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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.

Teaching Oral Reading Fluency to Older Students

December 6, 2021

Oh goodness, everybody’s least favorite topic (except maybe Tim Rasinski's). What I’m talking about is fluency instruction/practice for older students ... grades 4 and up, let’s say.

No one gets too bent out of shape if I talk about little kids working on their oral reading, but when those young’uns reach 9- or 10-years-old that presumably is baby stuff.

I get why that is.

First, the research on fluency instruction has focused heavily on two groups: kids in grades 1-4 and remedial readers in grades 1-12 (NICHD, 2001). I can’t tell a 6th grade teacher that there is research showing that if she devotes sufficient time to fluency her students will do better with reading comprehension. My own professional practice suggests that it can be powerful but that’s a different level of support.

Second, round robin reading has given oral reading a bad name. Most teachers have memories of hating round robin when they were kids, so being enlightened they avoid oral reading at much cost. Kids should be able to develop fluency from silent reading practice. Unfortunately, you can’t tell if kids are making progress unless you listen to them read and it is hard to intervene and help without that kind of monitoring. Practice can “make perfect” as the old saying claims but it often doesn’t. (Given this, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that research has found the amount of oral reading practice in high school is correlated with reading achievement gains more closely than the amount of in class silent reading practice (Stallings, 1980).

Third, older kids will often resist. One of my least favorite instructional activities (Popcorn) sometimes results in kids balking: “You can call on me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to read aloud to the class!”

Recently, I’ve astonished some teachers and district administrators by encouraging fluency teaching with older kids. They are getting a lot of pressure these days to emphasize phonics – yeah, phonics in regular high school English classes (which I think is lunatic) and they have no idea that oral reading fluency instruction has been found to improve kids’ word reading and decoding. Many of these kids have had a ton of phonics instruction and don’t know how to apply it. Fluency instruction began with the notion that such practice would enable the application of what the kids had already learned about letters, sounds, spelling patterns.

Don’t get me wrong. There definitely are a relatively small number of high school kids who would likely get some benefit from explicit phonics. That instruction, however, should be relegated to remedial reading or special education, not the English class. Likewise, the idea of English classes devoting some of their valuable minutes to morphological study – which can impact decoding – makes great sense, too. That should be a regular part of the vocabulary teaching that should be going on.

Nevertheless, fluency training can have a remarkable impact on kids’ reading comprehension in the upper grades – most likely by consolidating what those kids have already learned about decoding along the way.

Let me define and explain a few basic ideas about fluency and then the rest of this blog is aimed at providing instructional advice on fluency teaching with older students.

Fluency refers to the ability to read text accurately, with automaticity, and with proper expression (NICHD, 2001). 

Accuracy is about reading an author’s words. If you don’t do that, then miscomprehension may occur. Students must get into the habit of respecting authors. That means reading the words that the author put on the page, rather than replacing them with context-based guesses as to what may have been meant. Words matter and becoming an effective reader requires reading the author’s words; not substituting them with our own.

This word reading must be accomplished with automaticity. That means reading the words accurately without conscious attention. Automaticity is usually estimated by tracking reading speed. If a student reads text too slowly, comprehension deteriorates. Adult proficient readers read text aloud at about 166-178 words correct per minute (Baer, et al., 2009). Fourth graders who read at fewer than 100 words correct per minute tend to be “below basic” in reading comprehension. Reading so slowly makes it difficult to integrate information. By the time you get to the end of the sentence, you’ve likely lost the thread of the first part.

Proper expression is important because there are many aspects to translating text that are not on the page. Except for punctuation, authors do little to help readers to group words together, pause appropriately, or raise or lower pitch. If you don’t get those things right it can be difficult to understand.

Here are some activities that have been used successfully in upper elementary, middle, and high school.

Instructional activities aimed at building fluency

Paired Reading: Pair students up. Have them take turns reading the text to each other. One student read a page or paragraph and the other gives feedback. Then the students switch roles. During this activity, the teacher circulates throughout the room, giving feedback as needed. Link some comprehension work to this. At the end of each section of reading, have the students determine the main point(s) of that section or compose a good test question about that part of the material.

Repeated Reading: Students read aloud a portion of text (perhaps a 100-word chunk, or the first couple of paragraphs). The teacher or another student gives feedback, and the student tries it again. This repetition continues three times or until the student can read it with 99% accuracy, at more than 100 words per minute, and with expression that suggests successful comprehension (White, et al., 2021). This can be combined with paired reading. Repeated reading is especially valuable with content materials. Understanding such texts often requires this kind of intensive rereading anyway, so the rereading is appropriate.   

