What every teacher should know
Reading 101: A Guide to Teaching Reading and Writing
Fluency: In Practice
Learn how to find your students' fluency score, guidelines for instruction, strategies to improve fluency, assessment, intervention, and more.
How do I find my students’ fluency score?
One-minute reading: Total words read (minus) errors made = words correct per minute.
- Select a 100-word passage from a grade-level text.
- Have individual students read each passage aloud for exactly one minute.
- Count the total number of words the student read for each passage.
- Count the number of errors the student made on each passage.
- Subtract the number of errors read per minute from the total number of words read per minute. The result is the average number of words correct per minute (WCPM).
- Repeat the procedure several times during the year. Graphing students' WCPM throughout the year easily captures their reading growth.
How many words per minute should my students be reading?
- First grade: 60 words (read correctly by the end of the year)*
- Second grade: 100 words (read correctly by the end of the year)*
- Third grade: 112 words (read correctly by the end of the year)*
* 50th percentile
Guidelines for instruction
Good fluency instruction:
- Provides children with opportunities to read and reread a range of stories and informational texts by reading on their own, partner reading, or choral reading.
- Introduces new or difficult words to children, and provides practice reading these words before they read on their own.
- Includes opportunities for children to hear a range of texts read fluently and with expression.
- Encourages periodically timing a child's oral reading and then recording information about the student's reading rate and accuracy, to help monitor the student's progress.
Model fluent reading, then have students reread the text on their own
By listening to good models of fluent reading, students learn how a reader's voice can help written text make sense. Read aloud daily to your students. By reading effortlessly and with expression, we are modeling for our students how a fluent reader sounds during reading.
After you model how to read the text, you must have the students reread it. By doing this, the students are engaging in repeated reading. Usually, having students read a text four times is sufficient to improve fluency. Remember, however, that instructional time is limited, and it is the actual time that students are actively engaged in reading that produces reading gains.
Have other adults read aloud to students. Encourage parents or other family members to read aloud to their children at home. The more models of fluent reading the children hear, the better. Of course, hearing a model of fluent reading is not the only benefit of reading aloud to children. Reading to children also increases their knowledge of the world, their vocabulary, their familiarity with written language, and their interest in reading.
Have students repeatedly read passages aloud with guidance
The best strategy for developing reading fluency is to provide our students with many opportunities to read the same passage orally several times. To do this, we should first know what to have our students read.
What students should read
Fluency develops as a result of many opportunities to practice reading with a high degree of success. Therefore, our students should practice rereading aloud texts that are reasonably easy for them – that is, texts containing mostly words that they know or can decode easily. In other words, the texts should be at the students' instructional or independent reading level.
The text our students practice rereading orally should also be relatively short — probably 50-200 words, depending on the age of the students. You should also use a variety of reading materials, including stories, nonfiction, plays, and poetry. Poetry is especially well suited to fluency practice because poems for children are often short and they contain rhythm, rhyme, and meaning, making practice easy, fun, and rewarding.
Video: Reading Multisyllable Words with Xavier, Third Grader
In this video, reading expert Linda Farrell gives Xavier a strategy for reading multisyllable words — and lots of practice to master the skill. See more videos here: Looking at Reading Interventions.
Activities to increase fluency
There are several ways that our students can practice orally rereading text, including student–adult reading, choral (or unison) reading, audio-assisted reading, partner reading, and readers' theatre.
In student–adult reading, the student reads one-on-one with an adult. The adult can be you, a parent, a classroom aide, or a tutor. The adult reads the text first, providing the students with a model of fluent reading. Then the student reads the same passage to the adult with the adult providing assistance and encouragement. The student rereads the passage until the reading is quite fluent. This should take approximately three to four re-readings. Re-readings may occur across multiple instructional sessions or days.
In choral, or unison, reading, students read along as a group with you (or another fluent adult reader). Of course, to do so, students must be able to see the same text that you are reading. They might follow along as you read from a big book, or they might read from their own copy of the book you are reading. For choral reading, choose a book that is not too long and that you think is at the independent reading level of most students. Patterned or predictable books are particularly useful for choral reading, because their repetitious style invites students to join in. Begin by reading the book aloud as you model fluent reading.
