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Fluency: An Introduction

By: Partnership for Reading
Fluency develops gradually over time and through practice. At the earliest stage of reading development, students' oral reading is slow and labored because students are just learning to "break the code" – to attach sounds to letters and to blend letter sounds into recognizable words.

Even when students recognize many words automatically, their oral reading still may be expressionless, not fluent. To read with expression, readers must be able to divide the text into meaningful chunks. Readers must know to pause appropriately within and at the ends of sentences and when to change emphasis and tone. For example, a reader who lacks fluency may read, probably in a monotone, a line from Bill Martin Jr's Brown Bear, Brown Bear as if it were a list of words rather than a connected text, pausing at inappropriate places:

Brown/
bear brown/
bear what/
do/
you see.

A fluent reader will read the same line as:

Brown bear/
Brown bear/
What do you see?/

The difference between fluency and automaticity

Although they terms automaticity and fluency often are used interchangeably, they are not the same thing.

Automaticity is the fast, effortless word recognition that comes with a great deal of reading practice. In the early stages of learning to read, readers may be accurate but slow and inefficient at recognizing words. Continued reading practice helps word recognition become more automatic, rapid, and effortless.

Automaticity refers only to accurate, speedy word recognition, not to reading with expression. Therefore, automaticity (or automatic word recognition) is necessary, but not sufficient, for fluency.

Fluency instruction

Fluency is not a stage of development at which readers can read all words quickly and easily. Fluency changes, depending on what readers are reading, their familiarity with the words, and the amount of their practice with reading text. Even very skilled readers may read in a slow, labored manner when reading texts with many unfamiliar words or topics. For example, readers who are usually fluent may not be able to read technical material fluently, such as a textbook about nuclear physics or an article in a medical journal.

It is important to note that fluency instruction should be with a text that a student can read at their independent level. It is at this level where students are able to practice on speed and expression rather than decoding. The chart below describes each reading level:

Independent Level Relatively easy for the student to read (95% word accuracy).
Instructional Level Challenging but manageable for the reader (90% word accuracy).
Frustration Level Difficult text for the student to read (less than 90% word accuracy).

In an effort to help teachers gain knowledge on fluency instruction, researchers have investigated two major instructional approaches related to fluency. In the first approach, repeated and monitored oral reading (commonly called "repeated reading"), students read passages aloud several times and receive guidance and feedback from the teacher. In the second approach, independent silent reading, students are encouraged to read extensively on their own.

Repeated and monitored oral reading

Repeated and monitored oral reading improves reading fluency and overall reading achievement.

Students who read and reread passages orally as they receive guidance and/or feedback become better readers. Repeated oral reading substantially improves word recognition, speed, and accuracy as well as fluency. To a lesser but still considerable extent, repeated oral reading also improves reading comprehension. Repeated oral reading improves the reading ability of all students throughout the elementary school years. It also helps struggling readers at higher grade levels.

Traditionally, many teachers have relied primarily on round-robin reading to develop oral fluency. In round-robin reading, students take turns reading parts of a text aloud (though usually not repeatedly). But round-robin reading in itself does not increase fluency. This may be because students only read small amounts of text, and they usually read this small portion only once.

Researchers have found several effective techniques related to repeated oral reading:

  • students read and reread a text a certain number of times or until a certain level of fluency is reached. Four re-readings are sufficient for most students.
  • oral reading practice is increased through the use of audiotapes, tutors, peer guidance, or other means.

In addition, some effective repeated oral reading techniques have carefully designed feedback to guide the reader's performance.

Silent, independent reading

No research evidence is available currently to confirm that instructional time spent on silent, independent reading with minimal guidance and feedback improves reading fluency and overall reading achievement.

One of the major differences between good and poor readers is the amount of time they spend reading. Many studies have found a strong relationship between reading ability and how much a student reads. On the basis of this evidence, teachers have long been encouraged to promote voluntary reading in the classroom. Teacher-education and reading-education literature often recommends in-class procedures for encouraging students to read on their own, such as Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR).

Research, however, has not yet confirmed whether independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback improves reading achievement and fluency. The research suggests that direct instruction in reading is the best predictor of reading achievement. However, it is important for students to be given time to apply their reading skills through silent reading with a book at their independent level (read with 95% word accuracy).

Partnership for Reading (2001)

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Comments

I found the info in this post helpful in understanding how children become fluent at reading. It's important for me as a children's author to write books that help children with the necessary skills. My two books, Tired of School and Tired of My Bath accomplish this through rhythm and rhyme.

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