Definition

The National Reading Panel (NRP) defined fluency as the ability to read orally with sufficient accuracy and speed, plus appropriate expression and identified fluency as one of the five essential components of reading instruction.

The Literacy How Reading Wheel does not include fluency as a separate component; instead, the accuracy and automaticity dimension of fluency is regarded as a critical ingredient for each of the other reading components. Fluent performance is more easily achieved and measured for lower-level subskills such as phonics. However, reading fluency is influenced by the development of rapid rates of processing in all the components of reading, including the higher-order processes of comprehension such as inferring and integrating information. A lack of rapid processing in any one of these areas can interfere with text comprehension.

WhatWeKnow

Research—What We Know About Fluency

Fluency is essential to the learning process. According to Wolf (2001), fluency directly contributes to three critical learning outcomes:

Retention: the ability to perform a skill or to recall knowledge long after formal learning/training has ended
Stamina: the ability to maintain performance levels for extended periods of time
Generalization: the ability to combine and apply what has been learned to perform more complex tasks creatively and in new situations.

  • Fluent readers are better able to comprehend because they process information quickly (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974).
  • Oral reading rate and accuracy (i.e., fluency) are closely related to reading comprehension (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2005).
  • After it is fully developed, reading fluency refers to a level of accuracy and rate where decoding is relatively effortless; where oral reading is smooth and accurate with correct prosody; and where attention can be allocated to comprehension (Wolf, 2003).
  • Fluency … should be part and parcel of how we teach reading and how we teach teachers of reading. In other words we should be as explicit in how we help a child learn to read fluently, as we are in teaching a child to decode a word accurately (Wolf, 2003).

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Tips for Empowered Teaching—What We Do to Teach FluencyWhatWeDo

Practice is the key to any instruction designed to improve fluency. The more a skill is reviewed, the more quickly and easily the skill can be performed. But it’s important to focus on the right type of practice. Try these suggestions for developing fluency for any type of skill:

Practice for short periods of time.
Repeated reading of texts is effective especially when there is a different focus (e.g., accuracy, automaticity, prosody) each time the passage is read.
Emphasize the importance of reading words accurately and with proper expression. The goal is to read fast enough to make meaning.
Practice daily and keep a graphic record of progress, which is very motivating for students!

  • Practice scooping words in grammatical phrases in connected text to support prosody. Use an ice cream scoop or pointer when modeling and have students follow along with their pencils. One criteria for fluent reading is the ability to group words into grammatical entities to promote proper intonation. This practice supports students who read word by word rather than grouping into subject and predicate phrases. Many students benefit from explicit instruction in this technique that not only addresses dysfluent reading but also teaches students about sentence structure.
  • When reading fluency shows little improvement, check the fluency of the various subskills that contribute to overall fluency. Results indicate that intervention programs that address multiple components of the reading process simultaneously (e.g. vocabulary, syntax, phonology) produce promising results, especially for students with rapid naming deficits (Norton & Wolf, 2011). RAVE-O (Retrieval, Automaticity, Vocabulary, Engagement with Language and Orthography; Wolf et al., 2009) is one such example.
  • Too many non-fluent skills piled on top of each other create a sense of being overloaded and ultimately lead to anxiety, which further interferes with the learning process (Binder, Haughton & Bateman, 2002).
  • Prosody is a relatively strong indicator of how well a student comprehends the text being read (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2006). Directing students to read with expression is one way to encourage them to focus on meaning. To the extent that comprehension processes are relatively automatic, word reading fluency will be improved.
  • Take a word or phrase walk in lieu of a picture walk if a teaching objective includes reading text fluently (i.e., accurately and automatically with proper phrasing).  Instead of looking at pictures to make a prediction, students read words and phrases from the text to activate prior knowledge about the topic.  This technique does two things:  first, it gives students an opportunity to practice reading words that are integral to comprehension. Second, it focuses students’ attention on some words and phrases that may be difficult to decode or understand.  See this example for “Whale,” the poem used for scooping above.
  • Practice fluency with a fluency chart like the one shown here or create one using this template.
  • Check out this list of books for building fluency for beginning readers.
  • Try a familiar nonfiction text, such as Scholastic’s The Pledge of Allegiance, to encourage older students to read with expression, rather than recite by rote.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is fluency important for reading proficiency? Fluency, also referred to as automaticity, refers to performing a skill without thinking about all of the steps involved.  Reading proficiency requires automaticity of many sub-skills including: naming letters automatically, knowing the most common letter-sound correspondences for all 26 letters, and blending these sounds to read real and nonsense words (an indicator that students have automatized these correspondences). By the time a student reaches the middle of  first grade, s/he is expected to read first grade text at a pace that supports thinking about the text to promote comprehension.
  •  What should the focus be for students who need reading fluency practice? When you administer an Oral Reading Fluency measure, be sure to analyze the results on three levels:

Accuracy (i.e., words correct per minute). This score identifies whether the student is reading the text at an independent level (98-100% accuracy), and instructional level (90-97% accuracy) or a frustration level (below 90% accuracy).
Reading rate (i.e., the number of words a student reads per minute).  Both 1 and 2 are objective measures calculated based on words correct per minute.
Prosody (i.e., phrasing and intonation).  This is a subjective measure that assesses the student’s expression while reading. See this fluency rubric.