Pause, Prompt, Praise: Not all students are great fluency partners. PPP provides some support in this area. Partners and teachers are encouraged to give students some slack if a mistake is made. Let the student read to the end of the clause or sentence and see what they do.  Better readers try to fix the mistake. That’s the pause. But if a student can’t remedy the error (or doesn’t notice it), then provide a Prompt. If the mistake doesn’t make sense, then give some feedback about meaning.  If the word read doesn’t look or sound like the word in the book, then direct the student to look more closely. If the student can’t fix the error after one prompt, tell them what the word is. Finally, for anything done well, provide praise.

Recorded Readings: Students can make progress without much individual feedback. Consider having students record oral reading for homework. Have them read an assigned portion of text (no more than 5–10 minutes worth). To complete the assignment successfully, the students will likely need to practice prior to recording. Teacher can spot check these to check on performance. Again, it is a good idea to link to some comprehension tasks.

Chunking: Studies suggest that chunking can be helpful with older students. In this, the teacher initially provides text with phrasal boundaries marked. Students of all ability levels tend to get a boost from this material. After they have had some practice reading materials so marked, then give them unmarked texts and have them working in teams or individually to identify phrasal boundaries.

FAQs about fluency instruction

Do all high school students need work with fluency?

No, not all older students need fluency work.  Some students are particularly good at fluency. If students can read grade level text with a high degree of accuracy, speeds of about 150 wcpm, and with proper expression, then fluency instruction/practice is a time waster. As kids progress through the grades, the proportion who are sufficiently fluent increases. Fewer students should require fluency work as time goes on.

Our students are getting low test scores in reading comprehension. Why no focusing on rather than fluency?

Low comprehension scores can result from many things. One of those things is fluency. For those kids, improving fluency has a direct positive impact on their reading comprehension.

How much fluency teaching should we provide?

I recommend up to 30 minutes a day of fluency instruction.  But remember, this is across all classes.  If every middle school or high school class provided 10 minutes of fluency work once or twice a week, that should do the trick.

Isn’t oral reading embarrassing for struggling readers?

Fluency work is a kind of practice activity, not much different from Lebron James shooting free throws to get ready for a big game. Practice isn’t embarrassing, as long as everyone recognizes it as practice. Most students enjoy the fluency work as it is involving, and they can see their own improvement. Avoid situations like round robin, in which a student is supposed to perform before the group or the whole class. But having everyone or half the class reading aloud at the same time does not get the same push back that more performance-oriented tasks do.

How do I pair the kids?

Don’t make a big deal out of pairing up, as that can be a real time waster. One rule is to make sure that the students who are working together on a given day are using the same book. That’s easy to do in most classrooms. A second rule is don’t pair up the same kids all the time; kids differ in their ability to give feedback, so share the wealth.

Does fluency work make sense in a content classes like science or math?

Yes. It is important that students learn how to read those books well. If students are to become independent learners in algebra or chemistry, they must read those texts fluently.  Technical subjects require that students read texts intensively, rereading some parts again and again. Unfortunately, many high school students read this material once for gist only.  Fluency work can become a powerful way for teaching students how to understand these materials.

Paired reading, repeated reading, and the other recommended activities don’t look difficult, but how do I know that they’ll work?

Research on these techniques has found them to improve word reading, fluency, and reading comprehension. Whatever it is that students learn from fluency training with particular texts has been found to transfer to their performance with other texts.

References

Baer, J., Kutner, M., & Sabatini, J. (2009). Basic reading skills and the literacy of America’s least literate adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Stallings, J. A. (1980). Allocated academic learning time revisited, or beyond time on task. Educational Researcher 9 (11):11–16.

White, S., Sabatini, J., Park, B. J., Chen, J., Bernstein, J., and Li, M. (2021). The 2018 NAEP oral reading fluency study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

Selected comments

Comment from Andrew Biemiller

I'm interested in your discussion of children's oral reading in the upper elementary grades. Seems to me that there are at least two quite different functions for oral reading.

(1) Diagnostic oral reading — as you point out ◊ allows teachers to detect reading problems. Also — as you point out — when students can read "grade-level" texts at 150 wpm or more, further use of this diagnostic reading may no longer be needed.

