Are you wondering how to improve reading fluency? You’re in the right place! This post is the first in a four-part series all about building fluency.
Do you have students who struggle with reading fluency?
Maybe they read in a stilted, word-by-word fashion.
Maybe they read accurately, but ooooh so slowly.
Or maybe you know readers who trip over words. To them, reading is awkward and painful.
I personally know a reader (right in my own house) who reads automatically and with little stumbling. But he readslikethiswithoutabreath. I have to remind him to read with expression, to pay attention to punctuation, and to read with inflection in his voice.
All of these students need to improve their reading fluency.
But what does reading fluency even mean?
Before we get started listing ways to build fluency, we need to nail down a definition.
What is reading fluency?
Most definitions of fluency include mention of accuracy, rate, and expression. But the authors of Reading Fluency take it just a step further.
“We define fluency as reasonably accurate reading, at an appropriate rate, with suitable expression, that leads to accurate and deep comprehension and motivation to read.”Jan Hasbrouck & Deb Glaser, in Reading Fluency
Did you catch that last part? Fluent reading leads to deep comprehension and motivation to read.
But how do we get there?
8 Ways to build reading fluency
1 – Build phonemic awareness.
If you’re wondering what on earth phonemic awareness has to do with fluency, here’s the deal. Phonemic awareness (the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds, or phonemes, in words) is essential for success in decoding words. Since fluency is all about being automatic with word recognition, we’ve got to teach the skills that will get us to automaticity.
(The above picture is from my Phonemic Awareness Activities pack.)
2 – Teach phonics in a systematic, explicit way.
Research has told us again and again that students benefit from direct and structured phonics instruction. When we combine phonemic awareness with phonics, we are equipping our students to tackle unfamiliar words that could interrupt their fluency.
(In fact, if a student scores below benchmark on an oral reading fluency test, the first step is to give a phonics assessment to see if a lack of phonics skills is impeding progress. You can find my free phonics assessment here.)
3 – Teach students to read irregular high frequency words.
While most words contain at least some graphemes (letter or letter combinations that represent phonemes) that are regular, some words include patterns that must be learned by heart. For example, in the word the, the final vowel sound has an unexpected spelling. In the word said, the ai has an unexpected pronunciation.
When teaching these irregular words, it’s important to remember that students learn them just like they learn any other word – and not through whole word memorization. Instead of drilling these as whole words, we can call attention to the parts that are regular and those that are not. (Check out my set of 30 free high frequency word lessons and books to see how this is done.)
After introducing words in this way, it’s perfectly appropriate to do flash card practice. Hasbrouck and Glaser (2019) recommend the following procedure:
- Students write each word on the front of an index card (or the teacher may do this in advance).
- Students trace the letters while saying them and reading the word.
- On the back, students write a sentence using the word and/or draw a quick picture to help them recall the word. (The teacher may do this as well.)
- The cards can then be put on a ring or a recipe box for students to use for daily practice.
- When students practice the words, they can sort them according to their speed under pictures of a dog, rabbit, and turtle. The dog pile gets words that are read quickly and automatically. The rabbit pile gets words that are read with some hesitation. The turtle pile gets words that are unknown, read incorrectly, or read after several seconds. Students keep practicing until all cards get to the dog pile. (For more ways to use these flash cards, check out Reading Fluency, p. 81-82. Such a useful book!)
4 – Read aloud to your students every day.
When teachers don’t make daily read alouds a routine, I think the only reason must be that they aren’t aware of the countless benefits of reading aloud to our students.
I won’t go off on a tangent here, but this quote from Tim Rasinski (2010) is well worth sharing:
“Clearly, read aloud builds interest in reading, but its benefits do not end there. Read aloud helps you achieve three important goals with your students: it improves comprehension and vocabulary, and builds motivation” (p. 46).
Here’s one more benefit: reading aloud provides a wonderful model of fluent reading.
5 – Implement assisted reading
This simply means reading aloud alongside our students. As Rasinski (2010) puts it, “oral reading can be used as a scaffolding tool to ease the transition from modeling to independence” (p. 67).
- Choral reading – groups of students (or even the whole class) read the same text aloud in unision
- Paired reading – This research-based approach is not exactly the same as partner reading or buddy reading. In paired reading, a more proficient reader supports a less able reader by reading together chorally; the more proficient reader adjusts his/her volume and support as the other reader becomes more confident. The reader signals when the more proficient reader should read more loudly or bow out altogether.
