Fluency is Fundamental

Fluency is a bridge between decoding and comprehension. Here’s how a number of innovative teachers guide their students to cross it

By Timothy Rasinski
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Editor's note: Reading First, the national initiative established to help every child in America to become a successful reader, is shaping some of the curriculum decisions in many, if not most, schools across the country. Reading First legislation supports research-based practices in five key areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. In this feature, one of three Reading First articles originally published in our November/December 2003 issue, Instructor offers powerful, research-based practices that we hope will help every child in your classroom to read and to succeed.

Through the end of second grade, Jodi, a bright student with plenty of friends and an avid interest in sports, had a clear favorite among all her school subjects: reading. Able to decode words reasonably well and comprehend what she read, Jodi was making good progress. In third grade, however, something changed. Faced with longer assignments, Jodi's love of reading declined. She was unable to finish some of her reading, and her comprehension began to falter. By nine weeks into the school year, Jodi's parents asked that she be tested by the school's reading specialist.
 
The testing indicated that Jodi's difficulties in reading were the result of poor fluency. Although she was able to accurately decode most of the words she encountered (94 percent), she read passages at third-grade level in a slow and halting manner; her reading rate was 46 words correct per minute, well under what would normally be expected for a third grader at the beginning of the school year (see Norms for Reading Fluency). Although Jodi could decode words with a good deal of accuracy, she had to invest so much of her mental energy in the process that she had little left over to make sense of what she had just read.

Fluency to the Forefront
Reading fluency is the ability to read quickly and accurately, with appropriate and meaningful expression. I think of it as the bridge between two other major components of reading: decoding and comprehension.

Most of us reading this article are not merely accurate at decoding the words that appear in front of us, but we decode words automatically. That is, we recognize the words at first sight with very little effort. When readers can minimize the cognitive resources needed to decode the words in front of them, they can devote those resources to comprehension.

Beyond decoding the words, readers need to group the words into meaningful phrases and, when reading orally, to imbed in their voices expression that helps the words come to life. So, reading with good phrasing and expression helps readers construct meaning from printed words.

While it's true that studies have found remarkably strong correlations between reading speed and overall reading proficiency, fluency is much more than just reading quickly. Speedy reading is an indication that students have freed their cognitive resources away from decoding. But they also have to use that cognitive capacity to make sense of the text. Thus, comprehension is an integral part of fluency, and is exhibited through appropriately phrased, expressive, and meaningful reading.

Fluency is generally thought to be an issue for the primary grades. However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that fluency is an issue for some readers at all grade levels.

Keys to Effective Instruction
There are three keys to effective fluency instruction: modeling fluent reading for students, having students practice read (or read repeatedly) certain passages, and supporting students while they read by reading with them. When we read to students, we need to model reading with expression ourselves so that students develop an idea of what fluent, expressive, and meaningful reading is all about. Practicing short passages three to five times can help students develop greater automaticity and expression in their reading, especially if that practice is given with formative feedback. Supportive reading occurs when students read a text and have the opportunity to listen to a fluent rendering of the same passage while they read.

While it may seem a simple task to design instruction in which students are asked to read a text three, four, or five times, or to read with a partner, many students find such reading exercises tiring after a while. Teachers across the country, however, are finding ways of making fluency instruction an engaging part of their reading curriculum.

Natural Practice
Lorraine Griffith, a multiage teacher at West Buncombe Elementary School in Asheville, North Carolina, promotes fluency with her class by assigning poetry or scripts at the beginning of each week (for ideas on finding scripts, see Reader's Theater Resources). The students have a natural reason to learn to read their passages with expression and meaning-every Friday, the students perform what they have practiced as Reader's Theater in a classroom celebration.

Students must choose passages (poetry, dialogue, scripts) that lend themselves to oral interpretive and expressive reading. “They can choose whatever they like to read as long as the selection is long enough to show drama,” Griffith explains.

In Griffith's class, students also engage in partner reading, during which they spend 20 to 30 minutes reading a book with a buddy. The book is chosen by mutual agreement, and students alternate reading pages orally to each other. The silent partner reads along and provides support and encouragement where necessary, including tips on reading with expression. Sometimes the readers read together chorally. Before the period ends, partners agree on what portion of the book they will read silently at home. Partner reading, says Griffith, helps students work as a team in reading and comprehending the book.

