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Teacher question

Our school is trying to follow the science of reading. We are teaching phonemic awareness and phonics in Grades K-2 and assessing student progress in those skills throughout those grade levels. However, we don’t begin to assess or teach fluency until mid-first grade. Are we doing it right?

Shanahan’s response

I think it’s okay to neglect fluency instruction until later in first grade, at least with most students. However, I suspect that you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to teach your students to read disfluently. I hope I can convince you to devote some of your instructional time to developing the kind of disfluency that research has identified as having an important role in early reading development. Once kids are sufficiently disfluent, it would be an appropriate time to start up the fluency teaching. (I’ve come to think of this work as the “roots of fluency.”

First, let’s think about fluency instruction and why it matters.

The earliest explanation of fluency teaching that I ever encountered was written by Carol Chomsky (1978). Her concerns were with third graders who knew their phonics skills, but who were low in reading achievement. She focused on the idea of teaching these students to implement their decoding skills with text by having the kids read and reread the text.

And, it worked.

Research (National Reading Panel, 2000) has shown that various approaches to having students read and reread text aloud help students to read more proficiently (usually as measured by reading comprehension tests). But as you point out, the research record on such instruction doesn’t begin until later in Grade 1.

This kind of practice both helps kids to learn some of the words (Rashotte & Torgeson, 1985), and to apply and integrate the decoding skills that enable one to read and comprehend text.

However, there is another body of research.

It focuses on something called fingerpoint reading.

This refers to children’s ability to match or synchronize spoken words to written words in text.

Let’s say a group of kindergartners have memorized, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The teacher then provides them with a written version.

            Mary had a little lamb,

            Its fleece were white as snow.

            And everywhere that Mary went

            The lamb was sure to go.

She wants the children to recite the memorized poem and to point to each word as they say them.

Some children say, “Mary,” and point to the letter ‘M”. They then say “had” and point at the “a.” Others say, “Ma-ry” and point to “Mary” and “had” in turn, as they say each syllable.

Of course, the goal is for kids to match the oral words to the written words — pointing 5 times in that first line, not 18 times (the letters), or 7 times (the syllables), or 4 times (ignoring the little words). To do that, students must know the purpose of those spaces between words, the sound-symbol correspondences of those first letters, some simple words (e.g., had a), and recognize that some words are multisyllabic (Mesmer & Lake, 2010). Students must know those things and be able to coordinate them successfully.

The research shows just that (Uhry, 1999; Uhry, 2002). Fingerpoint reading — like text reading fluency — requires the application and integration of multiple skills, in this case, knowledge of the alphabet, a degree of phonemic awareness, some understanding of syllabication, insights about the spaces between words in print, and so on.

“Pure letter name or sound instruction does not readily transfer to reading and spelling without instruction and practice in using alphabet knowledge for these purposes” (Piasta & Wagner, 2010, p. 494). Thus, engaging students in activities that facilitate fingerpoint reading may serve as an important bridge or scaffold for phonemic awareness development (Morris, Bloodgood, Perney, 2003; Morris, Bloodgood, Lomax, & Perney, 2003), or may mark the beginnings of moving children from print into meaning (Ehri & Sweet, 1991).

I believe that engaging kids in fingerpoint reading — and activities the teaching that supports it — can be worthwhile.

However, that means encouraging kids to read — initially — in a somewhat choppy, word-for-word way. When young kids pretend to read, they can often make the text sound like language, fluently telling the story. But such reading, rarely entails much attention to the actual words on the page. Fingerpoint reading requires that students learn to coordinate those skills and pay attention to the print, rather than the pictures.

I have one caution here. Although there are several studies that have shown that an understanding of the concept of word (Bowling & Cabell, 2019; Flanigan, K. (2007; Roberts, 1992) and the ability to point to words during reading are skills that fit well statistically into early reading development models, there are no studies showing that if you engage kids in such activities or try to facilitate kids learning of these particular skills that they necessarily will do better in learning to read. There are good reasons to think that would be the case (and personal experience tells me that it would be), but as of yet there is no direct experimental evidence.

