What do we Know about Fluency?

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There is no doubt that being able to read with fluency is an important component of reading. Hasbrouck (2020) provides a succinct overview of the information contained in the National Reading Panel report, published 20 years ago, and assesses it in light of current research.

Defining Fluency

The National Reading Panel report defined fluency as “the ability to read a text quickly, accurately, and with proper expression”.  Researchers’ understanding of fluency is still evolving, but it is generally now accepted that it is a complex and multi-faceted construct.

Current definitions list accuracy first to emphasise the role of fluency in supporting comprehension. Being able to read fast is somewhat irrelevant if you can’t read accurately.

It is argued that word reading fluency is directly linked to the number of sight words (words that can be instantly and accurately recognised) readers have stored in their long-term memory.

Reading fluency is now seen as developing in a progression of accuracy and automaticity in:

  • Letters,
  • Letter patterns,
  • Words (including semantic and syntactic processes), and then
  • Connected text.

Once you can read accurately and reasonably effortlessly, attention can be redirected to comprehension and expression (or prosody). At this point in time, it is unknown if prosody contributes to comprehension or is a by-product of comprehension.

Teaching Fluency

The National Reading Panel report considered two instructional options: Repeated oral reading and encouraging more silent reading.

Repeated Oral Reading: The report concluded that repeated oral reading, which involves meeting speed and accuracy performance goals, along with feedback, was found to be effective in improving reading fluency and a range of other reading skills, including comprehension. This was true for students from kindergarten through to high school with different reading and cognitive levels.

However, there is no research evidence that suggests repeated oral reading in isolation substantially closes the gap between struggling readers and their typically developing peers. Consequently, repeated reading interventions need to also address underlying skill deficits (e.g., poor phonological awareness, poor phonic knowledge, etc.).

More Silent Reading: The studies reviewed in the report showed that there was no evidence to suggest that increased silent reading had any effect on reading fluency.

However, current research show that for typically developing readers, from second grade onwards, most words are remembered after 1-4 exposures and in fact once these students have solid phonological awareness and an understanding of the alphabet code, they begin to self-teach simply through exposure to words. Therefore, for these student more reading would equate to a larger vocabulary of sight words which in turn would lead to greater fluency.

Some researchers have also found that once foundation levels of reading accuracy have been established fluency is enhanced by having students:

  • Read a variety of texts on the same topic, with
  • A difficulty level that is challenging.

Future Research

The National Reading Panel recommended that researchers explore:

  • If reading too fast was counterproductive, and
  • To what extent comprehension facilitates fluent reading.

These are two areas that still require further research.


Hasbrouck, J. (2020). An update to the National Reading Panel report: What we know about fluency in 2020. The Reading League Journal. 1 (3), 29-31.