What comes to mind when you hear the term fluency? Is it fast, timed reading? The number of words a student can read in a one minute? While speed and accuracy are two factors to include when assessing fluency, fluency also includes expression, smoothness, pace and prosody. Fluent readers use their word recognition skills to read words with automaticity while also using their comprehension of the text to to add expression while they read. The National Reading Panel recommends up to 30 minutes of fluency practice as part of daily reading instruction, but remember that this can occur across content areas – it doesn’t have to be contained to your literacy block or ELA class. 

Why is fluency so important? When thinking about the science of reading, phonics and phonemic awareness usually comes to mind. However, we shouldn’t neglect fluency. Literacy expert Dr. Tim Rasinski views fluency as the bridge from word recognition to comprehension. The National Reading Panel describes the fluent reader as “one who can perform multiple tasks—such as word recognition and comprehension—at the same time. The non-fluent reader, on the other hand, can perform only one task at a time. [. . .] The ‘multitask functioning’ of the fluent reader is made possible by the reduced cognitive demands needed for word recognition and other reading processes, thus freeing cognitive resources for other functions, such as drawing inferences. [ . . .] Because the cognitive demands for word recognition are so small while the word recognition process is occurring, there are sufficient cognitive resources available for grouping the words into syntactic units and for understanding or interpreting the text.” (National Reading Panel Report of the Subgroups, 2000).

So how do we improve the fluency of our readers? In Know Better, Do Better: Teaching the Foundations So Every Child Can Read, authors David Liben and Meredith Liben explain: “There are just two ways to improve fluency. The research is wonderfully clear. Fluency is one of the most straightforward aspects of all literacy. One is for children to follow along with the text while a skilled reader reads it aloud. The second is to do repeated reading of the same passage after hearing a fluent model of what that passage should sound like.” 


The following suggestions can be used for whole class or small group routines. 

  1. Introduce and practice difficult words and phrases. When planning lessons with complex texts, take note of any words or phrases students may have difficulty with for which there aren’t a lot of context clues in the text, and preview these words with students. This is a great way to address phonics and morphology, as well, since you can talk about morphemes and word patterns in your vocabulary lesson.
  2. Re-think Repeated Reading: Repeated reading is a proven method of improving fluency, but it can become stale for students over time. To add some variety to your routines, Rasinski suggests giving students a purpose for repeated readings, such as a reader’s theater or a final performance at the end of the week (e.g., reading the text to a partner, making an audio recording for a student from a younger grade, or reading to an adult, sibling, or stuffed animal at home). To build up to their performance, students can practice a short poem or story with a small group, select difficult words to practice, engage in choral or echo reading throughout the week, take the passage home to practice, and then read it at the end of the week for their final performance. Here are two more weekly fluency routines from Achieve the Core: one for decodable texts, and one for grade-level texts.
  3. Paired reading is another method with a track record of success. Consider your pairings: It doesn’t always have to be a very high reader with a very low reader; readers at similar levels will benefit from working with a peer who can give thoughtful feedback using a fluency checklist. You can also consider a reading buddies program in coordination with another grade level. I
  4. Several educational technology programs have a recording option for students to record themselves reading. These allow students to hear themselves and reflect on how their fluency improves over time.

As you incorporate a fluency routine into your lessons, think about how you will assess its effectiveness and the tools students will use to self-monitor their fluency and give feedback to their peers. Over the years, we’ve seen many students track their own words correct per minute (WCPM) progress on bar graphs, but — given the role that prosody plays in fluency — consider asking students to use a fluency rubric or checklist that addresses tone, expression and pace, as well. And, since the goal of reading is comprehension, don’t forget to include some way of assessing a student’s understanding of the text!

When considering the research base connected with the science of reading, we know that incorporating daily fluency practice into instruction can help students improve their reading. We hope you can use some of these ideas with your students!


Sources and Further Reading:

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/ch3.pdf

Rasinski, T. V. (2012). Why reading fluency should be hot. The Reading Teacher, 65(8), 516–522. https://doi.org/10.1002/TRTR.01077

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