Then reread the book and invite students to join in as they recognize the words you are reading. Continue rereading the book, encouraging students to read along as they are able. Students should read the book with you three to five times total (though not necessarily on the same day). At this time, students should be able to read the text independently.
You might also try a variation called Echo Reading, where you read a section of the text aloud and then invite the students to repeat the passage.
In audio-assisted reading, students read along in their books as they hear a fluent reader read the book on an audio recording. You'll need a book at a student's independent reading level and a tape recording of the book read by a fluent reader at about 80-100 words per minute. The recording should not have sound effects or music. For the first reading, the student should follow along with the recording, pointing to each word in her or his book as the reader reads it. Next, the student should try to read aloud along with the audio. Reading along with the audio should continue until the student is able to read the book independently, without the support of the recording.
In partner reading, paired students take turns reading aloud to each other. For partner reading, more fluent readers can be paired with less fluent readers. The stronger reader reads a paragraph or page first, providing a model of fluent reading. Then the less fluent reader reads the same text aloud. The stronger student gives help with word recognition and provides feedback and encouragement to the less fluent partner. The less fluent partner rereads the passage until he or she can read it independently. Partner reading need not be done with a more and less fluent reader. In another form of partner reading, children who read at the same level are paired to reread a story that they have received instruction on during a teacher-guided part of the lesson. Two readers of equal ability can practice rereading after hearing the teacher read the passage.
In readers' theatre, students rehearse and perform a play for peers or others. They read from scripts that have been derived from books that are rich in dialogue. Students play characters who speak lines or a narrator who shares necessary background information. Costumes, props, and other aspects of performing a play do not necessarily have to be used. The point of readers' theatre is to provide children with a legitimate reason to reread text and to practice fluency. Readers' theatre also promotes cooperative interaction with peers and makes the reading task appealing.
Several variants of reader’s theatre can also be useful. For example, in radio reading, children record their reading with sound effects, like an old-time radio show. In another variant, children perform a text for younger children. This variant can be especially useful for struggling readers. For example, a fourth-grade poor reader may still read much better than a typical first grader and may be able to read books at that level quite fluently to a younger child. The ability to read well to a younger student provides an opportunity for the older child to “shine” and may be very motivating.
What should I do about silent, independent reading in the classroom?
Reading fluency growth is greatest when students are working directly with you. Therefore, we should use most of our allocated reading instruction time for direct teaching of reading skills and strategies. Promoting silent, independent reading outside of school or as a free-time activity is also valuable, but this should not replace direct instruction in reading in school.
Direct instruction is especially important for readers who are struggling. Readers who have not yet attained fluency are not likely to make effective and efficient use of silent, independent reading time. For these students, independent reading takes time away from needed reading instruction
When should fluency instruction begin?
Fluency instruction is useful when students are not yet automatic at recognizing the words in the texts, but have a reasonable degree of accuracy in reading the words. All beginning readers need opportunities to develop fluency, especially from the second half of Grade 1 through about Grade 3, prime years for fluency development in typical readers. However, these opportunities will not be sufficient for some students, who will require additional intervention in the area of fluency. How can you tell when students may need fluency intervention? There is a strong indication that a student needs fluency intervention:
- If you ask the student to read orally from a grade-appropriate text that he or she has not practiced, and the student’s reading is notably slow or labored;
- If the student cannot read orally in grade-appropriate text with good expression (prosody);
- If the student makes many self-corrections of words (it’s good when children can self-correct errors, but frequent self-corrections indicate a lack of automaticity in word reading and poor fluency in text reading); or
- If the student cannot meet oral reading fluency benchmarks when reading at his or her instructional level (e.g. a third grader who reads instructionally at a Grade 2 level should be able to meet Grade 2, not necessarily Grade 3, fluency benchmarks; see Carnine et al., 2004).
Is increasing word recognition skills sufficient for developing fluency?
Accurate word recognition is a necessary but not sufficient condition for fluent reading. Throughout much of the twentieth century, it was widely assumed that fluency was the result of word recognition proficiency. Instruction, therefore, focused primarily on the development of word recognition. In recent years, however, research has shown that fluency is a separate component of reading that can be developed through instruction.
