story on which they have already received instruction from the teacher .
Readers' Theater (RT) and poetry readings-both of which engage students in a reading performance-have become popular over the last few years. Much has been written about Readers' Theater in particular and about the apparent value of having students participate in dramatic readings . However, there are currently no experimental, quasiexperimental, or multi-baseline student data available for RT.
RT and reading poetry can certainly provide students with an opportunity to read text that is enjoyable and provides a clear incentive for students to read, and re-read, their assigned parts or poem.
However, teachers should not assume that either one could possibly provide as much practice for the whole class as choral or partner reading, much less anything close to the amount of instruction and practice necessary for struggling students to improve their fluency.
How to assess reading fluency?
Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with proper expression and comprehension. Students who are able to read orally with speed, accuracy, and expression, but who do not simultaneously understand what they read, are not fluent. Educators value assessments of rate and accuracy because they help determine a child’s level of automaticity, or the “fast, effortless word recognition that comes with a great deal of reading practice.”
One effective indicator of reading fluency is to have a student read a passage from grade level material aloud for one minute. A score is given representing the number of words the student read correctly. This procedure is valid and reliable and is a good way to monitor student progress over time in reading grade level material. The scores can be easily graphed to illustrate progress and there are published norms for grades 1-3 .
Another tool often used to assess both oral reading accuracy and comprehension is the informal reading inventory. A child is typically asked to read aloud a passage at grade level and the teacher records errors. Then the child is asked to orally answer comprehension questions about the passage. Several published informal reading inventories are currently available.
A third tool that can be used to evaluate fluency includes a measure of expression. In the NAEP assessments (National Reading Panel Report, pp. 3-10), a four point scale was used. When a child’s oral reading was word by word, one point was given; when reading showed comprehension with appropriate pauses at meaningful phrases and clauses, four points were awarded.
There are different strategies of improving reading skills such as rereading, peer reading and reader’s theatre .
Guided repeated oral reading is an instructional strategy that can help students improve a variety of reading skills, including fluency. There are a number of effective procedures that can be used in providing guided oral reading. In general, a teacher, parent, or peer reads a passage aloud, modeling fluent reading. Then students reread the text quietly, on their own, sometimes several times. The text should be at the student’s independent reading level. Next, the students read aloud and then reread the same passage. Usually, reading the same text four times is sufficient.
Some examples of more specific techniques that involve rereading with feedback include these:
- An adult or peer reads with the student by modeling fluent reading and then asking the student to read the same passage aloud with encouragement and feedback by the adult or peer.
- A student listens to a tape of a fluent reader reading text at the student’s independent level at a pace of about 80-100 words a minute. The student listens to the tape the first time and then practices reading along with the tape until the student is able to read fluently.
- The student reads with a peer partner. Each partner takes a turn reading to the other. A more fluent reader can be paired with a less fluent reader to model fluent reading. The more fluent reader can provide feedback and encouragement to the less fluent reader. Students of similar reading skills can also be paired, particularly if the teacher has modeled fluent reading and the partner reading involves practice.
- Readers’ theatre can be a motivating way to improve fluency. Students read scripts and rehearse a play to prepare for a performance. The practice in reading and rereading the scripts provides an excellent opportunity to improve fluency skills.
The National Reading Panel (NRP)  found correlation studies indicating that students who read more are generally better readers. Because these were correlation studies, it isn’t clear, however, whether the relationship is causal. For example, in a correlation study, it is possible that good readers tend to read more and poor readers tend to read less. What is not clear from correlation studies is the direction of the relationship. What we would ideally like to demonstrate is that the amount of reading a student does determines if one becomes a good reader or a poor reader. In order to establish the direction of the relationship, we would have to do an experimental study that carefully manipulates the amount of reading that the student will do.
Because none of the reviewed studies was experimental, the NRP was not able to make a statement to that effect that encouraging students to read more on their own actually causes them to become better readers. However, the wealth of support from the correlation studies suggests that reading more leads to growth in reading achievement. More research needs to be done to examine the role of increased reading and its impact on both fluency and comprehension. The NRP therefore suggested that sustained silent reading during class time without time set aside for instruction in the numerous skills associated with reading may not be a productive way to spend valuable class time. It is important to note that the Panel did not discourage teachers and others from encouraging students to read more on their own outside of class time.
Monitoring progress in reading fluency involves taking samples of students’ reading and recording the correct words read per minute. Teachers look for increases in words read correctly per minute from test to test. This measure is highly reliable, valid, and strongly correlated with reading comprehension.
There are two caveats regarding reading fluency . First, as this skill has recently garnered greater attention and awareness of the link between fluency and comprehension has grown, there appears to be a tendency for some to believe that raising a student's fluency score is the main goal of reading instruction. As important as fluency is and as valuable as the information obtained from fluency-based assessments can be for instructional decisionmaking, I want to caution teachers and administrators to keep fluency and fluency-based assessment scores in perspective.
The ability to read text accurately, at a reasonable rate, and with appropriate expression and phrasing is certainly a key factor in being able to understand what has been read and to enjoy the process of reading. Nonetheless, fluency is only one of the key components of reading. I urge teachers to use the 50th percentile as a reasonable level of proficiency for students, and keep in mind that it is appropriate and expected for students to adjust their rate when reading texts of varying difficulty and for varied purposes .
Pushing every student to reach the 90th or even the 75th percentile in fluency is not feasible or necessary and, for students at or above the expected level in fluency, the instructional time could be better spent by enhancing other critical aspects of reading, such as increasing their vocabulary and becoming better at monitoring their comprehension.
The second caveat is that we still have much to learn about fluency. Ongoing debates in the research community include questions regarding the value of reading lists of words versus sentences and paragraphs; repeated reading of the same passage versus reading several different passages that have lots of the same vocabulary; the nature of the text in which students would benefit most for fluency practice (i.e., narrative or expository, randomly selected or highly controlled passages); the exact role of silent reading in a comprehensive reading instructional program; the role of prosody in the impact of fluency on text comprehension; etc.
For example, we know that the ability to instantaneously recognize high-frequency sight words is an essential element of fluent reading. Researchers continue to explore whether or not having students practice reading word lists or passages is the more efficient way to develop this automaticity. Until research provides a definitive answer, having students orally read passages seems more beneficial because of the added opportunity to work on prosody and comprehension.
Likewise, we know that repeated reading of a single passage is highly effective, but it is not clear whether or not a set of passages on a single topic that has been carefully written with a large number of repeated words could be equally or even more effective. If reading a set of passages turns out to be as effective as re-reading a single passage, the set could conceivably be used to enhance students' fluency, vocabulary, and domain knowledge simultaneously.
How do we help children struggling with slow, painstaking sounding out and blending? Support and encourage them. Effortful decoding is a necessary step to sight recognition. "I know reading is tough right now, but this is how you learn new words." Ask them to reread each sentence that requires unusual decoding effort.
In general, the fluency formula is: Read and reread decodable words in connected text. Decode unknown words rather than guessing from context. Reread to master texts. Use text with words children can decode using known correspondences. Use whole texts to sustain interest. This article should help practitioners feel confident that there is sufficient guidance from research to support the use of fluencybased assessments in their professional datacollection procedures, and to select instructional practices for both those students who are on track and those who are struggling to develop the essential skill of reading fluency.
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