Confident Readers
Dianna Queen also finds that using scripts in her classroom is an enormous confidence booster. Queen, a second-grade teacher at Cedar Elementary School in Canton, Ohio, implemented a weekly fluency plan: On Mondays, she would begin by reading three different trade books to her students. Each of her three reading groups would then choose one of the stories to perform later in the week. By Tuesday, Queen developed scripts based on the stories, and gave two copies of the assigned script to each student (one for school and one to take home).

In group time on Wednesdays, students sat in a circle and each read a highlighted role in the assigned script; they then passed them to their left so that each student had a chance to read a different part with every successive reading. Before the end of the period, students chose their roles with help from the teacher. At home, they continued to practice the script.

On Thursday, class time was spent on further rehearsal and preparation of any props or movements for the upcoming performance. On Friday afternoons, Queen's reading groups performed their scripts for the class and special guests.

“I was so impressed by the way they grew in their confidence in their reading,” she says. “They learned to read with expression and their comprehension improved as they took on the feelings of the characters they portrayed. I could tell they put a lot more meaning into their reading.”

Queen has been reassigned to first grade this year and is experimenting with ways to build fluency with her first graders.

Poetry Parties
Lisa Baum teaches fourth grade at Carylwood Intermediate School in Bedford, Ohio, and plans weekly “Poetry Parties” with her students. After students choose a poem early each week, they spend about 10 minutes of class time each day rehearsing their poems. Baum also expects students to spend 10 to 15 minutes each day at home practicing their selections.

On Friday afternoons, she transforms her classroom into a coffeehouse with all the trimmings. Lights are dimmed, a stage curtain is raised, background music plays between poetry sets, drinks and treats are served, and students learn early on to click their fingers in appreciation for well-read poems. Clearly, Baum's students love performing for their classmates and for the other students and guests who are invited to the party.

Baum notes that many of her students discovered “previously unknown talents in reading, public speaking, acting, and critiquing. Feedback became quite sophisticated, with students recommending that fellow students enunciate or use changes in pitch, volume, speed, animation, and the like to enhance their performances. Students' love of reading and their fluency improved dramatically.”

Baum relates that last year, she gave each student a photocopy of her plan book and asked them to design the reading curriculum to “meet the class' needs.” The Friday Poetry Party was the most popular request.

Formative Feedback
Michelle Rezek, who teaches fifth grade at G. Stanley Hall Elementary School in the Papilion-LaVista School District outside of Omaha, Nebraska, believes that taking part in assessment can lead students to understand what fluent reading is all about. Rezek incorporates a regular “fluency development lesson” into her reading curriculum. First, students hear a brief passage or poem read to them fluently, they then read it chorally with their teacher and classmates, and finally they practice the passage with a partner. Students rate each other for Expression, Smoothness, and Pace (ESP).
 
Rezek feels that the formative feedback she gives students on their reading, the feedback they give to one another, and their own self-assessments using the ESP criteria help them develop a “metacognitive” awareness of fluent reading.

“I had a student last year who started out reading 63 words per minute,” says Rezek. “By the end of the year she was up to 135 words per minute. I just know that the practice and the feedback she received and her own developing awareness of fluency played a huge part in her success.” Rezek's school has made fluency a goal of reading for the past several years, and “during those years we have seen continual improvement in our students' overall reading performance.”

Measuring Growth in Fluency
One of the best ways to assess student fluency is to simply listen to them read. Teachers need to trust their ears; many have been listening to children read for years and they know what good reading sounds like. For more formal assessments, try a Qualitative Rubric and a one-minute Reading Fluency Probe.

Fluency is one of several key goals in a comprehensive reading program. As these teachers show, incorporating fluency instruction into a regular teaching routine need not be a burden. With a variety of easy and successful methods, fluency instruction can be fun, engaging, and meaningful for all students at all ages.

  • Subjects:
    Curriculum Development, Reading Assessment, Reading Fluency, New Teacher Resources, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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