Fluency develops gradually over time and with practice. Early in reading development, 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, they may not yet be reading with appropriate expression. To read with expression, readers must be able to break the text into meaningful chunks.
For this reason, fluency requires strong language comprehension skills. Young 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:
A fluent reader will read the same line as:
What do you see?/
The difference between fluency and automaticity
Although the 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 passages or connected text with ease and good expression. Therefore, automaticity (or automatic word recognition) is necessary, but not sufficient, for fluency. Language comprehension is also important for fluency development. For example, students might read passages with excellent word accuracy, yet might still read very slowly or without expression, because they cannot understand what they are reading.
Slow reading can sometimes be an adaptive strategy on the student’s part; a student may deliberately read slowly in order to try to improve comprehension. If this is the case, we probably do not want to push the student to read faster! Therefore, when assessing students with fluency difficulties, we should consider the possible role of language comprehension difficulties as well as poor or nonautomatic decoding.
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.
Fluency will vary based on what kind of text is being read, how familiar the student is with the vocabulary, and how much practice they’ve had in reading aloud.
Fluency rate (speed) is less important than accuracy and ease of reading. When students are being timed, they may believe that speed is the goal. The fluency rate that we should measure is the speed at which the student is reading accurately and with reasonable expression. Sometimes that means slowing kids down in order to read the big and little words accurately!
That is why fluency instruction should be done with a text that is not too difficult for a student. If a student is still struggling to decode many words in a text accurately, it will be difficult for him or her to build fluency in that text. Texts at either an instructional or independent level, not a frustration level, will usually be most appropriate for fluency practice.
- Independent Level: Relatively easy for the student to read (at least 95% word accuracy).
- Instructional Level: Challenging but manageable for the reader with the help of a teacher (90% to 94% word accuracy).
- Frustrational Level: Difficult text for the student to read even with the help of a teacher (less than 90% word accuracy).
In an effort to help teachers gain knowledge of 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.
Guided and repeated oral reading
Repeated and monitored oral reading improves reading fluency and overall reading achievement, as does guided oral reading with appropriate teacher feedback. In guided oral reading, a student reads an instructional level text aloud to a teacher, with the teacher providing cues to decoding errors — for example, pointing to the part of a word that the student read incorrectly, or drawing the child’s attention to a letter pattern within a word. (e.g., “What sound does igh make?”) Cues focus the child’s attention on applying their phonics skills, not guessing at words based on pictures or sentence context. When a troublesome word has been successfully decoded, it is helpful to have the child re-read the sentence to establish fluency and comprehension.
Repeated oral reading of familiar texts can substantially improve reading fluency in typical elementary students as well as struggling readers at higher grade levels, and it can improve reading comprehension as well.
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 audio recordings, tutors, peer guidance, or other means.
Silent, independent reading
One of the major differences between good and poor readers is the amount of time they spend reading independently. Many studies have found a strong relationship between reading ability and how much a student reads for pleasure. On the basis of this evidence, we 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 (D.E.A.R.).
However, currently there is little evidence to support allocating large amounts of valuable classroom instructional time to having all children read independently (see Isn’t Independent Reading a Research-Based Practice? ). This time may be especially problematic for the weaker readers in a class, who may not read well enough to read independently. Using classroom reading time for direct instruction in reading is therefore more likely to be beneficial for children. Learn more in this article by fluency expert Jan Hasbrouck: For Students Who Are Not Yet Fluent, Silent Reading Is Not the Best Use of Classroom Time .
Nevertheless, we still can and should try to promote children’s choice of reading as a free time activity in school (e.g., after they complete assignments), or for pleasure reading at home. Assigning independent reading for homework, in order to help children build fluency, is also helpful. If independent reading is assigned as homework, we should monitor children’s reading choices to ensure that they are at the appropriate level of difficulty for the individual student. Struggling readers will often pick books that are too difficult for them in order to “save face” or because books at their level are not available.
Helping children find books at the right level, on topics of interest to them, is very important. Even young children can be helped to understand the “Goldilocks” principle, that in order to learn well, material has to be at the right level of difficulty – not too easy, not too hard. With continued practice and effort, the book that is too hard right now will not be too hard in the future.
Samuels, S. (2006). Reading fluency: Its past, present, and future. In T. Rasinksi, C. Blachowicz, & K. Lems (Eds.), Fluency instruction: Research-based best practices (pp. 7–20). New York, Guillford Press.
Mastering ‘silent e’ and becoming more fluent with Michael, third grader
In this video, reading expert Linda Farrell helps Michael master the ‘silent e’ pattern to help him become a more accurate and ultimately more fluid reader. She begins with making sure that Michael can distinguish between short and long vowel sounds in spoken words, then teaches him a multi-sensory way to recognize the short vowel and ‘silent e’ long vowel patterns in written words. See more videos here: Looking at Reading Interventions.