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What are the most appropriate types of texts to use for fluency practice both for young new readers and even older, struggling readers?

With beginning readers what we strive for in “fluency” is different than what we usually think about when speak about fluency (e.g., accuracy, speed, prosody). For beginning readers we are interested in accuracy, but speed is not a goal at all, and if anything we aim at “anti-prosodic reading”. In other words, we want to hear choppy reading.

At first, students are just trying to figure out how reading works … how the words they speak match up with the words that are printed on the page, how the spaces between words work, the differences between syllables and words, etc.

Because of that we initially want to stress things like “finger point reading” in which children try to figure out which words to point to during reading — engaging in choral reading, memorizing texts and trying to “read” them aloud, etc.

At this point, pretty much all texts will be beyond the youngsters’ reading levels, since basically these children aren’t actually reading yet in any conventional sense. It really doesn’t matter which texts are used for this in terms of the language level, readability, or spelling patterns, though it is obviously helpful to have sufficiently large print, decent amounts of spacing between words, sentences, lines, and a scheme that presents entire sentences on single lines initially, but eventually breaks sentences across lines.

Most important at this stage is to have texts that are easy to remember or follow. Texts that are predictable (Brown Bear, Brown Bear), or easy to memorize (Happy Birthday) are particularly useful, because they allow kids to figure out how reading works.

What you are really trying to accomplish with these kinds of text is a kind of choppy reading, in which students “read” each word, word-by-word.

But once kids can consistently point to the correct words in the manner described above, then fluency morphs into the concept we usually think about, and text choices become even more important. (Some children accomplish this choppy in kindergarten, but it is probably more characteristic of early first-grade year.)

Joe Torgesen has shown that struggling readers (and probably beginning readers at this choppy reading point) tend to learn words from fluency practice. His research finding matches well with the National Reading Panel findings that fluency practice has a big impact on word reading/decoding outcomes. Thus, it would make sense to focus on texts that contain words that are a bit beyond the students’ reading levels, that include both high frequency words that we hope the students will master and spelling patterns that we are trying to teach.

Since primary grade readers are likely to learn words from fluency practice, then make sure the texts include words that you want students to learn. And, it can be beneficial for those words to be repeated throughout the texts.

Similarly, since these beginners are likely to pick up decoding insights from this oral reading practice, it makes sense to make sure that the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relationships that we want to teach are apparent in these words (being used repeatedly throughout the texts).

Generally, the texts used for fluency should be at levels that we would traditionally label as frustration level. The students will figure out these texts from the feedback and repetition (such repetition isn’t worth the time if the texts are too easy for the students).

I know it is popular to use poetry for fluency practice and that can be fun. However, the point of fluency training is to help students to read the kinds of materials that they will usually be trying to read. Given that, I would occasionally use poetry and songs for fluency work, but more typically I would use prose texts, consistent with what I want them to learn to comprehend.


About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
September 23, 2015

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