Having students review and rehearse word lists (for example, by using flash cards) may improve their ability to recognize the words in isolation, but this ability may not transfer to words presented in actual texts. Developing reading fluency in texts must be developed systematically.
Barriers to fluency
When students can read (decode) words accurately and the words are part of their vocabulary, then most students will be able to read fluently given sufficient opportunities for practice. However, some students’ fluency difficulties involve factors other than problems in word reading. There are several possible reasons for these students’ fluency difficulties:
- Receptive language weaknesses. Examples of these are autism spectrum disorder and receptive language disorder (aphasia). Assessment and intervention for this requires specialized training.
- Low vocabulary and limited background knowledge
- Executive functioning issues (including processing speed and ADHD)
We can support students with low vocabulary and limited background knowledge by pre-teaching key vocabulary words and background knowledge before reading. To build relevant background knowledge, read stories aloud, show pictures and videos, and bring examples into the classroom. During background knowledge development, interweave explicit vocabulary instruction [see Vocabulary module: In Practice].
For example, when teaching a unit on insects, show pictures of different insects. Lead the class through labeling the animal’s body parts. This will likely include the word ‘antenna’. Teach explicit instruction in the word ‘antenna.’ Read aloud short passages about insects and lead discussions that require students to use the word ‘antenna’ orally. These activities precede reading about insects.
Comprehension, the construction of meaning from text, also requires strong executive functioning. That is, it requires the ability to attend, infer, visualize, reason, distinguish, organize, synthesize, and hold all that in working memory during the actual process of reading. Good executive function also helps students recognize what is important and what is not important in a text. Students with poor executive function may have difficulty with reading comprehension because they fail to recognize key points or are overwhelmed by unimportant details. Reading fluency may suffer because of the student’s inability to understand what he or she is reading.
Students with these kinds of difficulties should not be pushed to read faster, because doing so may further impair comprehension. Developing underlying comprehension abilities – such as vocabulary, background knowledge, and the ability to recognize key points – will likely be more beneficial to these students’ fluency development (as well as their overall reading development). Prosodic approaches to reading fluency that emphasize expressiveness of oral reading rather than rate of reading (e.g., readers’ theatre) may also be especially useful for these students.
Feifer, S. (2007). Know how executive function skills affect reading comprehension. Today’s School Psychologist, July 8.
Kaufman, C. (2010). Executive function in the classroom: Practical strategies for improving performance and enhancing skills for all students. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.
Should I assess fluency? If so, how?
We should formally and informally assess fluency regularly to ensure that our students are making appropriate progress. The most informal assessment is simply listening to students read aloud and making a judgment about their progress in fluency. You should, however, also include more formal measures of fluency. The DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency is a widely used assessment for students in grades 1-8.
Probably the easiest way to formally assess fluency is to take timed samples of students' reading and to compare their performance (number of words read correctly per minute) with published oral reading fluency norms or standards, such as the widely referenced Hasbrouck & Tindal fluency norms (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2017). In these timed assessments, students should be told to do their best reading (as opposed to being told to read fast).
Monitoring our students' progress in reading fluency will help us determine the effectiveness of our instruction and set instructional goals. Also, seeing their fluency growth reflected in the graphs we keep can motivate students.
Adapted from: Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read Kindergarten Through Grade 3, a publication of The Partnership for Reading.
Carnine, D. W., Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E. J., & Tarver, S. G. (2004). Direct instruction reading (4th edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Chard, D. J., Vaughn, S., & Tyler, B .J. (2002). A synthesis of research on effective interventions for building reading fluency with elementary students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35, 386-406.
Hasbrouck, J., & Tindal, G. (2006). Oral reading fluency norms: A valuable assessment tool for reading teachers. The Reading Teacher, 59, 636-644.
O’Connor, R.E., White, A., & Swanson, H.L. (2007). Repeated reading versus continuous reading: Influences on reading fluency and comprehension. Exceptional Children, 74, 31-46.
Stahl, S. A. (2004). What do we know about fluency? Findings of the National Reading Panel. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 187-211). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.
Video: Choral Reading
Choral reading is reading aloud in unison with a whole class or group of students. Choral reading helps build students' fluency, self-confidence, and motivation.