As regular readers of this blog know, I usually limit my recommendations to actions that instructional research has shown to improve reading achievement. Some of you might choose to ignore my advice on this one for that reason (and that, to my way of thinking, is quite reasonable). However, the existing correlational and descriptive data, the judgment of colleagues who tend to be right about such things, my own teaching judgments and observations, and the fact that the kinds of activities that it takes to enable kids to fingerpoint properly are generally beneficial to phonemic sensitivity and decoding ability have convinced me that this is a reasonably good bet.

How do you teach kids to read disfluently initially?

First, make sure you are successfully teaching its component skills — it is hard to apply and coordinate skills that you don’t possess. Teach the ABCs, teach the letter sounds and beginning decoding, teach phonemic awareness, teach some of those simple high-frequency words, make sure your students can perceive syllables, and encourage them to memorize poems, nursery rhymes, and songs.

Then, involve students in tasks that require them to think about the words in texts. Many parents and teachers point to the words when they are doing book sharing with children. These kinds of read alouds can draw kids’ attention to print and may give them an initial sense that the words are separable.

Another, possibility is to have students dictate language experience stories, transcribe these, and engage the students in “reading” them. This kind of reading is more like remembering, since the text is a transcription of the students’ own words, but it creates a great opportunity for matching words to text.

You can also engage in the Mary’s-Little-Lamb task described above to explain what you want kids to do. Memorizing poems and songs are helpful language activities, and this work can then offer useful contexts for trying to match fingerpointing to pronunciations.

Encourage young students to write — to write stories or retell events in their lives, to label pictures, to make signs, and so on. Encourage them to spell words the way they think they are spelled and support their attempts to use the letters and sounds. This kind of activity bolsters phonemic awareness and phonics and requires students to contemplate where words begin and end.

Involve students in sentence building with word cards. As children, learn words (both from memorization and decodable texts), they should be able to assemble sentences – emphasizing the idea that sentences are made of separable words.

Those kinds of activities should facilitate your students figuring out how words work in text. That should enable the kids to recite text while pointing to the proper words. That will sound pretty choppy, but it is an important milestone. When your students can do that kind of word-by-word “reading,” successfully pointing to each word as they recite or remember, then you can start to think about addressing text reading fluency — building up accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. For most kids, that will likely be sometime during first semester of grade one.


Bowling, E. C. C., & Cabell, S. Q. (2019). Developing readers: Understanding concept of word in text development in emergent readers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 47(2), 143-151. doi:

Chomsky, C. (1978). When you still can’t read in third grade: After decoding, what? In S. J. Samuels (Ed.), What research has to say about reading instruction (pp. 13-30). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ehri, L. C., & Sweet, J. (1991). Fingerpoint-reading of memorized text: What enables beginners to process the print? Reading Research Quarterly, 26(4), 442-462. doi:

Flanigan, K. (2007). A concept of word in text: A pivotal event in early reading acquisition. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(1), 37-70.

Mesmer, H. A. E., & Lake, K. (2010). The role of syllable awareness and syllable-controlled text in the development of finger-point reading. Reading Psychology, 31(2), 176-201. doi:

Morris, D., Bloodgood, J., & Perney, J. (2003). Kindergarten predictors of first- and second-grade reading achievement. Elementary School Journal, 104(2), 93-109. doi:

Morris, D., Bloodgood, J. W., Lomax, R. G., & Perney, J. (2003). Developmental steps in learning to read: A longitudinal study in kindergarten and first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(3), 302-328. doi:

Rashotte, C., & Torgesen, J. K. (1985). Repeated reading and reading fluency in learning disabled children. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 180-188.

Roberts, B. (1992). The evolution of the young child’s concept of word as a unit of spoken and written language. Reading Research Quarterly, 27(2), 124-138. doi:

Uhry, J. K. (1999). Invented spelling in kindergarten: The relationship with finger-point reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 11(5-6), 441-464. doi:

Uhry, J. K. (2002). Finger-point reading in kindergarten: The role of phonemic awareness, one-to-one correspondence, and rapid serial naming. Scientific Studies of Reading, 6(4), 319-342. doi:

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
May 20, 2023