Reading fluency is the ability to rapidly recognise (i.e., quickly and accurately read) a sufficiently large number of words so that mental energy can be focused on comprehending text rather than on the decoding process.
To become a fluent reader requires proficiency at several levels:
- The ability to rapidly recognise the pronunciation of a large number of graphemes (letters and letter combinations representing different sounds).
- The ability to rapidly recognise common letter strings including prefixes, suffixes and root words.
- The ability to rapidly recognise a large number of written words.
- The ability to rapidly read a string of words (i.e., sentences) and groups of sentences (i.e., paragraphs).
- The ability to fluently read and maintain attention while reading a large volume of text (e.g., chapters, short stories, books).
It is more effective if the teaching of each of these elements are interlinked.
- First students need to be able to quickly recognise a grapheme (e.g., ea).
- Then, this knowledge need to be applied to recognising that grapheme within a string of letters (e.g., eat, eam, east, ead).
- The development of automatic vocabulary recognition should be done in the context of the grapheme being learned (e.g., meat, clean, cheat). This learning process should begin with the student decoding the word and then practising the word sufficiently so that the words can be automatically and accurately recognised. As Kilpatrick (2015) noted, students who find learning to read difficult may need 15, 20 or more exposures to a word before it is remembered.
- Next, these words need to be embedded into a paragraph and the student needs to use a process of repeated reading until he/she meets predetermined accuracy and time goals (see Stevens et a., 2017, for a meta-analysis of research regarding this technique).
- Finally, students need to be able to combine all of these elements to read for a sustained period of time. In other words, they need to be able to read books. For beginning readers, it is best if the content words in the book contain the grapheme and the words containing the grapheme that are being learned in isolation (i.e., decodable readers – see Cheatham et al.’s, 2012, research). For older readers, especially reluctant readers, books from a series can be a useful resource as if they like the first book, they are likely to like the other books in the series and they become familiar with the author’s writing style, the characters, the setting, the plots and the associated vocabulary, which all help make the reading process easier.
We can not assume that children (especially younger students) understand what constitutes fluent reading. Try these strategies:
- Model fluent reading to students and then give them the opportunity to read just one sentence with fluency once it has been decoded.
- Explicitly teach how your voice drops slightly at the end of a sentence and rises at the beginning of the next sentence. Initially, you can have students exaggerate this pitch differential. Using the tip of a pencil you can also move the pencil in an upward motion at the beginning of each sentence and a downward motion at the end of each sentence as a visual cue for students.
- Record the student reading a passage and play it back. Discuss specific elements that the students could change to improve fluency. Record the student rereading the same passage and compare the two recordings focusing on improvements.
Some other strategies for practising reading for fluency:
- Preview vocabulary the student may find difficult. Help the child to decode the potentially difficult word and then practise the word in isolation and within the string of words surrounding the focus word.
- Use plays. Give students sufficient time to practise reading their part with fluency before expected them to read in front of their peers.
- Do ‘round-robin’ reading where students take it in turns to read out loud without first having practised. This strategy just highlights the difficulty some students have in reading fluently and is embarrassing.
- Ask students to read their written work to the class, unless they have had sufficient prior practise to be able to read confidently and with fluency.
Keep in mind that, like every skill, fluency levels will differ between students and according to a whole range of factors associated with the text (e,g., the difficulty of the text, the student’s prior knowledge of the subject on which the text is based, their familiarity with the author’s writing style, etc.).
Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H. (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: a review of the evidence. Reading and Writing, 25(9), 2223-2246. doi:10.1007/s11145-011-9355-2
Kilpatrick, D.A. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons : New Jersey.
Megherbi, H., Elbro, C., Oakhill, J., Segui, J., & New, B. (2018). The emergence of automaticity in reading: Effects of orthographic depth and word decoding ability on an adjusted Stroop measure. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 166, 652-663.
Stevens, E.A., Melodee A. Walker, M.A., & Vaughn, S. (2017). The effects of reading fluency interventions on the reading fluency and reading comprehension performance of elementary students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50(5), 576–590.