- Audio recorded reading – Listening to an audio recording of a text will help build fluency only if the listener is reading along. Students can make great gains in fluency if they keep listening and reading along until they can read the text independently.
6 – Provide opportunities for repeated reading
Our goal is for students to read one text several times so that they can read it fluently – with few errors, at an appropriate rate, with proper expression, and good comprehension.
I’m surprised when I see people question the value of repeated reading in large Facebook groups devoted to the science of reading. The truth is that we’ve had decades of research that show its value.
Research has, in fact, found that rereading a familiar passage not only leads to improvement on that particular passage, but fluency gains also transfer to the reading other passages.
You may be familiar with the concept of timed repeated reading – in which students read a passage multiple times until they achieve a desired rate. This is a powerful intervention that is best suited for students who fit this criteria:
- Words Correct Per Minute scores are more than ten words below the 50th percentile on the Hasbrouck & Tindal ORF (Oral Reading Fluency) norms when they read grade-level or instructional-level text.
- Reading is slow but accurate.
- Decoding of individual words is also slow but accurate.
- Phonemic awareness is well developed.
- Comprehension is adequate or good.
(Source: Reading Fluency, by Hasbrouck & Glaser)
When doing timed repeated readings, always make it a point to also talk about the text. Reading fluently is not all about speed!
7 – Do whole class fluency lessons.
Later in this series I’ll walk you through the Fluency Development Lesson, in which teachers support students as they learn to read a short passage or poem with fluency. The FDL only takes about 15 minutes a day.
If you have more time, and you want to help all children achieve fluency with grade-level text, consider FORI (Fluency-Oriented Reading Instruction).
Here’s a general overview of FORI:
- Monday – The teacher introduces the text and reads it while the class follows along; the teacher leads a discussion that focuses on comprehending the text.
- Tuesday – The teacher and students echo read the story; comprehension instruction is infused throughout; students take the text home and read it to a friend or family member
- Wednesday – Teacher and students choral-read the text; students who need extra practice read it again at home.
- Thursday – Students partner-read the text; students who need extra practice read it again at home.
- Friday – Students complete extension activities to broaden comprehension.
I’ll be honest – I think I’d be ready to chuck that text out the window after all this time with it, so I’m more a fan of WIDE FORI, which introduces new texts on Thursday and Friday.
(Source: Developing Fluent Readers, by Kuhn & Levy)
8 – Provide opportunities for performance reading
Timed repeated reading can be a great motivator for struggling readers who watch their performance improve during their sessions.
But repeated reading, while beneficial to all students, can be less than motivating if we go about it the wrong way. Thankfully, we can make repeated reading interesting and engaging for all students when we make it authentic.
When repeated reading is done for the purpose of rehearsal for a performance, we can get everyone on board.
Students can reread texts multiple times as they prepare to perform in any of these ways:
- Reader’s Theater or partner plays (pictured above)
- Book talks
- Reading aloud to younger students
- Recording books for younger students
- Reading poetry aloud
Whew – that was a lot! And it was just the first post in our series!
Join the membership for fluency resources!Our membership includes fluency pyramids, fluency poems, partner plays, and so much more!
Part 1Coming October 24Coming October 31Coming November 7
Hasbrouck, J. & Glaser, D. (2019). Reading fluency. Benchmark Education Company.
Kuhn, M. & Levy, L. (2015). Developing fluent readers. The Guilford Press
Rasinski, T. (2010). The fluent reader. Scholastic.
Resources on your website have helped me sooo much. I cannot thank you enough. Thank you for all the and effort you put in for our kids!! May God bless you and yours!
My 4.5 yr old is an excellent reader and loves to read most of all. She loves books!!
I will continue to listen to your podcasts so I can help her be the best she can be!!
Heather Groth, Customer Support
That makes our day, Rachael! Your daughter is blessed to have you working with her!
I’m so glad you didn’t recommend “popcorn” reading or having individuals to read aloud to the class unless they volunteer to do so. Cold calling on students to read aloud in front of their peers causes a lot of stress on students who struggle with reading. They spend their time either trying to “pre-read” the section they will be called on to read or worrying so much that they get nothing out of what is being read.
I agree, Carrie! In fact I have a podcast episode coming soon with “alternatives to round robin reading,” so stay tuned for that!
The text should be decodable or it’s just BL.
There’s some disagreement out there about this – I know because the researchers I interviewed for my fluency podcast series weren’t on the same page. I do agree that students should be able to decode most of the text, or we’re just teaching memorization. Of course, at some point students should be moving out of decodable text for independent reading and fluency building. For many students this can be mid to end of first grade.