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Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

What's More Important — Oral or Silent Reading?

October 29, 2014

Is oral or silent reading more important in middle school?

We live in a time when silent reading ability will probably buy you more than oral reading skills. There definitely are radio and television announcers who have to read scripts well, but most of us don’t have those duties. However, that doesn’t mean oral reading is without value — especially for kids who are 11-, 12-, or 13-years-old.

Oral reading has some small value as an outcome on its own, but in school-age kids it has its greatest value as a teaching tool. While it is true that oral reading fluency matters much more when you are 7 than when you are 11, it still matters a lot.

Oral reading proficiency explains more than 80% of the variation in the reading comprehension of second-graders. What that means is that if you could make all 7-year-olds equal in oral reading fluency (recognizing equal numbers of words, reading with similar speed, pausing equally appropriately), then you would do away with 80% of the differences in comprehension.

Phony choice: If I had to choose — and I do not — I would spend more time on fluency instruction in second grade than on vocabulary instruction — because the learning payoff is bigger. The amount of reading comprehension variance explainable by oral fluency falls to about 25% by the time the average student is in eighth grade. To me that justifies fluency instruction, though I recognize the payoff is smaller. (What self-respecting secondary teacher wouldn’t gladly do away with 25% of the reading variation in their students?)

Phony choice (again): If I had to choose — and I still do not have to make such a choice in real classrooms—I would spend more time on vocabulary instruction in 7th grade than on fluency — because the learning payoff should be bigger.

What happens is that as children progress up the grades, more and more of them read at ceiling levels of fluency. Few third-graders can read 175 words correct per minute with proper pausing and prosody. But those numbers increase each year, meaning that more and more students have sufficient levels of fluency to allow them to accomplish the highest levels of comprehension. But, once those ceiling levels of fluency are reached, then to accomplish the highest levels of comprehension will require other kinds of gains (such as in vocabulary).

I would definitely include oral reading practice in my secondary classes — at least for any students not reading at about 150-175 words correct per minute (and, yes, it has to sound like English — none of this “read as fast as you can” baloney). That doesn’t mean that my students would do a lot of round robin turn taking. No, I’d follow the research: we’d engage in paired reading and echo reading with repetition and feedback. Our purpose would be to practice the reading of demanding texts (texts which the students can’t already read well), until we could read them at high levels of proficiency.

But just because I would provide students with that kind of practice, does not mean that I don’t understand the value of silent reading. I would also devote substantial class time to engaging students in the silent reading of texts that have rich content and language. I would engage students in discussions and debates about the content of those texts, and I would require that students write about the ideas in such texts (e.g., summarizing them, analyzing them, and synthesizing information from that and other texts).

Our responsibility is to make students effective readers. There are many things that go into that outcome: students need to develop rich vocabularies, they need to know how to parse sentences so that they can be interpreted well, they need to know how to operate on texts that they don’t understand just from reading, and they need to know how to reason and think about the kinds of information that they will meet in text.

Thus, when it comes to oral and silent reading, I’m unwilling to pick one over the other. It is a foolish choice that confuses outcomes and inputs. There is no question that our goal is to develop readers who can read a text with a depth of understanding. But practice, both oral and silent, contributes to the accomplishment of that goal so only a very foolish teacher would require one and not the other.


To learn more about teaching and assessing reading, writing and literacy, visit Dr. Shanahan's blog.


Excellent article. I've suspected that more time should be spent on fluency at lower grade levels than vocabulary - but didn't have the evidence to back up this personal theory of mine. It appears my intuition was correct and I will adjust instruction accordingly. I am trying to lift my practice by seamlessly integrating the "Big 5": phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

"Oral reading proficiency explains more than 80% of the variation in the reading comprehension of second-graders. What that means is that if you could make all 7-year-olds equal in oral reading fluency (recognizing equal numbers of words, reading with similar speed, pausing equally appropriately), then you would do away with 80% of the differences in comprehension."

Are you aware of any research or case studies related to this? As I read it, I infer that there is a correlation between oral reading fluency and comprehension, but see no indication that it is the case that oral reading fluency leads to comprehension. Meanwhile, it seems logical that comprehension would lead to oral reading fluency.

Hence, the only justification for reading aloud that I can gather from this article, is that it would be 80% accurate if used for assessment purposes.

I enjoyed reading your blog about oral or silent reading. I think that both are important but with secondary aged students, I think that oral reading is very important. It tells you what kids need to work on, how fluent they are, and if you are asking questions about what they are reading you are able to see who is comprehending what they are reading and who is focused on reading the words on the page and not understanding what they are reading.

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