A highly anticipated audiobook is finally available for streaming or download. Would you prefer to have Apple’s Siri™ narrate the audiobook, or would you rather have the author’s (or an experienced actor’s) voice guide you through the text painting each phrase as a picture and detailed perspective of the story?
Reading fluency is the difference between these two options. While Siri may successfully read most words correctly (a high degree of word recognition), parts of the story will be lost or the listener may lose interest due to the monotone cadence. The lack of adequate fluency disrupts the oral language comprehension, and, therefore, linguistic comprehension is not reached. You’d likely become frustrated, not completely understand the story, or possibly give up entirely. Without fluency, reading comprehension – and the enjoyment of reading – is missed.
Often defined solely as reading accurately with speed, fluency is the bridge between word recognition and reading comprehension according to the National Institute for Literacy and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2006). To achieve reading comprehension, students must accurately recognize words and successfully process oral language, as illustrated in the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986).
Once students learn to adjust their tone based on punctuation, learn to group words into phrases, and apply elements of prosody (intonation, stress, and pausing), they are free to focus on reading for understanding. “The essence of fluency is not reading speed or oral reading expression, but the ability to decode and comprehend at the same time (Rasinski, Ph.D., Blachowicz, Ph.D., & Lems, EdD, 2006).”
“Fluency can change, depending on what students are reading, familiarity with the words, and practice with reading text. Be aware, however, that just because a child is a fluent reader does not mean the child comprehends. Students may be reading words without thinking about or visualizing what they are reading. They may recognize words with automaticity and be successful at decoding, but are not reaching a deep level of comprehension (Jeup, 2020).”
Reading fluently sounds like…
“Please, Mommy, read to me in a robot voice again!” a boy (age 4) exclaimed. Aside from voicing a character who’s actually a robot, fluent readers work hard to avoid robotic-sounding reading. Revisit the example of Apple’s Siri™. If asking Siri a quick and simple question, the fluency of her speech typically does not impact the ability to understand the answer.
Similarly, a student’s fluency at the phrase level will not likely impact understanding, but no one is requesting Siri to narrate a podcast series or audiobook. Therefore, while reading aloud, fluent readers at home and in classrooms should model how to decode and comprehend at the same time using appropriate fluency. This reinforces how reading aloud with children is extremely valuable.
I can help students’ fluency improve by…
Teachers must model fluency for students to develop the ability to read accurately and quickly with good expression, phrasing, and comprehension. To hone these skills, teachers should read aloud to students, listen to students read, and provide a wide variety of activities to rehearse fluent reading.
– Read to students: When teachers read aloud, they not only model comprehension strategies, which include predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing, but also fluency. From differentiating characters’ voices which allows students to follow individual characters to relaying the mood of the story with subtle changes to tone, cadence, and stress, children learn how to read for understanding. They also learn to draw visual images based on the text and benefit from exposure to a wider vocabulary than they may currently access during independent reading. As adults read aloud, they may also model how to approach various passages from different genres with purpose: for enjoyment and for learning.
– Listen to students read: As students begin reading independently, they mimic holding a book, turning its pages, and using each page’s pictures to adjust how they read aloud the words (decoded or memorized) to reflect the story in a plausible manner. Because they’ve observed others read fluently, they attempt to apply those strategies, too. To support students in reading with appropriate fluency, it is important to listen to students read aloud. Fluency assessments (such as measures of oral reading fluency, or ORF) ask students to read a passage as teachers mark errors and calculate the words correct per minute (total words read in one minute – errors = words correct per minute). Of course, using ORF assessments to monitor student progress and inform instruction is valuable. Additionally, students need multiple opportunities to read aloud without it becoming a rote task. Providing self-reflection scales, partner feedback forms, and fluency rubrics can support positive feedback and document growth.
– Fluency activities: Explicit instruction followed by fluency practice at the word level, phrase level, and sentence & passage levels is vital. When one strives to become skilled in a new activity, they do not immediately participate at the highest or most elite levels. The same applies to developing as a fluent reader. Extensive reading develops fluency in coordination with skilled word recognition and oral language development alongside listening to reading and reading aloud. Given the opportunity to reread passages, practicing once a day over the course of a week, students improve accuracy and overall fluency.
In the Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists (Fry, Ph.D. & Kress, EdD, 2006), there are several activities to teach and rehearse elements of fluency requiring little to no supplies. For example, in repeated and timed readings, students use the same short passage to improve accuracy and prosody. Prosodic elements include pitch (high and low tone of voice), volume (soft or loud voice), speed (fast or slow), and phrasing (short or long pauses between words and groups of words). Students will infer meaning from each of these. Imagine a parent answering a question with, “Hmm.” The manner in which the “hmm” is stated will greatly alter the meaning. “Hm!” implies irritation or impatience while “Hmmmmmmm…” relays hesitation.
In another activity, students apply comprehension of a text (from an independent reading level) in writing, rehearsing, and performing a reader’s theater. By providing purposes for rereading, such as the performance, children revisit the original text and work with peers to not only affirm their understanding but rework and practice to develop fluency to be audience-ready. Working in groups or independently, recording and reflecting upon oral reading helps students develop fluency skills which may ultimately be applied in independent silent reading and in cross-curricular studies. Finally, echo readings and choral readings of poetry or familiar texts, even a joke of the day, supports ongoing mastery of fluency.
It is most important for students to approach reading with a positive attitude. Fluency instruction and rehearsal can be engaging and motivating for students of all ages, especially as they successfully transfer the skills to reading high-interest texts. For many students, fluency isn’t only the bridge to better reading comprehension, it is the key.
About the Author
Ginny Simank is a Level 4 IMSE OG Master Instructor living in Dallas, Texas. She has a master’s degree (M.Ed.) with a Reading Specialist certificate and holds certifications in special education, English as a Second Language, and generalists for Early Childhood through 6th grade & ELA 4th-8th grades. She is an IDA-certified Structured Literacy Teacher and full-time instructor for the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE), whose mission is to train others across the country (teachers, administrators, tutors, education professionals & parents) in the Orton Gillingham methodology of multi-sensory language instruction. Ms. Simank previously served on the national board of directors for the Learning Disabilities Association and was a member of the LDA’s Education & Nominating Committees.
Fry, Edward, Ph, D & Kress, Jacqueline, Ed. D. (2006). The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists. San Francisco, California: Jossy-Bass.
Gough, P. and Tunmer, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10.
Jeup, J. (2020). IMSE’s Comprehensive Training Manual, p. 99-106.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel.
Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (n.d.) Retrieved January 10, 2015, from http://nichcy.org.
Rasinski, PhD, T., Blachowicz, PhD, C., & Lems, EdD, K. (2006). Fluency Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices. (p. 9). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.