(2) Performative oral reading — oral reading as might be done for an audience. A different kind of diagnostic reading — for showing a deeper understanding of a text. Note that teachers (and parents?) are advised to read a text to themselves prior to reading aloud to an audience. You really should have a good understanding of a text before reading it to an audience--reading with effective "feeling", emphasis, etc.

Performative oral reading may also be a good "consolidation" activity — in some cases reading for younger audiences. But it's quite a different instructional activity than diagnostic reading in a classroom.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Andie —

Both diagnostic and performative oral reading have a place in middle and high school. However, so does the pedagogical. Research has found that such practice improves reading comprehension (and at least with younger students and poor readers it has a positive impact on word reading ability). The point isn't to make kids great performative readers but to provide supported practice in reading text in which all the words are articulated (rather than skipped if they pose some kind of problem which can be the case with silent reading). S.J. Samuels also emphasized the importance of repetition in such practice -- improving performance with a particular text with the idea that what is being learned will generalize to other text.

Thanks.

Comment from Anne Rowell

I teach 4/5 and I used to have a schedule to meet with students as they practiced their fluency passages. I notice huge gains, but — exhausting. Hard to get to everyone. Then COVID hit. We started using Classkick (I am sure there are other options) — and it was miraculous. I recorded their passage so they could listen first, then they read and recorded it, then they listened to themselves and commented. That gave me time to listen to everyone when I was free, and I could leave a comment and a goal back. Repeat! Also — just read, “Know Better, Do Better,” and that helped me tweak it even more. The kids really enjoy it!

Comment from Shamyra

This is a great encouragement to teachers who are currently doing fluency practice. I work with students with dyslexia; would fluency practice be as beneficial for these students if they are in the early beginnings of receiving explicit phonics instruction?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Shamyra —

The honest answer to your question is, I don't know. I know of no research done with kids early in the phonics sequence. Theoretically, such fluency training would NOT be expected to have much payoff. I think one of the reasons that fluency training has a positive influence on decoding ability is that it gives kids practice applying their phonics (in fact, that was why Carol Chomsky first proposed this kind of teaching back in the 1970s-- it was to help the kids with phonics knowledge to learn to use that knowledge when reading text).

Fluency work MIGHT help kids early in the phonics learning process, but not necessarily (or not in the same way that it does later).

Thanks.

Comment from Tim Rasinski

Tim — Very good blog. Juding from the comments I (and you also) am not the only folks interested in fluency.

In a perfect world fluency should not be a concern at the middle and secondary levels — however, as you point out, it definitely is for many older students. Our own work (with David Paige) has shown that a significant and substantial number of secondary students who are identified as struggling in reading in general exhibit difficulties in fluency. You are spot one when you suggest it is something that middle and secondary teachers need to be aware of.

I appreciate also your (and Andy's) distinction betwee diagnostic, performative, and pedagogical oral reading. Again, our own work, especially by Chase Young, on performative reading (e.g. readers theater, poetry) has found that it can can be used pedagogically — demonstrating not improvements in oral reading fluency, but also in comprehension.

I just posted a paper on my own blog - www.timrasinski.com by Paula Williams, a psychologist in the UK, who found that pedagogial fluency instruction resulted in improvements in word recognition accuracy, rate (automaticity), and comprehension when compared with students not receiving such instruction.

Thanks for keeping the spotlight on reading fluency! I appreciate all you do to inform all of us with you timely blog.

Comment from Laurie

What are your thoughts about having English Language students listen to a three or four paragraph text that they are working on in their native language as part of a fluency/comprehension lesson sequence which they are working on in English?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Laurie —

What a complicated question. I know of no research on that but as someone who is learning a foreign language I can tell you that plan would not help me at all. I can read reasonably well in French, but hearing the language is a real problem for me (even worse than speaking it). If you have an English learner who is still struggling to hear the language, I doubt that would help.

If the kids are further along with English, then what you are suggesting could be beneficial, but again will depend greatly on proficiency. Many ELs and first language English users, struggle with decoding. In such cases, that kind of oral model can be useful, but a sentence at a time (3-4 paragraphs would overwhelm memory and make the model useless). The oral rendition of a sentence is not usually enough to give kids perfect memory for the sentence, but that information along with the print can allow kids to recognize the words sufficiently well and then through rereading to get better at that.

If the kids are further along than that, some oral modeling can be useful but don't over do that ... especially if the kids are much better with oral language than reading (in such cases, they start to ignore the text/reading and just rely on the information provided in the model).

Thanks.

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