  • What is the relationship between fluency and comprehension? The exact nature of the relationship between reading fluency and comprehension is not completely understood. One view suggests that automaticity of lower-level skills allows students to allocate limited processing capacity to higher-level comprehension demands. A student who struggles to read individual words has little attention left for comprehending and remembering the text. In contrast, the interactive model of reading proposes that higher-level processes are initiated simultaneously, rather than awaiting the completion of lower ones. This view offers the possibility that the relationship between reading fluency and comprehension may be reciprocal. Thus, a reader with poor word recognition ability may be able to use higher-level comprehension skills to compensate for weakness in foundational skills, and their reading fluency would be a reflection of comprehension ability rather than an indication of competence in basic reading skills.
  • How does processing speed impact fluency? Global processing speed, the ability to quickly process information, impacts how efficiently all the subskills involved in reading can be coordinated. The relationship between rapid automatic naming (RAN) — that is, rapid naming of letters or numbers — and global processing speed is not entirely clear. Some consider RAN to be one facet of global naming speed, while others believe that RAN makes a separate contribution to reading fluency (Hudson et al., 2009). Regardless, it is well-established that slow naming speed is linked to difficulty in developing reading fluency (Pham, Fine, and Semrud-Clikeman, 2011; Thomsen et al., 2005).

assessments_iconAssessments to Inform Instruction

Use fluency-based measures to assess reading proficiency and to predict reading outcomes. Clearly, there is a qualitative difference between readers who can read accurately, but painfully slowly, and those who can read both accurately and effortlessly. For this reason, it is important that assessments not only use accuracy criteria to measure mastery, but instead use measures that are sensitive to the appropriate combination of accuracy plus speed.

Reading fluency is widely measured and is often used as an indicator of overall reading competence. Research supports the strong predictive relationship between oral reading fluency of connected text and comprehension, especially in the elementary grades. However, as reading skills develop, the value of oral reading fluency for predicting comprehension diminishes.

Dual Language Learners (DLLs)

  • Most DLLs benefit from explicit fluency instruction since those activities used to improve reading fluency often use oral language for practice and oral rehearsal. Compared with native English speakers, those students who are learning English need more practice listening to the teacher and proficient readers model fluent reading. Each time they reread passages, they become more familiar with vocabulary words and syntax that is unique to English.
  • Provide additional work on English phonemes that are not present in the students’ native language.
  • When assessing DLLs’ reading fluency, keep in mind that norms developed for native English speakers may not be appropriate—especially for students who are just beginning to learn English. However, automaticity is essential to free up mental space for comprehension.
  • Automaticity at the letter, word, sentence and passage level is necessary for DLLs as well as for native speakers. More research is needed however, as to whether ELLs should meet the exact fluency benchmarks set for English speakers since most DLLs are still not fluent orally (Graves, Gersten, and Haagar, 2004). Some studies have found that DLLs can meet the same benchmarks.
  • Fluency alone does not predict reading comprehension for DLLs. Appropriate fluency along with developed oral language comprehension is necessary to predict reading comprehension in DLLs (Crosson & Lesaux, 2010).
  • Instruction and intervention to promote DLLs’ reading fluency should focus on vocabulary and phonics instruction if needed, as well as fluency practice.
  • Be sure to emphasize comprehension in addition to providing DLLs with explicit instruction and extended practice to develop reading fluency.
  • DLL students will demonstrate fluency only when they are able to understand the text they are reading.
  • Don’t neglect fluency work at the letter, word, sentence, and text level.
  • Most DLLs benefit from explicit fluency instruction since those activities used to improve reading fluency often use oral language for practice and oral rehearsal. Compared with native English speakers, those students who are learning English need more practice listening to the teacher and proficient readers model fluent reading. Each time they reread passages, they become more familiar with vocabulary words and syntax that is unique to English.
  • Be sure to emphasize comprehension in addition to providing DLLs with explicit instruction and extended practice to develop reading fluency.

Literacy How helps teachers nationwide bridge gaps in the reading achievement.Tips for Principals

Make sure that teachers understand the three aspects of reading fluency and how best to measure them. (See above). Use data team meetings to analyze oral reading fluency data (i.e., accuracy and rate), discuss prosody and how best to measure that important aspect of reading fluency.

Observing Fluency in the Classroom

Notice some of the following as evidence that the teacher is stimulating fluency behaviors:

  • Incorporates fluency-building activities (e.g., letter naming/identification, practice with punctuation marks, reading phrases with proper intonation) into instruction.
  • Utilizes techniques that build reading fluency throughout the day, including modeled fluent reading, choral reading, repeated readings, paired reading, independent reading.
  • Charts students’ fluency progress for purposes of motivating students as well as to document progress and to adjust instruction.
  • Matches students with appropriate texts (e.g., predictable/repetitive, decodable, poetry) to promote effective independent reading practice.

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Resources

  • Blevins, W. (2001). Building fluency: Lessons and strategies for reading success. New York: Scholastic Publishing.
  • Heibert, E. H. (2003). Quick reads. Glenview, IL: Pearson Scott Foreman.
  • Ihnot, G. (1991). Read naturally (Masters edition ME). Minneapolis, MN: Read Naturally, Inc.
  • Rasinski, T. V. (2003). The fluent reader.  Oral reading strategies for building word recognition, fluency and comprehension. New York: Scholastic.